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Henri Richard missed, honored at Canadiens ceremony

11-time Cup winner unable to attend event for past captains due to battle with Alzheimer's

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Henri Richard looked at the television on Tuesday more than he watched it, fellow retired Montreal Canadiens captains walking one by one onto the ice at Bell Centre.

Richard's image on the scoreboard began the ceremony that saw 11 former Canadiens captains honored to mark the 110th anniversary of the team's 1909 birth. Three months shy of his 84th birthday, Richard is the most senior of the group, captain from 1971-72 through 1974-75.

With his wife, Lise, at his side, none of the names or dates registered even a little with a man whose 11 Stanley Cup championships is an NHL record that's unlikely to ever be matched.

Video: Henri Richard won Cup a record 11 times as a player

The Pocket Rocket, as the brother of the late, legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard is affectionately still known, is locked in the vise-grip of Alzheimer's disease, and any memory of his glorious career is now gone. 

He was introduced among the pantheon of retired captains on Tuesday, from Yvan Cournoyer, who followed Henri Richard as captain from 1975-76 through 1978-79, through Brian Gionta (2010-14).

Richard was warmly received by fans when his face appeared on the video screen, still revered in Montreal for his leadership and his courage. He was equal parts dynamite and battering ram, an economy-sized giant who played many inches and pounds larger than his 5-foot-7, 160-pound frame. 

Denis Richard, attending the game with his brother, Gilles, and sisters, Michele, Marie-France and Nathalie, was warmed by the ovation, even if his mood was also melancholy knowing that his father would not have been aware of it. 

"I said to my mother, 'If there's one more time you should come to a game, it's Tuesday,' " Denis Richard said. "But she doesn't like the idea of being here without her husband. She chose to be with my father (at his care home north of Montreal), watching the ceremony on TV."

In Laval, the city where he has lived for more than 50 years, Henri Richard is celebrated at Place Bell, the home of the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate, with two enormous murals unveiled a year ago.

Saku Koivu drew the loudest ovation on Tuesday, the hugely popular, inspirational Finn having served as Canadiens captain from 1999-2000 through 2008-09. He is the Canadiens' second-longest tenured captain behind the late Jean Beliveau, whose wife, Elise, and daughter, Helene, watched the ceremony from their seats three rows behind the Canadiens bench.

Koivu was joined at center ice by Cournoyer, the winner of 10 Stanley Cup titles, and, in chronological order of their captaincy, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey, Chris Chelios, Guy Carbonneau, Kirk Muller, Mike Keane, Pierre Turgeon, Vincent Damphousse and Gionta, alongside current Canadiens captain Shea Weber. 

Henri Richard was most recently in his city's focus exactly 10 years ago in a ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Canadiens' birth.

But his health had already begun to slip, a body robust from a lifetime of exercise and activity increasingly betrayed by the cruelty of Alzheimer's. 

To this day, even if Richard has long been out of sight, Canadiens fans ask about him. He was brokenhearted when declining health left him unable to attend Bell Centre public visitation five years ago this week for Beliveau, his dear friend, teammate and role model.  

Sometimes, Denis Richard says, there might now be a faint glimmer of recognition of those around him, but those days are fewer and farther apart. Lise, his wife of 63 years, spends time with him every day, while Denis and Marie-France, each retired, drop in three or four times a week; 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren pay regular visits, too.

"My father's physical health is pretty stable," Denis Richard said. "He still walks, but with some difficulty. He used to walk around his home every morning and afternoon, but now it's less and he sleeps a lot."

Henri Richard began his career in 1955-56 with the Canadiens in the long shadow of his iconic brother, Maurice, who was 15 years his senior, but he would prove himself over time to be the superior all-around player. 

Renowned for his forechecking, puck-handling and playmaking, the Pocket Rocket would play 20 NHL seasons, from 1955-56 through his retirement in 1975. He was fearless, thriving not on the perimeters but in the dirty ice in front of the net, shrugging off the punishment he would absorb from opposing defensemen.

Richard scored 1,046 points (358 goals, 688 assists) in 20 NHL seasons, playing all 1,258 of his career games with the Canadiens. Twice he scored a Stanley Cup-clinching goal, and he was voted winner of the 1973-74 Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

In 2017, Richard was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players, and was represented by his family at several of the League's Centennial-year events. 

Denis Richard, who soon will begin work on his father's biography, says with a smile that Henri, a 1936 Leap Year baby, will not turn 84 on Feb. 29, but just 21. 

"What my father was most proud of were his 11 Stanley Cups. I hope that record is never broken," he said. "And from his earliest days playing hockey, his dream was to play for the Canadiens, and to play with his brother, Maurice. He did that, too."

Indeed, the Richard brothers together won five Stanley Cup titles in Henri's first five NHL seasons before the latter blazed his own trail, winning six more following Maurice's 1960 retirement.

Today, the Richard family is enormously proud of the patriarch's storied career and his championship pedigree, of his lifetime hallmark gentle modesty. And on Tuesday, five children at Bell Centre, with their mother at their father's side, were grateful that Henri Richard is still remembered in the city where he shone.

Photos: HHoF Images/Getty Images/Montreal Canadiens

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