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Richard was 'The Babe Ruth of Hockey'

NHL's first 50-in-50 scorer became League's biggest star, cultural hero in Montreal

by Stan Fischler / Special to

Legendary hockey reporter and analyst Stan Fischler writes a weekly scrapbook for Fischler, known as "The Hockey Maven," shares his knowledge, humor and insight with readers each Wednesday.

This week he looks at Maurice Richard, one of the most famous players in NHL history and the first to score 50 goals in 50 games.

Long before there was a Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy, the award presented annually to the NHL's leading goal-scorer, there was the "Rocket" himself.

Richard didn't need much time after becoming a regular with the Montreal Canadiens in 1943-44 to earn the label as "The Babe Ruth of Hockey." It was an accurate description of the Montreal native, who set a Ruthian-type record of 50 goals in 50 games in 1944-45 and retired in 1960 having scored more goal than anyone in NHL history. The trophy bearing his name was first presented in 1999.

"Rocket" was an apt nickname for Richard, not only because of his explosiveness as a goal-scorer but also because of his fiery temperament. There have been many descriptions of Richard, but none was more literate than the one Canadian author Peter Gzowski once wrote for the Star Weekly magazine.

"Richard was the most exciting athlete I've ever seen," Gzowski wrote. "So much has been written about Maurice that for me to offer a flood of new praise would be roughly equivalent to a Ph.D. candidate announcing he is going to prove Hamlet is an interesting play."

After a spate of early injuries, some critics labeled Richard as "brittle," a rap that soon would disappear. Richard came into his own during the 1943-44 season, when coach Dick Irvin put him at right wing on a line with slick center Elmer Lach and industrious left wing Toe Blake, a threesome that soon became known as "The Punch Line." The 22-year-old scored 32 goals in 46 games and became the favorite of the Forum faithful.

"Not only will Maurice be a star," Irvin predicted, "but he'll be the biggest star in hockey."

Video: Memories: Maurice 'Rocket' Richard reaches 500 goals

Though all three members of the line earned their way into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the spotlight was usually on Richard. Whenever he would boom along the boards in a wide-eyed rush, the crowd would chant "Vas-y Maurice (Let's Go Maurice)" and he rarely disappointed. A Richard goal would inspire a thunderous ovation unlike any heard before or after at the Forum.

After his breakout regular season, Richard stepped up his play during the 1944 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He scored all five goals in Montreal's 5-1 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 2 of the Semifinals, helping the Canadiens win the series in five games. In the Cup Final, he had a hat trick in Game 2, sparking Montreal to a four-game sweep of the Chicago Black Hawks (then two words). Richard scored the tying goal in Game 4, helping Montreal get even after trailing 4-1, then fed Blake for the Cup-winning goal in overtime. His 12 goals in one playoff year set a modern-era NHL record that lasted for 30 years, and no other player in League history has scored all five of his team's goals in one postseason game.

Still there were skeptics. Some doubted that Richard would survive 1944-45 without another crippling injury. Others predicted that he would burn himself out. "Let's see what he'll do next year" was a familiar cry whenever he was discussed.

Richard's response was a scoring spree that left his previous season's achievement in the dust. To counter Richard, opposing coaches resorted to all manner of tactics, legal and illegal. Few of them worked.

During a game against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, some of the city's finest reporters raved about Richard. "He may prove to be one of the great players in history," suggested Joe King of the New York World-Telegram. Jim McCulley, a columnist with the New York Daily News, referred to the Canadiens as "Richard & Co."

Richard broke the NHL single-season record by scoring his 45th goal of the season on Feb. 25 in a 5-2 win against the Maple Leafs at the Forum, passing the mark of 44 set by Joe Malone in 1917-18, the League's inaugural season. By the beginning of March, Richard was within reach of an NHL first -- scoring 50 goals in a 50-game season. With four games remaining, he scored twice against the Rangers, giving him 48. "Rangers goalie Ken McAuley acted shell-shocked," Hy Turkin wrote in the Daily News.

Video: Maurice Richard remains cultural icon in Montreal

With momentum on his side, "Rocket" scored No. 49 in a 2-1 loss at the Detroit Red Wings on March 15, Montreal's 48th game. The Canadiens defeated the Black Hawks 4-3 at the Forum two days later, but Richard didn't score. That left him with one more chance; Montreal finished its season the following night against the Bruins at Boston Garden.

But for the first 57-plus minutes, it looked like Richard's 50-in-50 quest would come up short. The Bruins blanketed Richard and his linemates, and a goal by Jack McGill with 4:09 remaining gave them a 2-1 lead. However, Lach got control of the puck and skimmed a pass to Richard, who quickly beat Boston goalie Harvey Bennett with 2:15 remaining for No. 50.

For good measure, Richard set up Blake for the game-winner 57 seconds later. Lach scored 18 seconds after that for a 4-2 win.

Richard remained the only 50-goal scorer in NHL history until Montreal's Bernie Geoffrion did it in 1960-61. No one matched his 50-in-50 feat until Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders in 1980-81; since then, Wayne Gretzky (three times), Brett Hull (twice) and Mario Lemieux all have scored 50 goals in 50 or fewer of their team's games.

After playing on eight Stanley Cup-winning teams, including five in a row from 1955-56 through 1959-60, Richard retired in September 1960 as the NHL's all-time leader with 544 goals. By then, he had become the most popular French-Canadian athlete, honored as much as a cultural hero as for being a hockey star.

As one encyclopedic "Who's Who of Hockey" entry explained: "Maurice Richard was an icon who represented the best of French culture; a man who earned everything on his own and who, like the song says, did things his way!"

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