It might figure as only a line or two in his obituaries today, but Henri Richard was the centre of a controversy that ranks as probably the most misinterpreted in the long, storied history of the Montreal Canadiens.
First and foremost, the obituaries will mention that Henri Richard — who passed away today after a long battle with Alzheimer’s — was the younger brother of Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the Canadiens legend who held NHL records for goals and points upon his retirement. Henri literally skated in Maurice’s considerable shadow back in the ’50s, when Montreal rolled over the five other teams and became the dynasty that all future contenders and pretenders would be measured. Any fear that Henri Richard would forget his place in Canadiens’ lore was allayed by his sobriquet — the “Pocket Rocket.”
Those obituaries will mention his standing among the 100 greatest NHLers of all time and his record 11 Stanley Cups as a player. (Though, when asked by fans and media about his 11 Cup rings, he would note, possibly in jest, that in the early days teams didn’t hand out rings to the champions — maybe just some lesser parting gifts.) That this record will never be broken is an assumption we can make without dwelling on it.
Other notes will be made, of course, including his captaincy of the Canadiens — figuratively the torch that was passed on to him by Jean Beliveau in 1971. Beliveau likewise cast a considerable shadow. Henri Richard would be named to the NHL’s Second All-Star Team three times, though twice that meant he was the second-best centre the Canadiens rolled out there. Only once, in 1958, did Richard supplant Beliveau to make the First All-Star Team, despite the fact that his own GM was his biggest fan: “Game in, game out, Henri Richard is the most valuable player I’ve ever had,” Frank Selke once said.
There will likely be some colour splashed on the canvas for the memorial portraits of the Pocket Rocket. Mention will be made of his diminutive stature (five-foot-seven) and style (the definitive two-way centreman of his era, and arguably the best skater in the league).
They might even mention his modesty, which was plain to anyone who ever talked to him, a by-product and perspective that became ingrained playing second violin to his brother and Le Gros Bill. I only ever talked with Richard a couple of times, but the first conversation set the tone. Back in ’86, when the Oilers were running through the league like the Canadiens had in the ’50s, I asked him how Montreal’s best teams would have taken on Wayne Gretzky. Richard left himself out of the equation and named others to what he thought was Montreal’s all-time checking line: “I’d have Claude Provost on right wing, Donnie Marshall at centre and Bert Olmstead on the left side,” he said.
Eventually though, the obituaries will mention the Stanley Cup of 1971, and you’ll get to the part about his role in the controversy that could have unsettled a Canadiens team in the final.
Montreal had made a most unlikely run to the Stanley Cup Final: firing coach Claude Ruel mid-season when it looked like Montreal would miss the playoffs; replacing him with Al MacNeil from its AHL affiliate in Halifax; promoting a bunch of young players from the farm team; installing a rookie goalie with a handful of NHL games, Ken Dryden, for the playoffs; and then upsetting the Boston Bruins, the dominant team in the league that season, in the first round. It looked like the Canadiens’ Cinderella story had reached midnight when the heavily favoured Chicago Black Hawks took a three-games-to-two series lead into Game 6 in Montreal.
During the Game 5 loss in Chicago, MacNeil decided his team needed a shakeup, so he juggled the lines. He also chose to sit Henri Richard for a long stretch. Given the fabled Richard temperament (Maurice Richard was two sticks of dynamite in search of a lit match), Henri spit sparks — then exploded. After the game, he called MacNeil “the worst coach I’ve ever played for.” This of course set off a maelstrom in Montreal.
The anti-MacNeil backlash was so strong someone fired off a death threat saying he was going to get the coach. The police responded with around-the-clock protection. Unfortunately for MacNeil, that meant around the clock in his house, on the road, at the rink, even on the bench during Game 6.
“They were with me 24 hours on the hop for seven days. I had [a police officer] right on the bench with me,” MacNeil said. “I was going to ask him if he could help me on the power play.”
So, just as the Rocket had his St. Patrick’s Day riot, the Pocket Rocket had the tempest that put a coach in self-exile for his health and welfare.
The Canadiens came back to tie the series at three games apiece with a win in Game 6 in Montreal and then came from two goals down in the second period to beat the Black Hawks 3-2 in Game 7.
You’d imagine that the victory would have won MacNeil a long-term contract, and in another time and place it surely would have. It seemed like MacNeil was operating under that assumption — he had talked about taking French lessons to accommodate the Canadiens. But his reward for that glory run was a job in the organization — back in Halifax with the Voyageurs.
Over the years, Richard seemed uneasy discussing the tempest, stopping just short of walking back his comments.
“I was kind of embarrassed when it became a big story in the papers,” he told the Toronto Star’s Jim Proudfoot. “I was just mad because he wasn’t using me.”
On another occasion Richard was even more forthright.
“The press made a big thing about it … the French-Canadian player and the (anglophone) coach,” he said. “It was all BS. If you’re winning, nobody cares about that stuff. When you lose, you get bad press in Montreal.”
MacNeil also had tried to take a high road, an overpass above the hard feelings.
“[Richard’s insults] never bothered me,” MacNeil told the Calgary Herald in 2002. “There was a lot of turmoil. Richard was a decent guy, a good person. [But] running a hockey club is not a democracy. It’s a dictatorship.”
By the time I wrote about that series years later, Richard had retired from the public eye and his memory was failing. However, I did manage to connect with the other principal in the contretemps for the ages. MacNeil, who never had a real shot at a head-coaching job in the league, was scouting for Calgary at the time. We had a pleasant conversation about contemporary matters, but that ended when I asked about ’71.
“I have no interest in talking about it whatsoever,” he told me.
I suggested to MacNeil that his side of the story had never been told in full, but that gained no traction and he ended our talk then and there. Old resentments might die, but they never fade away.
Others who had been in the Montreal room in ’71 were circumspect about it.
“We did not talk much about all that,” Jacques Lemaire said. “We had a job to do. Coaches have to respect players, and vice versa. I don’t think [complaints about a coach] should be done in public. [If you have a problem] it should be in private.”
I did talk to a reliable witness in the Canadiens’ dressing room and someone who could well identify with skating in a legendary brother’s shadow: Peter Mahovlich, who, in 1971, was not long removed from the AHL.
“The story gets told that Henri gets blamed for getting Al fired, and that’s just wrong,” Mahovlich told me. “Henri wasn’t the only one who was mad [at MacNeil after the game]. People forget Fergy [Montreal tough guy John Ferguson] said just about the same thing after Game 5. It’s just that [the media] played up Henri.”
On that aforementioned St. Patrick’s Day long ago, Maurice Richard was already a hockey icon, but became a political one in Quebec when he wasn’t allowed to dress for a game. Likewise, Henri Richard was drafted both into lore and a political cause: In Montreal, even a Stanley Cup couldn’t save an anglophone coach’s job, nor spare him the wrath of the fiercest, proudest competitor, a local Quebecois hero.
The narrative wasn’t quite the truth, but it had the ring of truth. In that way, it overshadowed the indisputable: the fact that in Game 7 in Chicago, in that tense come-from-behind Canadiens win, Henri Richard scored the game-tying goal with less than two minutes left in the second period and the Stanley Cup winner a couple of minutes into the third. And even if he spent years afterwards trying to diffuse the controversy, pride let him go only so far.
“When I scored the winning goal in Game 7, everybody knew I’d been right,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 2004.
Jean Beliveau, who retired at the end of that series, wound up with an executive position for life in the Canadiens organization. Henri Richard never quite had Beliveau’s profile and was far behind him when it came to ease with the public. As it played out, Beliveau became a friend of the Molsons, and Richard became the proprietor of a tavern.
When I saw Henri Richard at the last game at the Forum, he seemed sheepish coming out to be introduced alongside the Hall of Famers. He knew that the loudest ovations were going to be reserved for the last two to emerge for a turn in the spotlight: Beliveau and the Rocket. Henri Richard seemed even more sheepish in the final ceremony that night, a passing of the torch that had him accepting the flame from Beliveau while the Rocket stood by and applauded.
With the Rocket’s and Beliveau’s deaths in 2000 and 2014, respectively, both were afforded the solemnity and spectacle of state funerals, while the Pocket Rocket will be more simply remembered for his 11 championships — if not 11 Stanley Cup rings.