Remembering Henri Richard, the NHL’s ‘biggest champion’

Stephen Brunt reflects on the life and career of Henri Richard and how he was able to carve out his own place in hockey history.

MONTREAL — I met Henri Richard once. He was kind and approachable, but slightly reserved. He was a legend and carried himself that way, but without a hint of arrogance. He wore a well-tailored suit and the kind of smile that presented a youthfulness only his white hair betrayed. And this was long before Alzheimer’s disease took a firm hold of his life, but not so long ago that I’d have been too young for it to have made any tangible impact on my life. Because growing up in Montreal, I heard a lot about the "Pocket Rocket" — about his remarkable career, about him being the winningest Montreal Canadien of all time, and about him being one of the most tenacious and competitive people anyone had ever met — and the significance of all of that wasn’t lost on me when I had this brief opportunity to shake his hand and make it clear it meant something to me.

My father, Stephen, was (and still is) one of Henri’s biggest fans. He told me about when he was 13 years old and the cherished memory he gained the night the great Maurice Richard’s brother made his own history with a Cup-clinching goal in the 1966 Final against the Detroit Red Wings. He described in detail the time Henri flew into the offensive zone, skipped his way over Keith Magnuson’s stick and uncorked his wicked wrist shot to beat Tony Esposito and put the Canadiens up 3-2 over the Chicago Blackhawks in the third period of Game 7 of the 1971 Cup — and how he once got to discuss this with the man on a flight from Toronto to Montreal after some Canadiens and Maple Leafs old-timers competed against each other in an annual golf event.

And then there’s the story my father loved most, the one I’ve heard countless times since I was a kid — about a couple of games of tennis he once played with Richard and Canadiens legend Yvan Cournoyer.

"It was the early 80s, I was 29 or 30, and I had a business associate who invited me to Tennis 13 in Laval," my father recounted on Friday morning shortly after hearing of Richard’s passing. "I showed up, and as we got on the court Richard and Cournoyer were warming up. What I remember most is that these two guys were basically the same size, they were smaller guys, but they also had the same sized-legs and they were the biggest legs I had ever seen.

"We played a couple of games, and then they wanted to play singles. I didn’t care. I was so honoured they let us play with them. They were so gracious."

And competitive. Richard was always described as being uber-competitive.

Think about what he fought through to carve out his own timeless legacy. He was 15 years younger and three inches shorter than his older brother Maurice, who had become the most iconic player in the game not named Gordie Howe — a player who had already won three Stanley Cups, scored an NHL-record eight points in a single game and been the league’s first 50-goal scorer — before Henri had joined up with the Canadiens in 1955. There are long shadows, and then there are black holes.

But Henri immediately found his way to the light. And then 20 years went by and he retired having played the most games (1,256) and having recorded the third-most assists (688) and points (1,046) in Canadiens history. He had his No. 16 retired by the franchise just months after he hung up his skates, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.

Oh yeah, and there were the Cups. Henri won his first one as a rookie, and then sipped Champagne and beer from hockey’s holy chalice 10 more times — or more than any other player in NHL history.

"He won (expletive) 11 Stanley Cups," former Canadiens captain and recently-inducted Hall of Famer Guy Carbonneau said emphatically in a phone conversation Friday morning. "He had 11 Stanley Cups in 20 years, and the year he retired was because he wasn’t playing a lot and he decided to quit, and they won four straight Cups after that. I mean, he could have won 15 Cups if he kept going.

"He was the biggest champion. Nobody’s going to ever come close to winning 11 championships, in any sport."

Richard’s only company in the category is Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who won 11 NBA titles.

There will never be another.

And my dad says that Henri Richard was one of a kind, too.

"He was absolutely tenacious, with moves and with strength and the ability to pass the puck when he really needed to thread the needle," he said. "He was a great playmaker, and he was a great two-way player as well."

I once shook the man’s hand, and it’ll always mean something to me that I had a chance to do that.

Rest in Peace, Henri Richard.

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