This article originally appeared in Sportsnet Magazine: The Captains. You can buy it here.
Even at 74—standing small and pudgy, walking gingerly, hair graying where it wasn’t disappearing—Maurice Richard looked like he could kill you. It was all in those fierce, blazing eyes. You could strip paint off walls with those things.
They made him look crazy, like the kind of guy you don’t mess with. The sort of character who was capable of being excessively violent if you provoked him enough. And oftentimes he was, in his 20s and 30s, when he terrorized opponents on the ice and scored a whole lot of goals in the process. But on this night he was aged and just a little more than four years ahead of closing those eyes forever. Didn’t matter, they still looked like they were on fire.
It was March 11, 1996, and 17,959 had shown up to watch 40 men play the final game of hockey ever at the hallowed Montreal Forum. The living greats of Habs history were all there; most think the dead ones were, too.
But there was one man who owned that night, that building, that province. Just like he did for so many years before. The moment ‘The Rocket’ stepped delicately onto the carpet-covered ice, it was plain to see what he meant to that nation. Everybody just started cheering. And they didn’t stop for a good 11 minutes, as Richard stood there, crying, taking it all in.
“Mesdames et Messieurs,” the arena announcer started over the public address system, fruitlessly. No one was going to stop. Richard put his hands up as if to say, “OK, ça suffit.” Still, no one stopped. They just kept cheering, as if maybe they could stay standing there clapping forever and Richard would never leave and this great building would never be turned into a movie theatre.
But in the end, the Forum was retro fitted and Richard did leave, for good, in 2000 after a two-year battle with abdominal cancer. And in his wake he left a gaping hole in hearts across Quebec. It was a tremendous loss.
Richard had been a provincial hero since he played his first game in 1942. It was a natural fit; he was so easy to follow. Everything about his game was inspiring and charismatic—even the way he scored his goals. He attacked the offensive zone hungrily, chasing every loose puck like it was the last rib in a lion’s den.
In game seven of the ’52 Cup semis with hated Boston, Richard—heavily concussed, his face covered in blood from an earlier collision—scored an end-to-end goal to clinch the series. After the game, Richard said he was so dazed he couldn’t tell which players were on his team, so he simply kept the puck and scored the goal himself.
Every goal, it seemed, came with a price, whether he was absorbing a body blow from a hulking defenceman or sending himself barreling into the net or end boards. It’s an approach that would have seemed frantic and frenzied if he didn’t make it look so smooth. And it’s an endearing style that made him a natural fan favourite, the French Canadian icon Quebec sorely needed.
Before Richard, French Canadians were without a true, talented, gamechanging leader on the ice. Englishspeaking fans had Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay to cheer for. They had Sid Abel, Ted Kennedy and Syl Apps annually challenging for the scoring title, all of them anglophone Canadians from small towns in Ontario or Saskatchewan or somewhere else where the fleur-de-lis isn’t flown.
French Canadians wanted one of their own. Someone who was from the province, spoke the language, understood the culture. Richard was that guy.
In Quebec, they were rabid for ‘The Rocket.’ Everywhere he went, he was hounded. The Forum hung on his every stride. From his 50 goals in 50 games in 1945 to the five straight Stanley Cups he lifted in the ’50s, an entire province grew up with his moments. French Canada seemed to feel the sting of every injustice that came his way—every stick to the ribs, every knuckle to the teeth, every suspension that forced him to watch from the press box.
That boundless appreciation poured down on Richard once more that final night at the Forum. It was just like old times. Like a similarly cold March night more than four decades earlier when French Canadians showed their admiration in a different way.
It was March 17, 1955. Five nights earlier, Richard had been highsticked by Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe. The slice sent a furious Richard off for five stitches to his face, but not before he settled the score. Richard—bright red blood still spilling from his head—found Laycoe in the fray and smacked him in the teeth with his stick before breaking it over his back. That’s when a linesman, Cliff Thompson, intervened. Richard knocked Thompson out with a stiff hook to the jaw.
NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. He’d punched an official, after all. The penalty was considered light outside Quebec, but within the province’s borders people were infuriated. Montreal fans saw the move as an undeserved crime against French Canada and one of its greatest heroes.
The NHL and the English-speaking sleazebags who run it were trying to make an example out of the workingclass Quebecois hero dominating their league. Richard’s chance at winning the scoring title was gone, and the Habs’ chance at a Stanley Cup surely went with it. They would never have done this to Lindsay. Never to Howe.
Even worse, Campbell had the audacity to show up at the Forum for the first Habs game after the suspension. As if to rub it in. That night, the crowd pelted the president of the league with vegetables and eggs. One man got close enough to sock Campbell before he was restrained.
Then someone set off a tear gas canister in one corner of the Forum before the mayhem spilled onto rue Sainte-Catherine, where incensed fans caused $100,000 in property damage to their own streets and storefronts— a bill that would have cost close to $900,000 today.
Nearly 100 were arrested. It was coined ‘The Richard Riot’ and many see it as the spark that lit Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, a period that made the province what it is today. Through its hockeyplaying icon, French Canada suddenly had a voice. Quebec’s pride, its nationalism, its character—the roots all run through Richard.
Everything that dictated the way Richard played the game of hockey—a blend of hyper-competitiveness, intense drive and a fiery mean streak—also invigorated a nation. He oozed Quebec every time he played, stirring an entire culture with what he did on the ice. He meant something. You could see it in his eyes.