In the dressing room after practice for an old-timers game at the 1999 all-star weekend, a bunch of guys who used to trade high sticks were instead trading stories about the Rocket. Every player from that postwar era in the National Hockey League had a topper for the last guy's tale. Red Kelly, Stan Mikita and old elbows himself, Gordie Howe, all remembered bruising encounters with Maurice Richard. Someone joked that he used to be able to show the scars he got from Richard, but now they just looked like wrinkle lines. That got a laugh.
They were talking about the Rocket because of a rare honour about to be bestowed that all-star weekend in Tampa, Fla. For the first time, the NHL was naming a post-season award after one of its players, instead of after a former team owner or league commissioner. In the company of current and former greats, Richard stood at centre ice while commissioner Gary Bettman unveiled the Maurice Richard Trophy for the player who each season scores the most goals. Even fans in the Sunbelt seemed to understand the history that was being made, and gave Richard a standing ovation. But the more telling accolades came from his peers, hall-of-famers all, who nevertheless insisted Richard was singularly deserving of so rare an honour. "There might have been better players," Kelly said back then in Florida, "but no one was more exciting."
Great athletes are frequently remembered for records and trophies, and Maurice Richard, who died last week at age 78 after a three-year-long battle with abdominal cancer, had his share of statistics and silver. But the Rocket will forever be known for his heart. A native Montrealer, he was the leader of the home-town Canadiens, and to so many who saw him play, the soul of the game. He performed with a fiery passion that excited fans, and he had an explosive temper that intimidated foes. He stood up to all comers, even the league's president Clarence Campbell, who many felt mistreated the francophone star. By taking on the establishment, Richard became the champion of the Canadiens' fans and of all Quebecers. But as the greatest goal-scorer of his era, he was admired throughout the hockey world. And so, when he died on May 27 at Montreal's Hotel Dieu hospital with his family by his side, all of Canada grieved.
Richard grew up in the Bordeaux district of north-end Montreal. He learned the game in his backyard, playing with his brothers and his father, a railway carpenter-machinist. He became a top junior player for his neighbourhood team, the Paquettes - one season, he scored 133 of the team's 145 goals. Though a robust five feet, 10 inches and 180 lb., he missed much of his final junior seasons because of injuries, and was deemed unfit in attempts to sign up for wartime military duty. For the same reasons, doubters suggested Richard was too brittle for professional hockey, but he soon proved them wrong. In 1943-1944, his first full NHL season, he scored a team-high 32 goals and led the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory - their first since 1931. The next season, he scored an unheard-of 50 goals in 50 games, a record that only Wayne Gretzky has ever bettered. In 1945-1946, the Habs won another Cup - the second of eight with Richard.
To slow down the Rocket, opposing teams would send out their toughest players to throw him off his game. As a result, the hot-headed Richard was frequently provoked into fighting, and was often the one who was fined or suspended. He bristled at what he viewed as the referees' failure to penalize the hackers and slashers who harassed him, and supporters in the Quebec media insinuated there was a conspiracy against their star. André Ruffiange wrote in Montreal's Front Ouvrier that the NHL's English-speaking leaders were trying to "end the reign of a French-Canadian as king of the game." After Richard called Campbell a "dictator" in a weekly newspaper column in Samedi-Dimanche, the league forced the star to retract his attack and cease writing the column. Richard's biographer, Jean-Marie Pellerin, later wrote that all Quebecers felt the Rocket's humiliation. "Once more," Pellerin wrote, "the English boot had sent us running."
Then on March 13, 1955, with 10 minutes left in a game against Boston, the Bruins' Hal Laycoe high-sticked Richard, opening a bloody gash on his forehead. Livid, Richard retaliated with his fists and with his stick, and then knocked down the linesman who tried to restrain him. Three days later, Campbell suspended Richard for the remainder of the season and the playoffs, effectively ending Montreal's Cup aspirations. At a game the next night, Campbell was assaulted by irate fans, the game was suspended and forfeited to Detroit, and departing spectators joined a mob outside the Forum to wreak havoc down St. Catherine Street. The next day, Richard himself appealed for calm and the situation was defused.
In retirement, Richard stayed involved in hockey. He had a falling out with the Canadiens in the late 1960s, but returned in 1980 to serve as an ambassador for the team - most memorably at the Forum's closing ceremonies in 1996. Hockey Night in Canada analyst Dick Irvin vividly recalls the thunderous ovation Richard received that night, even when most of the people had never seen him play. "He hadn't scored a goal or played a game there in 36 years," Irvin told Maclean's. "And people were crying, for God's sake. What other athlete, any place, any time, would get that kind of ovation from that kind of an audience? It showed what he meant to Quebec and to Montreal. And it wasn't just francophones - he was a hero to anglophones, too."
When doctors first discovered his cancer, Richard's future looked bleak. The tumour was inoperable, they said, and unlikely to respond to therapy. At the same time, he was also suffering from Parkinson's disease and degenerative arthritis in his lower spine. But according to Dr. André Robidoux, chief of surgery at the Centre Hospitalier de L'Université du Montréal, Richard defied a horrible prognosis. For two years, his cancer was in remission, and he was able to resume his public appearances for the team. "Mr. Richard," the surgeon understated, "has shown that he has an incredible strength." He continued to show it - right until the end.
Maclean's June 5, 2000