In Montreal's dimly lit Molson Centre, Richard Samuelson cast a long, wistful glance at his childhood hero before filing past the open coffin of hockey legend Maurice Richard. "Nobody ever played like the Rocket," the 63-year-old clothing manufacturer insisted last week. "I never saw anyone shoot the puck with greater accuracy." Outside the arena, Claude Lavallée, 71, arrived on in-line roller skates. The retired plumber, who had recent bypass surgery, said he felt he had to do something to honour his hero, so he skated all the way to the Molson Centre from his home in the city's east end with a heart monitor strapped to his wrist. "He had," Lavallée said, "a lot of determination."
And a nation of fans. Richard's death on May 27 due to abdominal cancer elicited a massive outpouring of affection across the country. But the loss was especially great in Montreal, Richard's home city, where an estimated 115,000 people joined Lavallée and Samuelson to pay their respects as he lay in state. Another 2,700 mourners packed Notre Dame Basilica for the funeral itself, and thousands of others lined Montreal streets for the funeral procession and to watch the solemn mass on a large video screen outside the church. The crowd began applauding as the hearse pulled up. The ovation gained strength when the bells rang nine times for No. 9 and several of Richard's former teammates, including Jean Béliveau, Dickie Moore and Elmer Lach, steered his coffin into the basilica. Even more remarkably, the reverent applause resumed inside the church when the service ended. "There's only one man that this could be done for, and it's him," said Moore. "He was the Babe Ruth of hockey."
Richard always insisted he was just a simple hockey player, but to many he was a cultural icon. As a result, the pews were filled not only with hockey's elite - including his old rival Gordie Howe - but also with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and other political and cultural luminaries. But the most prolific turnout came from Richard's ordinary fans who lined Ste-Catherine Street and chanted "Maurice! Maurice!" as the cortege wound its way to the church. "He always said what he felt and people identified with him for that reason," said former Canadien Guy Lafleur. "You couldn't buy the Rocket - he was his own man."
Shy and taciturn, Richard was often caught off guard by fans' adulation. At the Forum's closing in 1996, he was overwhelmed by a thunderous ovation that was the loudest and longest given to any of the former Canadiens there. "He didn't like the limelight," explained Moore. He didn't like being drawn into political fights either, but they seemed inescapable. In fact, some observers regard the 1955 riot in Montreal that erupted after Richard was suspended by then-NHL president Clarence Campbell as an early example of Quebecers fighting against Anglo dominance. Richard flatly denied suggestions that his battles with Campbell had anything to do with discrimination. "I had as many English fans as French in Montreal," he said. "I was as well treated by the English as the French." And to avoid politicizing the funeral, the Richard family rejected a suggestion that his coffin be draped in the fleur-de-lis.
Still, his power was undeniable. "It's the pride that he brought to the Quebec people," suggested Gilles Smith, 49, who paid his respects at the Molson Centre. "As kids, we played outside and we were all Maurice Richards. We all had No. 9 and we saw ourselves scoring goals in the NHL." On the steps of the basilica, Aimé Boucher, a 65-year-old hardware salesman, offered a similar sentiment. "What he wanted to prove to us," said Boucher, "was that French-Canadians could do something more."
So pervasive was his impact that even Montreal's baseball team, the Expos, announced that their players would wear No. 9 on their uniforms for the rest of the season in Richard's honour. Hockey fans who never saw him play could get some understanding from a famous photo of him bearing down on goal, eyes wide and fiery, the picture of determination. "I think a lot of players today should look at that photo before they jump on the ice," said former Canadiens defenceman Serge Savard, who attended the funeral. The condolence books at the Molson Centre, however, were filled with recollections from those who had seen the Rocket. One man wrote about the first of the Habs' five straight Stanley Cup victories that ended in 1960, the year Richard retired. "Thank you for the year 1956," the inscription said simply. "God be with you." The legend who asked to be remembered as a hockey player got what he wanted.
Maclean's June 12, 2000