From the archives 2005: Top 10 Habs - No. 2 Maurice Richard More than a hockey player
The Rocket personified greatness and meant everything to his people - on and off the ice
When the NHL lockout finally ends, Red Fisher will begin his 50th season on the Canadiens beat. In this continuing feature series, Red picks his Top 10 Canadiens from the last half-century.
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The Canadiens teams I've watched win 17 of their 24 Stanley Cups during the last half-century were blessed with most of the best of the best. You know their names, and if you visited a seventh-floor boardroom at the Bell Centre, you would see them in living colour. Jean Beliveau is there. Toe Blake is there, and so are goaltenders named Plante, Dryden and Roy. Guy Lafleur and Doug Harvey are there. And, of course, Maurice Richard is there.
His best years already were behind him when I started covering the Canadiens at the start of the 1955-56 season. By then, after 13 NHL seasons, he had lost a step. He carried weight he found increasingly difficult to lose. He was hurt frequently. But now and then in his last five seasons, he was once again The Rocket. And on those nights, there was no finer sight anywhere.
What I'm really saying is that the Richard of the last five seasons of his career was not among the 10 best Canadiens I've seen during the past 49 years. His teammates knew it. His opponents knew it and Richard knew it. But any mention of this team can't be made without a salute to The Rocket, and no better example of it goes back to the night the hockey cathedral in which he became an icon closed.
He stood on the Montreal Forum ice under the harsh, white television lights, tears streaming down his face as the noise grew and grew ... minute after minute for 10 ... 11 minutes ... until there was no longer just noise in the place, but thunder engulfing it. Now and then, he would raise an arm ... both arms ... pleading to the people ... his people:
"Enough," he seemed to be saying to them on this March 11, 1996 night. "Enough! I was only a hockey player."
Richard, who died in his 79th year after a battle of more than two years with inoperable stomach cancer, was much more than a hockey player. He was the first National Hockey League player to score 50 goals in a 50-game season (1945) among his 544 in 978 regular-season games. He was the most intense athlete this game, this city, this province, this country has seen. He was everything that personified greatness.
Richard's eye-snapping career numbers don't begin to describe what he meant to hockey in general and the Canadiens in particular. Winning at any cost was what he was all about. He was prepared to pay the price for every goal he scored, and no price was too high.
Richard scored important goals, lifting spectators out of their seats everywhere in the six-team NHL, because he was as much The Rocket on the road as he was in Montreal. At any moment, anywhere, he could erupt with another big goal.
"I first saw him in 1942," Ken Reardon, a former teammate who went on to become a Canadiens vice-president, told an interviewer. "I was playing for an army team. I see this guy skating at me with wild, bloody hair the way he had it then, eyes just outside the nut house. 'I'll take this guy,' I said to myself. He went around me like a hoop around a barrel.
" 'Who's that?' I asked after the game."
" 'That's Maurice Richard,' " the guy said. 'He's a pretty good hockey player.' "
" 'Yes,' I said, 'he is.' "
The Richard legend
wasn't supposed to develop as quickly as it did. The fact is some hockey people felt it would never happen. His bones were as brittle as peppermint sticks, some people said. Injury-prone, they muttered. The problems started when he was invited to the Canadiens Seniors' training camp in 1940. He made the team, scored two goals in the first regular-season game, then caught his skate in a rut in the third period. His ankle snapped and Richard missed the rest of the season.
The following year, he played well for the first 20 games, suffered a broken wrist in his 21st, missed the rest of the regular season, but returned to score six goals in four playoff games. The 1942-43 season was his first with the NHL Canadiens: this time he fractured his right ankle. Three major injuries in three years. Maybe, just maybe, his critics were right. Maybe, he was indeed too brittle to play in the NHL.
His stunning 50-in-50 season erased those fears and was remarkable in many ways. He failed to score in only 16 games. At no time did he go more than two games without scoring. His best streak was during a nine-game stretch between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10 when he scored 14 goals. His worst came in the last 13 games of the season when he scored only seven.
It has been suggested, and there's a valid argument for it, that Richard's passion for winning was the start of the French-English "thing" in Quebec. If he had been "only a hockey player," his suspension for the final week of the 1954-55 regular season and the playoffs after getting involved in a savage, stick-swinging duel with Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe would have been little more than a hiccup in NHL history and, by extension, the province of Quebec. Instead, it fanned the flames of a cultural revolution that went far, far beyond Richard, the player.
He meant everything to his people, on and off the ice. When he and the Canadiens won, they won. When the Canadiens lost, they lost. When the perception was that he was treated harshly by constituted authority, it was they, his people, who felt the pain and the anger.
What made Richard the icon he was to become was the way he scored his goals. From the blue line in, there was nobody as fierce, or as intense. There was nobody as strong. It was the passion within him each time he swooped in on an opposing goaltender, often with another player, or players, clinging to his back. It was in his arms and in the barrel of his chest, which threatened to burst out of his sweater at any moment. It was in the tight line of his mouth, and in the snarl it formed when he was challenged. It was in the terrible rage with which he played. It was in his eyes.
Big goals were all he was about, none bigger than the one he scored against the Boston Bruins in the seventh game of their 1952 semifinal. Early in the second period of this pivotal game at the Forum, Richard was knocked out in a collision with Bruins forward Leo Labine. Six stitches were needed to close an ugly gash over his eye. The team's medical staff felt he was through for the night, but after spending the rest of the period and most of the third in the clinic, there he was sitting alongside linemate Elmer Lach. The score, Lach told him, was 1-1. Four minutes remained in regulation time when Richard returned to the ice.
Defenceman Butch Bouchard started the play that would become, to some people, the Rocket's greatest goal. Richard took the pass deep in the Canadiens zone, skated the length of the ice, wheeled around defenceman Bill Quackenbush, swept in on goaltender Sugar Jim Henry ... and goal!
This hockey player, this remarkable athlete had added yet another chapter to his legendary career. He had battled through the fogs of concussion to win yet another series for the Canadiens. The next day, newspapers across the country carried a memorable photograph of Richard, blood streaming from his left eye, and Henry - his right eye blackened after being struck with a puck in Game 6 of the series - shaking hands.
The Canadiens were to become hockey's greatest dynasty - five consecutive Stanley Cups - during the first five seasons I covered the team with Richard as its captain. By that time, the Richard flame didn't burn as brightly or as often as it had during the previous 13 seasons.
Richard brought a tradition of winning to the Canadiens. He wasn't the Richard of old when the Canadiens embarked on the marvellous adventure that would produce five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956 through 1960, but he was with them.
It's true his game had lost some of its shine, except for the first two years when he scored 38 and 33 goals. What remained, however, was the fire in his eyes, and the intensity. He was still the flag-bearer for a culture, for his people. Anything less than winning was unacceptable and remained that way until he scored what turned out to be the final goal of his career in the 1960 Stanley Cup final against the Maple Leafs. It was his 34th goal in the finals.
It also was the only goal he scored in the playoffs that year, one in which the Canadiens allowed only 11 goals in sweeps over Chicago and Toronto. (Jacques Plante posted three shutouts.) Richard got his goal in the third game, a 5-2 victory at Toronto. It was to be his last.
He reported to training camp several months later, scored four goals during a morning practice and later in the day was asked to report to general manager Frank Selke. I happened to be sitting outside Selke's second-floor office when a grim-faced Richard, accompanied by an adviser, strode in. Thirty minutes later, Richard stormed out.
"What's happening?" he was asked.
"They want me to retire," he snapped ... and kept on walking.
Selke had pointed out to the 39-year-old Richard that in his last three seasons, injuries had sidelined him for 89 of 210 games. It was time ... time for the torch to be passed.
Tomorrow: No. 1
Red Fisher's Top 10 Canadiens
Red's Top 10 Canadiens combined to win 71 Stanley Cups. Here's a look at the players already profiled in this feature series:
No. 10 Serge Savard was a member of the Big Three on defence along with Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe.
No. 9 Dickie Moore won back-to-back scoring titles during the 1950s.
No. 8 Bob Gainey was one of the best defensive forwards in NHL history.
No. 7 Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion was the second NHL player to score 50 goals in a season.
No. 6 Defenceman Larry Robinson could do it all: skate, score and fight.
No. 5 Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups, more than any player
in NHL history.
No. 4 Doug Harvey was the best defenceman of his time and played a key role on six Stanley Cup teams.
Yesterday: No. 3 Guy Lafleur, who won three NHL scoring titles, could electrify an audience like no other player with his speed and shot.
Today: No. 2 The legendary Maurice (Rocket) Richard was more than just a hockey player to Canadiens fans and his people in Quebec.
The Rocket's Claim to Fame
Stanley Cup eight-time winner
Hart Trophy 1947
Inducted into Hall of Fame 1961
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