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Rocket Richard, Hockey Hall Of Fame

Rocket Richard, Hockey Hall Of Fame

In February 1945, Conn Smythe celebrated his fiftieth birthday, and his first live NHL hockey game in three years, by going to see with his own eyes that Maurice Richard was just an overrated talent. Once he saw Richard in action, Smythe, the man who had never had a French-Canadian player on his team, and who once, astonishingly, began a speech in Montreal with the greeting "Ladies, Gentlemen and Frenchmen," wanted Richard in a blue and white sweater.

The Rocket had shot to unexplored hockey scoring heights in his red, white, and blue sweater, his own mythology rising in his afterburn. Three days after Christmas 1944, he spent the day moving into his new house � not supervising the movers, but shifting the furniture himself, including a piano. It was a game day, and Richard arrived in the Montreal dressing room exhausted, and sprawled out on the training table, as if to send a message to his teammates not to count on him that night. But he was just using the rest to gather his forces. He unleashed them that night in a five-goal, three-assist, and eventual 9�1 trouncing of the Detroit Red Wings. In a nine-game stretch in 1944, Richard fired in fifteen goals, despite every effort to stop him by his opponents, who slashed and elbowed and hooked and even draped themselves over his hurtling frame. Richard shoved them away, and if they persisted, he levelled them with a punch as powerful and as accurate as that of any heavyweight. He had to � there were no enforcers around to fight his battles for him.

The one thing he wanted more than anything was to become the first man to score fifty goals in fifty games. When Richard beat ex-Canadien Joe Malone's record of forty-five goals (set in 1918, over twenty-two games), he still had eight games to reach the magical fifty. But he couldn't get past forty-nine. Everyone wanted to stop him � no team wanted to be the one that gave him the record, to be the team everyone would remember for the wrong reason. It only fuelled Richard's obsession, and the drama on ice was operatic.

In the last period of the Canadiens' last home game of the 1944�45 season, Richard found himself alone in front of the Chicago net. A Black Hawk defenceman chopped him down, and the referee gave Richard a penalty shot. Here, surely, was number fifty � in a duel, no less. But the Chicago goalie stopped him, and Richard now had just one game to make that goal, or be forever remembered for how close he came, and how he had fallen so cruelly short. He didn't make it easy on himself, or for the millions cheering him on. Late in the third period of the last game of the season, in the hostile territory of Boston Garden, Richard scooped up a pass from Elmer Lach and fired it on Boston's net. The puck went in, and finally, he had his fifty.

To obliterate any memory of the eight-game dry spell before he made the magic number, Richard added six more goals in six games against the Maple Leafs in the Stanley Cup playoffs, making it an astonishing fifty-six goals in fifty-six games. His place in hockey mythology was assured.

Now Conn Smythe wanted Richard more than ever. He offered the Canadiens $25,000, with a $1,000 bonus to anyone who could swing the deal, but no one could manage it for one simple reason: Maurice Richard already wore the only hockey sweater he ever wanted.

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