Editor's note: This is part of a series of stories remembering some of Canada's top sports heroes and moments as the country marks its 150th birthday in 2017. We've also revisited the lives of baseball hall of famer Ferguson Jenkins, speed skater Gaetan Boucher and skier Nancy Greene.
Maurice Richard said many times that, in order to understand the events leading up to the riot of March 17, 1955 that forever bears his name, it was crucial to know how violent the National Hockey League was in those days.
Sticks were high, fists flew, blood often smeared the ice, and the owners thought this was all manly and a great way to sell tickets.
It's also crucial to accept that you cannot really comprehend the Richard Riot unless you lived through and knew:
- The power of the English seigneurs in Montreal, who many angry French believed to be modern economic descendants of New France's landowners that treated their farmers as serfs before the system was abolished in 1854.
- How Francophone players in the NHL, almost exclusively the property of the Montreal Canadiens, believed they were more harshly treated by league president Clarence Campbell — especially Richard — when it came time to dish out suspensions and fines.
- How Richard himself, the Rocket, was so much a part of Quebec society that he transcended even organized religion. Red Storey, a former referee and long-time hockey commentator, once said of him that, in Quebec, "hockey was bigger than the Church, and Rocket Richard was bigger than the Pope." Roch Carrier perhaps explained it best in his famous book The Hockey Sweater.
What we can know today are the basic facts.
The NHL was a provincial, parochial six-team affair in 1955, featuring barely over 100 players. Many of them hated each other with the type of passion only love can understand, as paleontologist Steven Jay Gould once observed of 1950s New York baseball.
Hockey's greatest player at that time was Richard, who in 1945 became the first to score 50 goals in a season (in 50 games, no less). He was a talent so large that Conn Smythe, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, offered a million dollars to the Canadiens for him (about $10 million today). Richard's coal-black eyes glowed with defiance, danger and pure disgust for losing.
At the Boston Garden on March 13, 1955, bespectacled Bruins defender Hal Laycoe had another of his endless run-ins with Richard, leaving the Habs' star cut on the head after a high stick. A brawl ensued, and the Rocket broke his CCM stick over Laycoe's back.
So far, pretty normal for those days. The rest will always be disputed.
Richard's story had linesman Cliff Thompson holding him back, arms pinned, while Laycoe was allowed to smack away. Rocket said he warned the linesman three times to let him go before he finally clocked the official.
Laycoe's story had Thompson trying to wrestle both of them and, in order to get at the Bruins player, Richard smacked the official.
Either way, Maurice Richard was in trouble.
Campbell was already infuriated with the Montreal star, who had a column (Le Tour de Chapeau) ghost written for a French weekly in Montreal that regularly attacked the NHL boss (he was forced to drop it by the league), and No. 9 had already previously walloped a referee.
The president really worked for the six owners, five of whom wanted the book thrown at Richard for the Boston incident.
Detroit's Jack Adams knew the road to the Stanley Cup ran that year up St. Catherine Street and, earlier in the season, his forward Ted Lindsay had been dispatched for four games after punching a Toronto fan. Therefore, there was precedent.
Conspiracy theories now abound, especially one that says the "hearing" with the players involved a few days later was a sham because the decision had been made. But the fact was the Rocket was suspended for the final three games of the season plus the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.
Montreal went nuts, both French and English, and with Detroit coming in for a St. Patrick's Day game at the Forum, revenge was on some fans' minds. However, nothing may have happened if Campbell hadn't made a tactical error — he showed up to the game (10 minutes late) with his secretary (future wife) and took his regular place.
Les Habitants trailed 4-1 at this point as the home side had their minds on something else, and that didn't help matters either. Garbage and various fruit rained down on the NHL boss, one man raced up and smeared a tomato on Campbell, and less than a minute later a homemade tear gas bomb went off.
"I have often seen Rocket Richard fill the Forum," said Dick Irvin, Jr., later the legendary Montreal play-by-play and colour man, and at that time the son of the team's coach. "But that's the first time I've ever seen him empty it."
Out on the street, the largest riot since Conscription was passed in 1944 (bringing in the draft for the final year of the Second World War) broke out along a seven-block length of Rue Ste. Catherine, featuring overturned cars, smashed windows, a shot fired from somewhere and 137 arrests.
It went on most of the night with fears of a repeat a few hours later as it grew dark again — only quelled when Richard went on radio and TV, asking for calm. He would reluctantly take his punishment.
Since then, larger thinkers on the Quebec scene have argued whether this was the beginning of Quebec's Quiet Revolution — officially pegged for 1960 with the election of Jean Lesage as Premier — or perhaps just the end of a time when hockey was more important than politics, as the latter began to take hold among French Canadian youth.
Millions of words have been written. Millions more will be.
These final words, however, are of the sport.
After the riot, the NHL began to crack down on all-out brawls (especially carrying your stick into one), though it would take another 25 years for the changes to take effect with the institution of the third-man-in rule.
And the Rocket, who always refused to align himself with a political party, would lead his teammates to five straight Stanley Cup victories until retiring in the spring of 1960 with 544 regular-season goals to his credit.
Unbeaten, unbowed, unrepentant — still forever proud.