Mayor Jean Drapeau tried to prevent the 1955 Richard Riot — but Clarence Campbell wouldn't listen
Documents from the longtime Montreal mayor's archives show NHL president ignored police, Drapeau's warnings
Documents from longtime Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau's personal archives show both Drapeau and the police warned NHL president Clarence Campbell he risked sparking a riot if he showed up to the Forum after suspending Maurice "Rocket" Richard for the rest of the hockey season — but he ignored them.
Drapeau's archives were released this fall, 20 years after his death — and they shed more light on what happened on March 17, 1955 — the day of the Richard Riot.
The riot proved to be a pivotal moment in Quebec history, tapping into the first stirrings of French Canadian nationalism, which would soon grow into the Quiet Revolution.
On that fateful St. Patrick's Day, the Montreal Canadiens were set to play the Detroit Red Wings, but when Campbell took his seat in the Forum, 10 minutes into the game, garbage rained down on him; someone smeared Campbell's face with a tomato; someone else set off a homemade tear gas bomb.
The crowd erupted into a protest that emptied the Forum and spilled out onto Ste-Catherine Street, where rioters overturned cars and smashed shop windows. By the end of the night, scores of people had been arrested.
The protesters were upset that four days earlier, "Rocket" Richard had been suspended for the remainder of the season, after hitting a linesman who was trying to break up a fight between Richard and Bruins defender Hal Laycoe.
The Canadiens' fans were infuriated.
In Quebec, where former hockey referee Red Storey once said, "hockey was bigger than the Church, and Rocket Richard was bigger than the Pope," Richard's suspension was interpreted as another effort to embarrass and subjugate francophone players, in a league where they were already treated more harshly and paid less than their English-speaking counterparts.
Hockey fans outside of Quebec saw the Rocket's suspension as fair.
Warned twice by police
Understanding the political context and potential for violence, Montreal police tried to dissuade Campbell from attending the game that night.
"I asked Mr. Campbell why he was insisting on going to the Forum," the police report read. "He responded, 'I want to be there, and I want police protection.'"
As the game was getting started, police reported an angry horde of people waiting outside the Forum. Once again, Campbell was discouraged from entering.
In the police report, the chief wrote that he called Campbell personally.
"Given that I wasn't able to leave my command post and there was no other constable available to meet Mr. Campbell, I went into the office of the Canadian Arena Company, where I asked Mr. Paul Lebel to call … and warn Mr. Campbell that the police were not able to escort him inside, and it would be better if he didn't go to the Forum."
Campbell went anyway. He sat next to a police escort, but it didn't matter. When the tear-gas bomb exploded, it left people retching, surging for the exits.
The first man to lob a tomato at Campbell was 26-year-old André Robinson, the police document said. From there, it was all downhill. The riot went on all night and there were fears of a repeat the next night as well — only quelling when Maurice Richard himself went on radio and television, asking for calm.
Campbell's presence was 'provocation,' said Drapeau
The day after the riot, Drapeau issued a statement, chastening Campbell for ignoring the warnings of "serious-minded people."
"It would have been wiser for Mr. Campbell to have refrained from going to the Forum, and especially from announcing his intention in advance. His presence could, in effect, be accepted as an act of defiance."
"It is true that, during the first ten minutes of play, everything went well," he wrote, "and it was only when Campbell took his seat, accompanied by his secretary, that things began to develop in a regrettable manner."
Drapeau, too, had tried to persuade Campbell to stay home that night. The mayor understood that Canadiens fans were on edge following Richard's suspension.
"I was justified in trusting that the people would give evidence of their feelings in an orderly manner, as a matter of fact, it was only on the provocation of Mr. Clarence Campbell's presence that protests assumed a different tone."
Drapeau finished his statement by saying he would be staying home from the next Habs game, and he implored Campbell to do the same.
As a result of the suspension, Richard did not win the title for the NHL player with the most points. The Habs also lost the playoffs that year — to the Detroit Red Wings.
They'd have to wait until the following season to win back the coveted Stanley Cup, which they went on to win for four more straight years.