Memories of Red, white and blue
Hall of Fame hockey writer Red Fisher reflects on the Montreal Canadiens' glorious history
Red Fisher knew he wasn't walking into the fabled Montreal Forum on March 17, 1955, to write about an ordinary hockey game.
The Hall of Fame newspaper columnist, who had begun his journalism career a year earlier with the Montreal Star, drew his first hockey assignment on St. Patrick's Day, reporting on what would become the Richard Riot.
"You could feel the tension in the air with the Detroit Red Wings visiting that night," Fisher, a Montreal Gazette writer for the last 29 years, told CBCSports.ca. "Something was going to happen that would probably have nothing to do with the game itself."
Four nights earlier, the Montreal Canadiens were hosting the Boston Bruins when Maurice (Rocket) Richard had his head cut open by defencemen Hal Laycoe. The fiery Quebec icon retaliated by tomahawking Laycoe in the head with his stick.
Attempting to control the melee, linesman Cliff Thompson grabbed Richard and both men fell to the ice. Still seething from Laycoe's original blow, Richard punched Thompson, the second time he struck an official that season.
Campbell acts swiftly
NHL president Clarence Campbell acted swiftly, suspending Richard for the final three regular season games and the entire Stanley Cup playoffs — an unprecedented move in hockey annals.
Sensing a possible firestorm, Fisher was sent to the Forum to write a follow-up colour piece, and he purchased a ticket for the ensuing game.
His suspicions were confirmed as it didn't take long before a fracas erupted.
Fans began throwing eggs and debris on the ice, but that hardly compared with what transpired next. Despite warnings to stay away from the arena, the stubborn Campbell took his usual seat 10 rows up from the ice five minutes into the game. After the opening period ended, a man walked up to Campbell and extended his hand. Reaching out to meet his greeter, the NHL boss was promptly punched in the face.
"The first thing that happened was Jimmy Orlando, a former Detroit Red Wings player, had followed the man up the stairs, and when he hit Campbell, Jimmy rolled the guy around and let him have one," said Fisher, who also quipped that his $18 suit was ruined during the bombardment of eggs.
"Then, of course, the tear gas bombs went off and the people were screaming and choking with the fumes rising all over the place. Finally, there was an announcement to clear the Forum, and I followed the crowd out of the building after the game was forfeited."
Fisher managed to push his way through thousands of angry rioters to a pay phone in order to call his editor. To his surprise, he was asked to circulate among the throng of people.
"My reply was, 'Why don't you come out here and circulate the crowd,' " he shot back before returning to the Forum to seek refuge.
The riot was one of many historical events Fisher witnessed during more than half a century of writing about the Habs. Fisher, 82, has covered 17 Canadiens Stanley Cup championships, though his friends joke that he's been present for all of the team's 24 titles.
With the Canadiens recently announcing celebration plans for the next two NHL seasons, leading up to the franchise's 100th anniversary on Dec. 4, 2009, Fisher reflected on other aspects of the team's glorious history.
Plante begins a renaissance
One of his most vivid memories took place at Madison Square Garden in New York on Nov. 1, 1959. That was the night Montreal goaltender Jacques Plante was struck in the face with a backhand shot by adversary Andy Bathgate in the first period.
Plante suffered a savage cut, stretching from one corner of his mouth to his cheek and nostril. He was immediately sent to the clinic inside the Garden for treatment.
"When I went into the room, there he was in front of the mirror running his fingers over and spreading the cuts. He said to me, 'Pretty ugly, isn't it?' And I responded, 'Well, you have a good scar, Jacques.' "
Plante shocked the Garden crowd and players alike when he returned donning a mask, something no goalie had dare worn before. Yet Plante won 18 straight games with his new headgear, beginning a renaissance among NHL netminders.
The Forum has also hosted some of the most legendary games in hockey history. There was the first game of the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and Russia. Three years later, the Canadiens squared off against Russia's powerful Red Army team in a New Year's Eve clash that ended 3-3.
Lafleur notches power-play equalizer
Another classic was Game 7 in the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals, a battle against Boston in which the Bruins were called for an infamous too-many-men on the ice penalty late in the third period. Canadiens star winger Guy Lafleur notched the power-play equalizer to force overtime. Yvon Lambert then ended the game in the extra period — sending Montreal on its way to its fourth straight Cup title.
Fisher was so certain the Canadiens would be eliminated that he left the media box early to get a head start on soliciting reaction from the stunned players.
"As I was walking along the hallway, I heard this great roar from the crowd [after Lafleur's goal] and promptly turned around knowing full well what had a happened."
Of course, who could forget the night in 1995 when goaltender Patrick Roy, walking by the team's then president, Ronald Corey, stated he had played his final game for Montreal. Coach Mario Tremblay had left Roy in the nets to endure a barrage of nine Detroit goals, setting the stage for Roy's notorious tirade at the Canadiens' bench.
To this day Fisher calls Roy's actions "disgraceful" and remains adamant that the Hall of Fame goaltender shouldn't have his No. 33 retired by the team this year.
But no other event can equal the emotional night the Canadiens and their fans bid adieu to the Forum, on March 11, 1996. After Montreal defeated the Dallas Stars 4-1, the team held a closing ceremony, with fans watching former captains in their old jerseys pass a torch from one legend to the next.
The montage was a re-creation of two lines from the poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae — "To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high" — a passage that still hangs prominently in the team's locker room.
In a fitting scene, the loudest applause was saved for a tearful Richard, who sheepishly pleaded with the sold-out crowd to stop its seemingly endless ovation.
"I've never heard anything like it," Fisher said. "This was where this great dynasty won so many games and had so many great people who went on to become Hall of Famers. I'm normally regarded as a grumpy old guy who doesn't get emotional too often, but I certainly was that night."