Rocket Richard dead at 78

Maurice (Rocket) Richard has succumbed to abdominal cancer. He was 78. The legendary hockey superstar, who slipped into a coma on Friday night, had been in hospital battling the cancer since May 10.

He was first stricken with the disease three years ago and was most recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease.

Doctors also discovered Richard's spinal column was deteriorating due to osteoarthritis, causing significant pain in his legs.

Richard's blood pressure dropped significantly overnight and he was labouring to breathe.

"He died of respiratory failure, which was caused by several factors," Dr. Andre Robidoux said. "We did all we could to save him over the week and throughout his illness."

He was joined at Montreal's Hotel Dieu Hospital by his family when it was feared he might not survive the night.

"We're ready to share our grief with the public," Maurice Richard Jr. said. "We know what our father meant."

Blessed with unparalleled ferocity and flair, Richard became a cultural beacon for Quebeckers, indeed all Canadians who embraced hockey as a vital source of national identity.

Said Prime Minister Jean Chretien in a statement: "His dazzling combination of skill and drive not only made him one of the greatest hockey players ever, it also made him a symbol to all of what it takes to be a true champion."

"We all wanted to wear (Richard's) No. 9 when we were kids," Guy Lafleur said. "This man played a role in my career through the pride he displayed each time he wore the sweater of the Montreal Canadiens."

Yet as the Rocket's legend grew, so did his reluctance to be regarded as an icon.

"God, sometimes I felt sorry for the man," Gordie Howe said. "He must have got a standing ovation when he went shopping."

"He was a great leader," said Jean Beliveau, who played seven seasons alongside Richard. "He didn't talk much. He preferred to express himself on the ice."

The ice proved to be Richard's platform to an uneasy fame and fortune off it. Yet he always insisted he was "just a hockey player."

"He loved hockey, the Canadiens and the fans," Beliveau said.

But Richard's biggest love was his wife, Lucille Norchet, who passed away on July 18, 1994.

They married as teenagers and had seven children.

Born in Montreal on August 4, 1921, Richard grew up in a seedy sector of the city next to the Bordeaux jail.

He went on to become the most revered hockey player of his generation, a fiery forward with coal-dark eyes that revealed an untold passion for the game.

"I would tell younger players to watch the fire emanating from his eyes," Beliveau said.

"What set Rocket apart was his intensity," concurred former teammate Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion.

Dubbed the "Rocket" by sportswriter Baz O'Meara because of his blazing speed, Richard set 16 NHL records in a storied 18-season career with the Montreal Canadiens.

"He was a man of great determination," said former Canadiens president Ronald Corey.

Richard scored 544 goals and added 421 assists in 978 games and led the NHL in scoring five times.

"He had one mission: to put the puck in the opponent's net," said Elmer Lach, part of Richard's infamous Punch Line. "And he usually made it happen,"

In 1944-45, Richard became the first player to record 50 goals in a single 50-game season.

"The Rocket did everything by instinct and with brute strength," once claimed the late Canadiens GM Frank Selke Sr. "He was the greatest opportunist the game has ever known."

Particularly in the post-season, when he posted 82 goals and 44 assists in 133 games, including 6 overtime winners -- an NHL playoff record that stands to this day.

"He will live on through his legend and his legacy of excellence," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. "We offer heartfelt condolences to his family."

Richard was a three-time winner of the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada's male athlete of the year and the cornerstone of a Canadiens dynasty which captured five consecutive Stanley Cups and eight total over his illustrious career.

"People just worshipped him, so did we all," said former teammate Dickie Moore. "This is a sad moment in my life. It's really hurting,"

A personal pain felt by an entire nation.

Maurice (Rocket) Richard was 78.