Joseph Henri Maurice Richard:Biography
One of the most exciting and storied stars of the N.H.L., Joseph Henri Maurice Richard was a natural goal scorer and a tough, physical opponent. A synopsis of his life and exploits in hockey.
Joseph Henri Maurice Richard was born on Aug. 4, 1921. He was the oldest child of Onesime and Alice Richard who left the Gaspé to live in Montreal. Onesime was a carpenter for the Canadian Pacific Railway and the family lived in Montreal’s north end.
Maurice got his first skates at four and later dominated the local school teams. He then went on to juvenile and junior hockey and played two injury filled years with the Canadiens top farm club. The goals came often too, when he wasn’t hurt. He suffered a broken left ankle in 1940 and a broken wrist the following year, as many doubted the durability of his five-foot-10, 180-pound frame.
He broke his ankle again 16 games into his first NHL season in 1942-43. General manager Tommy Gorman tried to trade the talented but apparently fragile young Richard who had already begun to earn the name Comet. Teammate Ray Getliffe called him the Rocket, a nickname that stuck.
It was a time of ups and downs for Richard. During his early run of injuries he married Lucille Norchat, the sister of a close friend, but was twice turned down for army duty because of hockey injuries. In 1943-44 Lucille gave birth to their first child, Huguette, a daughter, who weighed nine pounds. Richard asked coach Dick Irvin Sr. if he could change his number from 15 to nine in honor of his new daughter.
Richard scored 32 goals in his first full season as the Canadiens jumped from fourth place to first for the first time in 19 years. Richard netted 12 more goals in the playoffs and the Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup since 1931. In one game of the Stanley Cup finals Richard scored all of Montreal’s goals in a 5-1 victory.
In 1944-45 Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games, including one when he carried Detroit defenseman Earl Siebert on his back from the blue-line and beat goaltender Harry Lumley.
The Canadiens won another Cup in 1946, and Richard was now a hockey sensation. He was a brilliant, effective goal scorer and could hold his own in fights against opponents sent out to intimidate him. Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe and other stars fought their own battles in those days and the Rocket was regularly penalized more than 100 minutes per season. “Once he was challenged, he’d lose it, he’d go nuts,” said Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette. What really drove Richard crazy was that the referees weren’t calling many of the slashes and grabs of his checkers. The league would often hand out harsher fines to the stars than the other players sent out to harass them.
From time to time Richard found himself on a collision course with league president Clarence Campbell. The first incident was during the 1947 playoffs, when Campbell suspended Richard one game and fined him $250 for stick-swinging incidents with the Leafs’ Vic Lynn and Bill Ezinicki. In Quebec, the penalties caused outrage. “In sports, star players are usually treated with respect... except if the star is French-Canadian,” wrote André Ruffiange in the "Front Ouvrier". He accused hockey’s authorities of trying to “end of the reign of a French-Canadian as king of the game of hockey” by suspending Richard.
In 1951, after Richard was thrown out of a game for complaining about a non-call, having his head rammed into the goalpost by an opponent. The Rocket got into a fight with referee Hugh McLean in a hotel lobby and was fined $500.
In the early 1950s, Richard was at the top of his game and of his popularity. People remember neighborhood rinks filled with young boys, all wearing red, white and blue Canadiens’ jerseys with Richard’s No. 9 sewn on the back. He had a newspaper column called “Tour de Chapeau” (Hat trick) in the weekly "Samedi-Dimanche" in which he pulled no punches. In 1953, Richard wrote a severe criticism of Campbell’s decision to ban teammate “Boom Boom” Geoffrion from games played in New York that season. Geoffrion had broken a Ranger player’s jaw with his stick after the Ranger had slashed him twice on the head. Richard called the suspension a “farce” and Campbell a “dictator”. Campbell called the column “an attack on my personal integrity and an attack on the office of the NHL president”.
Richard was convinced to write what biographer Jean-Marie Pellerin called “the most humiliating retraction in the history of North American sports.” That particular column was thought to have been written by Canadiens general manager Frank Selke.
Richard stopped writing the column and posted a $1,000 bond with the league, a gesture of goodwill against any further controversies. In his farewell column he said he “no longer had freedom of expression. As a hockey player, I must obey my employer’s orders. I won’t judge their decision. I leave it to my friends to judge for themselves.”
“How could one fail to understand the anger felt by French-Canadiens, who identified totally with Maurice Richard?” wrote Pellerin. “Once more, the English boot had sent us running.” Detroit coach Jack Adams said that Richard was becoming “too big for the league” and needed to be “put in his place.”
The big one happened on March 13, 1955. Richard had a two-point lead over teammate Jean Beliveau in the NHL scoring race and was in line to win his first Art Ross Trophy with three games left in the season. With 10 minutes left in the third period, the Rocket was slashed on the forehead by Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe, opening a deep gash. Richard was enraged. Richard chased Laycoe around the ice and punched him, then picked up a stick and smashed the Bruin twice on the back. When linesman Cliff Thompson tried to hold Richard from behind, the Rocket turned around and decked him with a punch.
On March 16, Campbell suspended Richard for the rest of the season and the playoffs, effectively ending Montreal’s chances for a Stanley Cup. Protestors began to arrive at the Montreal Forum the next morning, wondering if Campbell, who had received death threats, would attend that night’s game against Detroit. Campbell arrived 10 minutes into the game and took his usual seat.
At the end of the first period, one fan tried to slap the league president. Objects were thrown and scuffles broke out, then a tear gas canister was thrown near Campbell’s seat. The police cleared the building and the game was forfeited to Detroit. The spectators rushed out holding “Vive Richard” and “Down with Campbell” banners. Fires were lit; windows broken and cars were overturned as riot police faced a mob of thousands on St. Catherine Street. The riot made headlines across North America. Mayor Jean Drapeau blamed Campbell for the millions of dollars in damage and said Campbell’s presence at the game “was interpreted as a challenge.” Richard appealed for calm the next day and the incident was over, but never forgotten.
The next year, the Canadiens began a string of five consecutive Stanley Cups, a record that still stands. It was Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall who described Richard’s determination best. “What I remember most about the Rocket were his eyes,” Hall said. “When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying.”
Richard was injured for most of his last three seasons and had lost his blazing acceleration. He retired in 1960 holding 15 NHL scoring records. His regular-season records have since been surpassed but, he still owns or shares nine playoff records, including six career playoff overtime goals and 34 goals scored in the Stanley Cup final series. Richard remains the Montreal Canadiens career leader in regular season goals (544) and playoff goals (82), and collected a total of 1 091 points (626 goals, 465 assists) in 1,111 NHL games.
He had been a special ambassador for the Canadiens since 1980 and was a popular local figure. It was when the Forum closed in 1995 that Richard saw what he still meant to his fans. While passing a symbolic torch to Canadiens captain Pierre Turgeon to take to the new Molson Centre, Rocket received what was the longest standing ovation in the city’s history.
“He carried the flag for an entire population, and that’s pretty heavy,” said the Gazette’s Red Fisher. “He felt he had to live up to that responsibility and he did it the way he knew how—by scoring goals and responding to every challenge on the ice.”
Two years ago, The Canadiens outgoing president Ronald Corey pushed for the creation of a Maurice Richard Trophy for the league’s top goal-scorer. On June 25, 1998, the National Hockey League announced the creation of the Maurice Richard Trophy. The first recipient of the award was Teemu Selanne of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 1998-99.
Richard developed an inoperable form of cancer of the abdomen. He passed away in Montreal on May 27, 2000.