The pot boiled over 13 March 1955 at Boston Garden when the first-place Montreal Canadiens had come to Beantown on an 11-game unbeaten streak and a 4-point lead over their fierce rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. Four games were left in the schedule. The most explosive and the most popular Canadien player in Quebec, as well as the biggest drawing card in the game, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was leading the NHL scoring race by 2 points over teammate Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion and 3 points over another teammate, Jean Beliveau. It was winding down to a 3-man battle.
With four minutes left to play in the game, the Habs were behind 4-1. In the midst of a Canadiens power play, Bruins defenseman Hal Laycoe (an ex-Canadien) high-sticked Richard to the head. Referee Frank Udvari caught the infraction but allowed the play to continue as a delayed penalty because the Canadiens still had the puck. In response, Montreal coach Dick Irvin sent an extra attacker over the boards. A few seconds later, the Bruins took possession and the whistle blew.
Play over, Richard, bleeding from a cut to his head, skated over to Laycoe. When the Bruins defenseman dropped his stick and gloves to fight, Richard then used his stick to whack Laycoe across the face and shoulders. Taking Richard’s stick away, linesman Cliff Thompson intervened to steer the furious Richard back. But that only made Richard all the more mad. He grabbed a teammate’s stick and skated back to Laycoe and broke it across the player’s chest. Thompson stepped in again, pulling the second stick away. This time Richard grabbed a third stick and shattered it over Laycoe’s back. Richard then knocked Thompson unconscious with 2 blows to the face. Calming down to a certain degree and taking a breath, Richard left the ice. He was handed a match penalty and an automatic $100 fine. Big deal, a hundred bucks. Laycoe received a 5-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct for his actions in the melee.
Boston police entered the scene and headed to the Canadiens dressing room to arrest Richard, but his teammates stood their ground at the entrance door. Escaping constabulary custody, the Rocket left for a nearby hospital where he received 5 stitches and complained of a severe headache along with stomach pains. This was the second time in the season that Richard had assaulted an on-ice official. In Toronto, the December before, he had slapped a linesman in the face after thrashing Leafs Bob Bailey with his stick. For that, he was fined $250. Another big deal. All parties this time around were ordered to report to NHL president Clarence Campbell at his Montreal office on Wednesday 16 March. Following the 13 March game in Boston, the other teams around the league began to pressure Campbell to finally deal with Richard and his fiery temper. The diddly-squat fines were a joke. They were always paid by someone else. It appeared the rest of the league had had enough.
At 10:30 on the 16th, Habs coach Dick Irvin and assistant GM Ken Reardon accompanied Richard to NHL Headquarters on the 6th floor of the Sun Life Building in Montreal. Also at the hearing were Hal Laycoe, Bruins coach-GM Lynn Patrick, NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss, plus the officials from the game 3 days earlier--referee Frank Udvari, and linesmen Cliff Thompson and Sammy Babcock. During the closed-door meeting, Campbell sat back and listened. Richard claimed he mistook Cliff Thompson for a Bruins player. After an intense 3 hours where the 3 sides had it out in the open, all were dismissed. For the next few hours that afternoon, Campbell considered Richard’s long list of past infractions before coming to a final decision…
In a 1947 Stanley Cup playoff game, Richard slashed 2 different Leaf players to the head in the same game. Four years later, he mugged a referee in the lobby of a New York hotel. Richard was probably still all geared up from the night before when he had hit a linesman with his stick, plus he had fought a Ranger while the 2 were in the penalty box. October 1951 at Maple Leaf Gardens, Richard swung his stick at a Leaf fan during the game, then at another Leaf fan after the game. A year later, he assaulted a policeman in Valleyfield, Quebec, following an exhibition game. And it doesn’t end there. In 1953, Richard slashed a New York Rangers player over the head, resulting in 8 stitches for the victim. It took President Campbell 3 hours to come to a final ruling on the 13 March matter. At 4:30 PM, he announced to the press that Richard would be suspended for the rest of the regular season and the entire playoffs. French-Canadians were livid, to say the least. Not only was the Stanley Cup in jeopardy, but so was Richard’s chance to win his first-ever Art Ross Trophy for most points. Up to the 1954-55 season, he had lead the league in goals 4 times, but had yet to take a scoring title. At 34 years of age in another month, he might never get another chance. And he never did, either.
As in life’s circumstances, there’s 2 sides to every story. In an interview before his death in 1997, Hal Laycoe told a Victoria, BC newspaper reporter that it was Richard who started all the trouble by “pitchforking” Laycoe to the face with his stick, which resulting in Laycoe retaliating with the high stick that resulted in the delayed penalty. Funny thing, the 2 players were teammates 5 years before. As Habs, they used to enjoy each other’s company and would play tennis together in the off-season.
The evening after the hearing, the Canadiens were scheduled to meet the Red Wings at the Montreal Forum. Campbell made it known that he would attend the game and sit in his customary spot. Mayor Jean Drapeau begged the league president not to go for fear of starting a riot. But Campbell really had no choice. No show, he would look like a coward. So, he went and a riot did start. In fact, all hell broke loose. First, he had everything thrown at him including the kitchen sink. Programs, tomatoes, drinks. One fan hit him before being ushered away. Then with the Wings up 4-1 near the end of the first period, a tear gas exploded about 10 yards from Campbell, spewing a cloud of smoke into the air. Everyone headed for the exits, including the NHL president. In the Forum clinic, Campbell came to 2 decisions. Clear the building, and forfeit the game to the visiting Red Wings.
Outside, on St. Catherine Street, an angry, blood-thirsty mob of about 10,000 gathered. In a scene similar to the 1993 Stanley Cup riot in Montreal and the more recent 2011 Vancouver hockey riot, hooligans smashed several Forum windows, turned streetcars over, looted stores, and set fire to a newsstand and several vehicles. Dozens were arrested by the time order was restored by local police after 3 AM. The unrest, of course, made front page world headlines.
Teammate Bernie Geoffrion passed the Rocket in points on the last game of the season--against the Red Wings in Detroit--and was booed by Montreal Forum fans after that. He finished with 75 points, Richard with 74 points, and Beliveau with 73 points. The Canadiens beat the Bruins in 5 games in the first round of the playoffs, but lost the final to the Red Wings in 7 games. Following the season, Montreal coach Dick Irvin--the one considered by many to rile up the Rocket far too often--was fired after 15 seasons at the helm. He was replaced by Toe Blake, a good friend and linemate of Richard’s in the 1940s on the Habs “Punch Line” with Elmer Lach. One of Blake’s jobs was now to tone the Rocket down. One way of doing that was making him team captain, which Richard assumed after the current captain, defenseman Butch Bouchard, retired one more season later in 1956.
The Montreal Canadiens went on to dominate the NHL by winning 5 straight Stanley Cups the season immediately after the riot, thus ending the 1950s decade very favorably for them. In the spring of 1960, that final season of the 5, they swept the opposition in the playoffs with 8 straight wins, the first team to do so since Gordie Howe’s Detroit Red Wings performed it for the first time in 1952. Not bad for Toe Blake’s first few NHL coaching years. It was reminiscent of Casey Stengel’s World Series wins his first 5 years managing the New York Yankees from 1949-1953. With a formidable killer power play during that mighty run, the Canadiens were too good. Under different power play rules then, it was a foregone conclusion they would score at least once and sometimes more when they had the man-advantage. The epitome was Jean Beliveau once scoring a Hat Trick on Bruins goalie Terry Sawchuk in under a minute. Something had to be done. So, the rest of the teams--led by Detroit GM Jack Adams--ganged up on Montreal to get the league to officially change the rules for the 1957-58 season to allow penalized players back on the ice once their team had been scored on.
The Canadiens were a powerhouse throughout the fabulous ‘50s, making it to the Stanley Cup finals 10 straight times, and winning 6 of them. Would they have won 6 straight had Richard not been suspended in 1955? Who knows. Perhaps. Richard retired in 1960, after the team’s 5th straight win. Lifetime, he had scored a then-record 544 regular season goals plus 421 assists for 965 points in 978 games; and another then-record 82 goals in addition to 44 assists for 126 points in 133 pressure-packed playoff games that always separated the men from the boys. Six of those goals were in sudden-death overtime. Only one person has scored more OT goals since…Joe Sakic with 8. In 18 seasons, Richard was a major part of 8 Stanley Cup winners. And, by the way, if you combine his 1,111 regular season and playoffs games, he collected a total of 1,473 minutes in penalties.
For the next 4 seasons that opened up the 1960s, the Habs finished first 3 times and third another time. Every time they were beaten in the first round of the playoffs. There was no heart and soul to the team anymore. I remember my hockey fan mother saying, “They miss the Rocket.” They did start winning again midway in the decade and got on another run of championships well into the 1970s, ending with Scotty Bowman taking the coaching reins and winning 4 in a row.
I had a chance to see Rocket Richard play on one occasion. In January or February 1970, I was an 18-year-old Junior B goalie for a Regina, Saskatchewan team. This one night, we played a game against the Regina Pats B team at Exhibition Stadium in Regina. After the game, my coach, Bill Folk, an ex-minor league hockey player who had once played 12 games for the Detroit Red Wings in the Original Six era, asked me if I would play goal so that he and several other Western Canada ex-pros could practice before they would be playing in another 2 days in the same rink. It was a game where the opposition would be the Montreal Canadiens Old-Timers, led by none other than Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. I was tired, but I said sure. I was all warmed up, anyway. Besides, Bill said they were short a goalie.
I had a lot of fun with these ex-NHL pros, most of them unsteady on their skates after years of inactivity. Lorne Davis, Dunc Fisher, Bob Turner, and Bill Moisenko, were 3 that I remember, along with my coach. For you hockey historians, Mosienko once scored 3 goals in 21 seconds, still in the books as the fastest Hat Trick ever. After the game, Turner sent the Pats team trainer out to retrieve 2 cases of beer for everybody. Over a couple bubbly Pilsners, I sat back and listened to the stories and the BS. It was great! When I was ready to leave, one of the players gave me a couple tickets for the upcoming game against the Habs Old-Timers. I suppose a reward for helping them out in the practice. So, of course, I went to the game. I can’t remember who I went with, though. Anyway, this was 10 years after the Rocket had retired. Gosh, he was still the Rocket in his late 40s and he thrilled the crowd and me. I can’t remember the actual outcome. But Montreal won and I do recall that Richard scored on a wicked backhand from the slot. That much I do remember. The packed house gave him a standing ovation. Everybody seemed happy, including the opposition.
The Rocket received an even bigger standing ovation—this time for a solid 16 minutes—during the ceremonies that closed the Montreal Forum down 11 March 1996. I remember seeing it on TV. Richard couldn’t keep back the tears. When he passed away in 2000, over 115,000 filed past his casket in the Molson Centre. His funeral mass at Montreal’s Notre Dame Basilica was carried live on 11 Quebec TV channels. It was a service befitting a statesman.
Ex-NHL referee Red Storey once said, “There’ll NEVER be another Rocket.” So true, Red.