Maurice Richard-le Rocket, Montreal’s homegrown French-Canadian star from the city’s blue-collar Nouveau-Bordeaux neighborhood, the world’s greatest hockey player to that time — carries the puck in the Boston zone. Hal Laycoe steps in his way. The 12,023 fans brace themselves.
It’s March 13, 1955. The tension between the two rivals in the six-team NHL has been building inside the Boston Garden all night. This is their 14th and final meeting of the regular season, plenty of games to enflame the animosity between the two teams, but what’s about to happen is even more personal. Laycoe, the Bruins forward had nailed Richard in the first period. He served two minutes for charging. But the hit lit the fuse of Richard’s infamous temper.
In the second period, the Canadiens’ star tripped Laycoe and sent him spinning across the ice but escaped a penalty. Richard was further aggravated by the fact his team was losing 4-1.
So now, at 15:11 of the third period, when Laycoe confronts Richard, the crowd senses something bad about to happen — but it has no way of knowing how bad it is going to get.
Laycoe lunges at Richard. His stick blade clips the Rocket above the left ear and opens a gash. The blood stains his scalp.
Incensed, Richard swings his stick with two-fisted fury at Laycoe. He hits him with such force across the shoulders that his stick splinters. Laycoe sheds his gloves and rushes at Richard, who drops his gloves. The two thrash at one another with their fists.
Their teammates swarm about, clutching and shoving one another. Linesman Cliff Thompson grabs at Richard but he slips the official’s grip. Richard connects with an uppercut to Laycoe’s cheek.
Thompson manages to grab hold of Richard — the side of his face smeared with blood from Laycoe’s original strike — but cannot restrain his anger. Richard thinks Thompson, who once played for the Bruins himself, holds him so Laycoe can hit him.
He swivels and drops Thompson to the ice with a right to the face.
Then Richard snatches a stick from the ice and swings it wildly at Laycoe. He cuts him below the eye.
For five minutes, the tempest rages. The crowd, on its feet, cannot believe the madness before them. They’ve seen fights over the Garden’s past three decades in the days when players swung their sticks and fists more liberally, but nothing like this, nothing as determined and wild.
Once the officials finally subdue Richard and Laycoe, the referee, Frank Udvari, sends Laycoe to the penalty box with a five-minute major for drawing blood. When Laycoe throws a bloody towel at him, he adds 10 minutes.
The punishment is worse for Richard. Udvari kicks him out of the game. The Canadiens trainer guides him off the ice. Thompson skates behind them, to make sure he actually leaves and does not turn back to fight some more. Richard presses a towel to the gash on his scalp, which will take five stiches to close. He clutches a stick in his right hand.
The Garden crowd is angry. Boston police come to the locker room. They want to arrest Richard for assault, to throw him in jail for the night. Montreal coach Dick Irvin blocks the entry to the Canadiens’ dressing room.
Richard slumps in front of his locker. He refuses to talk to reporters who ask what happened, why the two fought, other than to say, “Ask Laycoe.” He tells them Richard started the fight by hitting him first with his stick. The Boston Record sums up the incident with a banner headline:
“RICHARD GOES INSANE”
And that was just the beginning.
You’ve never seen a hockey player like Maurice Richard. Not Crosby. Not Gretzky. Not Orr, Beliveau, Howe. None of them had the talent, the intensity, the will to take over a game like Richard. And none of them meant to their fans what le Rocket meant to Canadien fans.
He had started playing this game as a 4-year-old on the backyard rink his father Onésime, a machinist at the Canadian Pacific Railway, built for him. It was quickly apparent he could play in ways other boys could not. By the time he reached his teens, his skills were in such high demand he played as often as he could, sometimes four games in a weekend, using aliases to play for multiple teams, often against grown men. The oldest of eight children, he quit school at 16 to work with his father in the factory. He began playing junior hockey the following year.
In 1939, when war broke out in Europe, the 18-year-old Richard tried to enlist for active duty, but military doctors determined his wrists and ankle — already broken during hockey games — had not healed properly. He tried to enlist again the following year, but was again turned away. So he applied as a machinist but was ineligible even though he had been working as one for years because he had did not have a high school diploma. He began training at the Montreal Technical School to get a certificate that would allow him to serve, but the war ended before he completed the four-year course.
He married his teenage love, Lucille, in 1942, when he was 20 and she was 17, the same year he joined the Montreal Canadiens. He broke his ankle and was able to play in only 16 games. The critics thought he was fragile. The following season, 1943-44, he answered them with 32 goals and 22 assists. The one after that, he joined Elmer Lach and Toe Blake to form the “Punch Line,” a name that spoke as much to their toughness as their scoring prowess. Richard averaged a goal a game, playing in all 50 games, and the legend took root.
By 1955, Richard had scored more goals, 422, than anyone in the history of the NHL — 98 more than the next guy on the list. He had become the only player to score 50 goals in the 50-game season. He held the record for most goals in a playoff game, with five. Not only did he score often, he scored meaningful goals, when his team needed them the most, the game-winners in a record eight playoff games and more than 60 regular-season games.
At times, he appeared superhuman. Like that night in December 1944 when he showed up at the Forum exhausted from moving furniture all day into his family’s new apartment — then scored five goals and added three assists, setting the NHL record for most points in a single game.
Photo: Robert Riger/Getty Images
Richard stood 5’10, 180 pounds, with the fists of a former boxer, but his most distinguishing physical feature was his eyes, dark, focused, under a heavy brow. “When he’s worked up, his eyes gleam like headlights,” said Frank Selke, then the Canadiens general manager, to Sports Illustrated in 1960. “Not a glow, but a piercing intensity.”
The late Earl Seibert once learned about that intensity. The Detroit defenseman threw himself at Richard during a game in the 1945-46 season as Richard brought the puck into the Red Wings’ zone. Richard lowered his head and neck to buttress himself for the collision then straightened, with Seibert, draped atop his back. Richard carried the 200-pound defenseman to the net, deked the goaltender with one hand on his stick and flipped the puck into the far corner of the net.
Le Rocket accelerated quickly on his skates and the left-handed right wing had a backhand as sharp as his forehand, but at times, it seemed he could determine the fate of a game simply by his will. In the 1952 semifinals against the Bruins, Richard left the ice early in the third period to have a deep gash over his left eye bandaged. He returned late in the period, the game tied 1-1. With blood still spilling down his cheek, he took the puck at his own blue line and headed up ice.
“You knew — everybody knew — that the game was over right then,” recalls Frank Selke Jr., the son of the former Canadiens’ GM.
Sure enough, Richard slipped a forechecker, raced down the side, stiff-armed the defenseman while cradling the puck with one hand on his stick. Pinned against the boards in the corner by the other defenseman, he broke free, skated across the crease, lured the goalie out of the net then whipped the puck past him to put the Habs into the Stanley Cup finals. A Richard goal inspired a celebration in the home of the bleu-blanc-et-rouge like no other. “The singular and sudden pandemonium that shatters the Forum, like thunder and lightning” was “many decibels above in volume” the applause for any other goal, Herbert Warren Wind wrote in Sports Illustrated. “There is no sound quite like it in the whole world of sport.”
Image courtesy the Collection of Richard A. Johnson
For Richard was one of theirs. He was Ree-char-NOT Rih-shard — born and raised, a Catholic French-Canadian in a Catholic French-Canadian city in the heart of a Catholic French-Canadian province. His amazing and meaningful goals for the home team playing the national obsession elevated him to an incomparable status.
People tripped over the hyperbole to explain what Maurice Richard meant to French-Canadians:
“The Babe Ruth of hockey,” Wind wrote.
“He is more important than the cardinal or [Quebec Premier Maurice] Duplessis,” one fan told Sports Illustrated’s Gil Rogin.
“Hockey in Canada was bigger than the church, and Rocket Richard was bigger than the Pope,” reflected Red Storey later.
“He is God,” Frank Selke Sr. once said bluntly.
It was the time of la Grande Noirceur (the Great Darkness), when French-Canadians felt confined in their home province both by their language and ethnicity, the last vestige of New France. They outnumbered the English-speaking Canadians — three to one in Montreal — but the majority lived as second-class citizens. In the 1950s, the Anglos controlled the wealth, ruled society and enforced the laws. A disproportionate number of French-Canadians lived in poverty. Only 13 percent finished high school, compared to 36 percent for English-Canadians. Many deplored the gloom of the imperialistic atmosphere that spread from Westmount, Montreal’s affluent Anglo enclave on the southwest slope of Mount Royal, where its citizens symbolically looked down on the city below them. Within that context, every goal their guy scored was a victory for the little guy, a rebellion against a kind of colonial imperialism, a reordering of the social order that set things right … at least for a night.
And so at le Forum, they cheered him with decibel-defying abandon. Goals were not just goals. Brian McKenna asserted in his documentary “Fire and Ice,” “Richard became the archangel of French Canada, avenging humiliation.”
Yet Richard had a dark side. His intensity sometimes provoked violence. His tantrums had become as legendary as his goals.
In an era when the game was more violent than today’s version, when players did not wear helmets or mouth guards and when they jousted more frequently with their sticks, Richard still exceeded the acceptable standards. On one occasion he knocked out New York Rangers’ tough guy Bob “Killer” Dill twice in the same game. In 1947, he broke his stick over the head of another Ranger, Bill Juzda. A month later, he clubbed the Maple Leafs’ Bill Ezinicki in the Stanley Cup finals. Opponents frequently antagonized Richard because they could count on him retaliating and they would rather see him in the penalty box than on the ice. By 1955, he had become one of the game’s most penalized players. During 18 seasons total, he was assessed 1,285 minutes in penalties.
But the Rocket did not reserve his wrath only for other players; he struck out at anyone who crossed him, including officials. In 1951, a Detroit player knocked Richard to the ice with a wrestling move but the referee, Hugh McLean, did not whistle a penalty. Richard got in McLean’s face. The referee slapped him with a misconduct penalty for his profanity. The next day, when Richard spotted McLean in the hotel lobby, he grabbed the referee by the throat, but his teammates managed to pull him away before he could harm McLean. In late December 1954, just two and a half months before Richard broke his stick over Laycoe and decked linesman Cliff Thompson, he slapped another linesman, George Hayes, who had come between Richard and a Toronto player he was fighting. Richard had also struck that player, “Bashin’” Bob Bailey, in the face with his stick.
Photo: Bruce Bennett
“Bailey tried to gouge his [Richard’s] eyes out,” Red Storey, who refereed that game, later told a reporter, “Rocket just went berserk.”
Richard knew his temper meant trouble but felt defenseless against it. “When I’m hit, I get mad and I don’t know what I do,” he confided in one writer. “Before each game, I think about my temper and how I should control it, but as soon as I get on the ice I forget all that.”
He perceived an ethnic dimension to the abuse he — and his French-Canadian teammates — endured. Opponents slung ethnic slurs — frog, French pea soup, dirty French bastard — their way as frequently as they tripped, slashed and hooked them. Richard felt the need to protect himself because, he claimed, the officials would not. The inequity seemed to play out in calls against the French-Canadians or no-calls against opponents, perhaps most egregiously in 1953 when, within the space of several weeks, opponents sidelined Canadiens’ rookie star Jean Béliveau, first with a slash that broke a bone in his foot then with a shove that busted his cheekbone against the goalpost.
Neither play elicited a penalty call from the referees. So Richard, sensing the lack of fairness in Canadian society at play on the ice, often dispensed his own vigilante justice, as he had done with Laycoe and Thompson.
This time he would receive no sympathy from Clarence Campbell, the hard-nosed president of the NHL who had already made Richard the most-fined player in the league. His interpretation of events and subsequent sentence would expose the nation’s ethnic enmity.
Campbell did not witness the Boston melee. That night he was on a train from his NHL headquarters in Montreal to New York for a meeting with the league’s board of governors.
Campbell was of Scottish descent, born in Saskatchewan in 1905. He earned a law degree at the University of Alberta and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, where he played for the university hockey team. He later refereed in the NHL and once swore at a player who then punched him. During World War II, Campbell enlisted in the Canadian Forces, served in Europe and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After the war, he helped prosecute Nazis for crimes against humanity.
Now in his ninth year as NHL president, Campbell had a history with Richard. There existed an indigenous antipathy between the two men, the one Anglo-Canadian, the other French-Canadian, exacerbated by Quebec’s resistance to mandatory conscription during World War II, something that incited scorn from the majority of Anglo-Canadians who supported it. Lt. Col. Campbell considered Richard a slacker for playing hockey during the war, despite Richard’s efforts to join up.
Richard’s temper had already drawn Campbell’s censure. After Richard clubbed Ezinicki in 1947, Campbell fined the Habs’ star $250 and suspended him for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, a loss. Four years later, he fined Richard a record $500 for attacking McLean in the hotel lobby. And just a little more than two months earlier, the president had fined Richard $250 for slapping the linesman Hayes with his glove.
Photo: Bruce Bennett
“Freedom of speech is no longer mine to enjoy. As a hockey player, I am obliged to obey my employer’s orders.”—Maurice Richard
Richard had further marred their relationship with his criticism of the president’s ruling on a fight between his French-Canadian teammate Bernie Geoffrion and the Rangers’ Ron Murphy. On Dec. 20, 1953, during a particularly rough game, a donnybrook broke out along the sideboards with players shoving each other and sticks flailing about their heads. While a linesman held onto Geoffrion, Murphy clipped Geoffrion in the scalp with his stick, cutting him. Geoffrion then picked up a stick and whacked Murphy across the head with a two-handed swing, breaking his jaw and knocking him unconscious.
Campbell, noting that Murphy had provoked the incident and committed the “cardinal sin” of using his stick to strike an opponent without one, suspended him five games. But he suspended Geoffrion for his “vicious retaliation” for eight games — the longest suspension for an on-ice infraction in the league’s history to that point.
In his regular newspaper column, Tour de Chapeau (Hat Trick) in the weekly French-language newspaper Samedi-Dimanche, Richard accused Campbell of being partial against the Canadiens and enacting ethnic injustice: “What did Campbell do when Jean Béliveau was deliberately injured twice by players from Chicago and New York? No penalty, no fine, no suspension. Did he suspend Gordie Howe of Detroit when he almost knocked out Dollard St. Laurent’s eye two years ago? No!” Richard called the decision against Geoffrion a “farce” and wrote that the “dictator” should “not try to create publicity at the expense of a good fellow like ‘Boom Boom’ Geoffrion just because he is a French-Canadian.”
Campbell, understandably, did not like being upbraided publicly by a player. Richard sent an apology letter, which read as if drafted by a lawyer, but complained two days later in what would be his last column for Samedi-Dimanche. “Freedom of speech is no longer mine to enjoy,” he wrote bitterly. “As a hockey player, I am obliged to obey my employer’s orders.” The implication, as a French-Canadian forced to buckle to his Anglo overseers, was clear.
When Campbell’s train arrived at Grand Central Station, he read The New York Times’ account of Richard’s fight with Laycoe and Thompson. The path was clear. He knew it would require severe action.
No doubt, he discussed the issue with the board of governors later that day, either formally or informally. The NHL refuses to make minutes from that meeting — or any league meeting — public, even today. Quite likely, owners such as Conn Smythe of the Maple Leafs, who despised Richard, leaned on Campbell to be unsparing in his discipline. The Canadiens’ star had gotten too big, they feared, believing he was above reproach. Campbell, sometimes considered the owners’ puppet, certainly would have taken to heart their directives.
He called for a hearing with the players, coaches and officials on March 16 back in his Montreal office. He would then decide Richard’s fate.
Back in Montreal the morning after the Bruins’ game, Richard showed up for practice despite a headache and upset stomach, likely suffering from a concussion. The team doctor sent him to the hospital for X-rays and other tests. Richard stayed overnight but left the next day to attend the hearing at the Sun Life Building.
As each man arrived, they squeezed past reporters and cameras and radio equipment to meet behind closed doors. Laycoe was there, with cuts on his face and a patch above his left eye. So was Thompson, his shiner evidence against Richard. Dick Irvin and Ken Reardon from the Canadiens attended, along with Bruins’ general manager Lynn Patrick, referee Frank Udvari, linesman Sam Babcock and Carl Voss, referee-in-chief.
According to Irvin’s son, his father insisted until his death that the officials altered the facts in their account to please Campbell. Irvin defended Richard, saying he was dazed and did not realize what he was doing, that he mistook Thompson, the linesman, for a Bruin.
Campbell dismissed that idea. The Bruins wore white and at the time, linesmen wore orange. Richard remained silent during the meeting conducted in English, his second language.
When asked to comment, he said, “I don’t remember what happened.”
After three and a half hours, Campbell dismissed them all. Reardon maintained the hearing was all a sham, that Campbell had already told the governors his plan to suspend Richard. At least two of Richard’s teammates and legions of fans believed this conspiracy theory.
Richard returned to the hospital. Campbell ordered a ham sandwich on brown bread and began writing his 1,200-word decision. The city of Montreal waited in suspense for his verdict.
They heard from Campbell as dusk descended, the news spread over the radio and on television. In Campbell’s summary of events, Richard attacked Laycoe with three different sticks, all after Laycoe had dropped his stick and gloves, ready to fight with his fists. This rendered Richard guilty of the “cardinal sin” of attacking with his stick a defenseless opponent, the act Campbell had earlier decried in his Murphy-Geoffrion decision. He also cited Richard’s past offenses, including the recent slap of a linesman, and concluded: “Whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or willful defiance doesn’t matter. It’s a type of conduct that cannot be tolerated.” He suspended Richard for the final three games of the regular season and the entire playoffs.
There were those who thought Richard had it coming. The Toronto Star described the Rocket as “a chronic blow-top and a habitual offender.” Smythe said he was “with the president 100 percent and will back him to the limit.”
But Campbell also aroused generous criticism. Jack Kinsella, writing in The Ottawa Citizen, called Campbell’s decision “sheer stupidity.” Baz O’Meara in The Montreal Star considered the decision “tough and unexpectedly severe.” Even columnist Dave Egan of the Boston Record, defended Richard and pointed out that Laycoe “was no angel,” going so far to suggest that since Laycoe knew “Richard erupts like Vesuvius” his provocation “should be considered an accessory before the fact.”
Photo: Pictorial Parade
“No sports decision ever hit the Montreal public with such impact. It seemed to strike at the very heart and soul of the city”
The suspension seemed especially harsh because of its likely consequences. At the time, Richard led the league in points. Despite leading the league four times already in goals, he had never won the Ross Trophy as its season points leader, an honor he coveted and one his fans deeply wanted to see him win. Here with only three games remaining in the season, 38 goals and 36 assists for 74 points, two points ahead of his teammate Geoffrion, the trophy was, finally within his grasp, yet Campbell would snatch it from him. Then there was the impact on his team. The Habs had the same number of points as the Red Wings, but at 40-17-11, held first place in the six-team league by virtue of having played one less game. Without Richard, they might lose their lead and with it home-ice advantage for the playoffs, which could, ultimately, cost them the Stanley Cup.
The people of Montreal took Campbell’s punishment personally. A French-Canadian in the offices at The Montreal Gazette wept openly. A city bus driver was so distraught by the ruling he missed a flashing railway signal and almost killed his passengers. “No sports decision ever hit the Montreal public with such impact. It seemed to strike at the very heart and soul of the city,” Sidney Katz observed in Maclean’s.
At first, they vented their frustration over the phone lines. So many called the newspapers’ sports departments to express outrage that some reporters could not concentrate in the din. They jammed the telephones at the radio stations complaining about the punishment. And they flooded NHL headquarters with nasty comments, including death threats. One man told the president’s secretary, “Tell Campbell I’m an undertaker and he’ll be needing me in a few days.”
In a letter to Campbell, one person called out the ethnic prejudice seemingly tainting the NHL president’s judgment: “If Richard’s name was Richardson you would have given a different verdict.”
That statement laid bare the sentiment many suspected behind Campbell’s decision. Campbell, the imperialist dictator headquartered in their city, came to embody the Anglo elite, every Anglo boss who had wronged a Franco worker, every Anglo landlord who had ousted a Franco tenant and every Anglo employer who had not given them a fair shake. Not surprising, then, that a French paper published a cartoon of Campbell’s bloody head on a platter with the caption, “This is how we would like to see him.”
With the mood of the city so stirred against the league president, that evening’s game against the Red Wings portended trouble.
Postwar, there had already been several shots fired at Anglo dominance. In 1948, a group of Quebec artists had signed le Refus Global, a manifesto that rejected the social and artistic norms, taking particular aim at the Roman Catholic Church, guardian of the status quo. The following year, workers — most of them French-Canadian — in the American-owned asbestos mines based in Asbestos, Quebec, walked off the job, demanding better working conditions and higher pay. Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis sided with management but during the four-month strike, the workers won the sympathy of the media and the majority of the Quebec population, including the archbishop of Montreal — a major shift in allegiance for the Church, which had traditionally supported the elite.
There was an anti-colonial zeitgeist afoot in Quebec at the time Campbell suspended Richard, crystalized in the Montreal hotel being built by Canadian National Railway magnate Donald Gordon, who christened it the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, after Britain’s new teenage monarch. That offended many French-Canadians who saw British imperialism as the source of their subjugation, the force that had impoverished and oppressed them, excluded them from the social network, reduced their economic and educational opportunities and shoved them to the fringe of the broader culture. They proposed the new hotel be called le Chateau Maissoneuve after the French-born founder of Montreal. But in the weeks before Richard’s suspension, Gordon had declared he would stand firm with the Queen Elizabeth Hotel.
Announcers on Montreal radio stations urged those upset by Campbell’s decision to make their feelings known. Many answered what they considered a call to arms, heading down to le Forum, the city’s emotional if not physical center. It was St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday even in Montreal, whose city flag includes a shamrock in its lower-right corner and where the day has been celebrated by an annual parade since 1824, the longest continuous such celebration in North America.
But on this evening, on the streets outside the Forum, the crowd is in no mood for a celebration. Hundreds of men throng outside the arena before the game. There are no women, only men, many of them young-to-late teens, 20s, angry. Some voice their frustration with homemade signs: “Injustice au Canada Français,” “Stupid Puppet Campbell,” “Richard le persecute.” They chant, “A bas Campbell” and “Vive Richard.” A figure in a Canadiens jersey with the oversized head of a mascot bludgeons a porcine effigy of Campbell over the head with a stick.
Montreal’s finest link arms to hold back the protestors in front of the main entrance of the Forum at St. Catherine Street and Atwater Avenue. A television reporter says, “The police seem to have things well in hand.”
Inside, hundreds had snatched the standing room spots that the Forum made available on game day. Some of them, like the Robinson brothers, Guy, Robert and André, smuggled in a bag of ripe tomatoes. Another group, five men from Édouard Latreille’s auto repair shop in East-Central Montreal, armed themselves with something more sinister, prepared to avenge Campbell’s affront to all of French-Canada. An uneasy anticipation edged the atmosphere.
Lacking their leader, Richard, Montreal quickly fell behind 2-0, and the Habs’ faithful felt their team’s slim lead in the standings threatened. Richard watched helplessly in street clothes from behind the net at the south end of the rink. He had walked into the building almost invisible without his No. 9 sweater.
Then Campbell arrived. Very visibly. Six minutes into the game, he walked up to his seat with Phyllis King, his secretary and fiancée, who had fielded the angry calls to his office earlier that day.
Prudence suggested that he not show up at the Forum at all, that he not expose himself to the hostility of his critics, to provoke an already volatile situation, even if he was a season ticket-holder, president of the league and a Montreal resident himself. Yet if he did not go, he feared people would see him as a coward, his own pride trumping common sense.
The spectacle unleashed the crowd’s vexation. Even before Campbell could sit, they began shouting insults and throwing objects his way. The police were primarily occupied with the crowd outside, having underestimated the furor of their turnout. That left Campbell on his own, exposed.
The barrage continued. Peanuts, tomatoes, galoshes, crumpled newspapers, programs. A hardboiled egg bounced off Campbell’s hat. An orange nailed him in the back. A rubber overshoe jostled Ms. King’s headwear. Missiles thrown by those with inferior aim struck patrons seated near the couple. They asked Campbell to move. Others chanted loudly, “Shoo Campbell … Va-t’en, Va-t’en.” He remained steadfast in his seat, even smiled.
Photo: Pictorial Parade
Richard glanced occasionally behind him. “This is a disgrace,” he said.
Elmer Ferguson, there on assignment for The Hockey News, watched the president from the press box and reflected a common opinion among other Anglo-Canadians. “You may not agree with his judgment, but you can’t but admire the superb courage of Clarence Campbell, a man who faced death throughout World War II, to whom the heckling and the minor missiles and the torrents of verbal abuse ranging from stupid to obscene hurled his way bounced like thistle-down off one who had faced shells and shrapnel,” Ferguson later gushed. “On physical injury, he took his chances, came through a gentleman, whom you couldn’t help but admire.”
But Ferguson’s was definitely the minority opinion inside the Forum. The crowd grew more disenchanted and upset with two more Detroit goals, and the period ended with the Red Wings up, 4-1.
No longer distracted by their team’s losing effort on the ice, disgruntled patrons turned their attention to Campbell, and the deluge in his direction intensified. André Robinson, emboldened by gin, approached Campbell and squashed his last tomato against the president’s chest. Two policemen hustled Robinson away while Campbell stood and shook his jacket. Another man talked his way through the cordon of ushers and walked up to Campbell with his hand outstretched. Campbell hesitated, then reached to shake the man’s hand. The man slapped him. Campbell pushed the man away with his foot. Jimmy Orlando, a former Red Wing seated nearby, collared the man and dragged him away.
Forty-five, maybe 60 seconds later — at 9:11 p.m. — the bomb exploded. Twenty-five feet to Campbell’s left, a canister of tear gas detonated by Latreille’s group from the auto repair shop. The acrid smoke in the building gnawed the throats and scorched the eyes of those nearby. Suddenly, fear gripped the crowd. What next?
People began moving for the exits. Not so much in panic as an urgent retreat, seeking clear air. Campbell led his date down the stairs. She shielded her head with her hand. They found refuge in the trainer’s clinic underneath the stands.
The Montreal fire chief halted the game. Campbell declared a forfeit in the Red Wings’ favor, the league’s first-ever such ruling. With the loss, Montreal fell to second place, behind Detroit. The humiliation was devastating.
The Forum’s 15,000-plus fans spilled onto streets already clogged with protestors, whose number had swollen into the thousands during the first period. Some headed to neighborhood bars and restaurants, already crowded with holiday crowds. Others simply went home — they would not make the news.
But many stayed in the streets, where first, a spontaneous celebration broke out. A pair of young men perched in a tree’s branches to observe the scene. People disembarked the streetcars that couldn’t push through and joined the party, lighting bonfires, dancing and singing — what else to do on the night of St. Patrick’s when you unexpectedly find yourself with a large crowd of fellow Habs fans?
But not everyone felt love. Many exited the Forum angered by what they had seen in their team’s poor play, the president’s arrogant entrance, the explosion and the enforced forfeit. Their ire further riled the protestors outside. The revelry turned incendiary. A dozen or so young men tried to batter their way into the building and tore a door off its hinges before the police turned them away. Young men hurled chunks of ice at the large expanse of windows fronting the Forum. Pockets chanted, “Kill Campbell!”
Radio station CKVL broadcast live reports of the mayhem. That attracted others down to the action. By 11 p.m., police estimated the crowd had increased to 10,000 or more, and a virulent mood had vanquished the party atmosphere.
The men overwhelmed law and order. They pulled down road signs. They smashed windows of the congested streetcars. They toppled telephone booths and lit newspaper kiosks on fire. They heaved bricks from a nearby construction site through the Forum windows. When one young man was arrested and taken into a police car, the protestors began rocking the car, and the police officer feared they would flip it. He told his driver, “When both back wheels touch the ground, gun it!”
The police called for reinforcements. Each came armed with a nightstick and revolver. One squad car was stocked with tear-gas bombs. Fire fighters had a hose set up to turn on the crowd. But the police chief feared the use of force would only incite more violence. They arrested the offenders they could catch. By midnight, his men managed to herd the crowd away from the Forum.
The mob — for by now it had become a mob — headed eastward down St. Catherine Street’s shopping district. They shattered display windows and carried away what they could. They crashed windows of banks and the post office. They terrified patrons of a restaurant and bar with the objects they flung through windows. They pulled cabbies from their taxis and beat them. Twelve policemen and 25 civilians suffered injuries. The police arrested 62 marauders, though many more get away, of course. The damage estimates ran into the tens of thousands of dollars. By about 3 a.m., the mob had spent itself and emptied the streets.
“For 15 blocks they left in their path a swath of destruction,” Katz wrote in Maclean’s. “It looked like the aftermath of a wartime blitz in London.”
Photo:H. William Tetlow/Getty Images
The riot occupied front pages throughout Canada and the United States the next morning. Dink Carroll began his Montreal Gazette column, “I am ashamed of my city.” He seemed to speak for the majority of Montrealers. “This is not who we are.”
French papers blamed Campbell for provoking the violence. Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau also placed responsibility on Campbell. “He should have known that his presence at the game would have spurred some sort of protest or reaction,” Drapeau told the Ottawa Citizen.
Campbell, who had quietly left the Forum by a back entrance with a police escort shortly after 11 p.m., retorted in a televised statement, “What a strange and sorry commentary from the chief magistrate of our city who was sworn to uphold the law and as senior officer of the civic administration is responsible for the protection of the persons and property of the citizens through our police force.”
Detroit coach Jack Adams fingered the Canadiens’ brass. “If they hadn’t pampered Maurice Richard, built him up as a hero until he felt he was bigger than hockey itself, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Some, though certainly not all, English-speaking writers, such as Ted Reeve of The Ottawa Citizen, exonerated Campbell for doing “his duty as he saw it and in the good heart of him, turned up at the match, full square, and faced the affronts of the half-wits, as a gentleman should … a big salute to the president.” Reeve held Richard himself responsible: “Why should Richard, for whom the game is made to order, take tantrums like a spoiled child and incite a lot of crack-pots such as the tear-gas bomb thrower at the Forum and the fools who broke windows and took after streetcars last night in Montreal?”
There was a widespread effort from editorial writers to the judge who heard the cases of those arrested that night, to pass off the riot as the work of “hoodlums.” As though the good people of Montreal wanted to assure themselves, That was not us behaving in that shameful manner.
But it was not that simple. Something momentous had happened that shook the natural order and would not allow Montreal to return to the way things once stood.
Authorities feared a sequel to Thursday night’s rampage at Saturday’s game against the Rangers. The police took “emergency measures” in advance to prevent that. The Montreal Gazette declared, “‘Martial Law’ to Rule at Game.” Police Chief Tom Leggett banned parades and gatherings near the Forum. He appointed plainclothes officers to on the lookout for “persons carrying offensive weapons.” Forum officials agreed not to sell standing room tickets and to outlaw placards and effigies like those that had animated Thursday night’s protest. Mayor Drapeau implored Campbell not to attend the game. Rather than consent, the NHL president said he would defer to Forum officials.
The authorities also appealed to the one man they thought could squelch further violence. Maurice Richard had slipped out of Forum a little before Campbell and had followed the riot on the radio at his home. The events had troubled him, especially to think they may have been done in his name.
At first, he did not want to comment publicly, but by Friday evening, he had changed his mind, understanding he might be able to help. At 7 p.m., he addressed the people of Montreal over the radio, first in French, then repeated himself in English, from Selke’s office:
“Because I always try so hard to win and had my troubles in Boston, I was suspended. At playoff time, it hurts not to be in the game with the boys. However, I want to do what is good for the people of Montreal and the team. So that no further harm will be done, I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and to help the boys win from the Rangers and Detroit. I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and younger players to win the Cup.”
His words had a palliative effect. The next night nobody threw galoshes, nobody broke any more windows, nobody stopped streetcars. Campbell stayed away, and the Canadiens won. But Richard’s punishment still played out as expected. He lost the scoring title to Geoffrion and its $1,000 prize. The Canadiens fell out of first place without Richard and, despite beating the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, without Richard, fell to Detroit in a seven-game Stanley Cup finals seemingly determined by home-ice advantage, with all seven games won by the home team. That cost Richard and his teammates not only the Cup, but another $1,000 each.
Good to his word, though, Richard returned the next season to lead the Habs to the Stanley Cup championship, the first of five consecutive championships they would win before Richard retired in 1960 — a convincing vindication.
Photo: Transcendental Graphics
Four days after the riot, André Laurendeau, publisher of the leftist-leaning Le Devoir, wrote, “The crowd that proclaimed its anger last Thursday night was not simply animated by sporting tastes or the injustice committed against their idol. It was a frustrated people, protesting against their fate. Fate, Thursday, was called Mr. Campbell, but he incarnated all of the real or imagined adversaries that our little people encounter.”
That became a popular narrative. Novels, plays, folk songs, academic articles and movies followed that cast Richard as an ethnic martyr of sorts, a Saint Sebastian riddled with all the arrows of prejudice that Anglos had slung the way of the Québécois over the years, and the mob became the avenging embodiment of French-Canadian frustration striking out against the imperialists. Taken to the extreme, that line of thinking credits the Richard Riot, as it has become known, for initiating Quebec’s la Révolution tranquille (the Quiet Revolution), that period in the ‘60s of liberation for French-Canadians.
The protests did indeed contain seeds of revolution. André Robinson, the man who smooshed the tomato against Campbell’s chest, became a minor folk hero. Supporters sent him more than 50 letters, enough money to afford his legal fees and a gold watch.
But it’s too neat and easy to catalog the riot as a nationalist uprising. The majority of those gathered to protest, even those driven to throw garbage at Campbell, were most likely hockey fans upset by a ruling that hurt their team. A fraction of them were pushed over the edge to vent their anger in mob fashion when turned out into the street. Some were simply thugs who looted for their own personal interest. Not everyone upset with Campbell’s ruling or who participated in the events of that night were French-Canadian.
But for those who were, somewhere lurking within their motives — though how much so, to what degree is impossible to measure — was the sense of oppression, and Richard’s suspension became the catalyst to uncork years of repressed anger. From one day to the next, something changed forever.
On March 11, 1996, almost 31 years to the day after the Richard Riot, the Habs are leaving the Forum. They are moving a dozen blocks north to a new building with more seats, corporate boxes and a Jumbotron. But before they leave, moments after the Tricolore defeat the Dallas Stars in the last game played there, they honor the past in a special ceremony.
One by one, they introduce the men who have become legends here, who gave the building its history: Emile Bouchard, Jean Béliveau, Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur … and then, only one remains.
Before the emcee can finish listing his exploits, the cheers begin for the silver-haired man. Wearing his No. 9 home jersey, he walks out onto the red carpet spread over the ice.
He is heavier, older, his eyes softer, but still intense. Maurice Richard stands before them where he had performed so many of his amazing feats — his five-goal game in 1944; the single-handed goal against the Bruins in 1952; his 325th goal that made him the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer the following season — and raises his hand to gesture thank you and signal he is ready for them to be done. But they continue to cheer — to clap, to whistle, to holler — as though they don’t want to let go of this place and these men, these great men who had animated le Forum for them, especially this last one. They stay on their feet and continue to cheer. A full minute. Another minute. Another.
Le Rocket glances about in wonderment, shakes his head and dabs at his eyes. Rather than subsiding, the cheers gain momentum. Five minutes. The emcee tries to break in, “Mesdames et messieurs …” but they continue with their crescendo.
It is one of those moments when you realize you are part of something special, that this spontaneous moment is taking on a life of its own, and one of those moments that remind you sports can mean so much more than a game. He is giving them one final memory here in the Forum. The crowd begins to chant, “Ree-char, Ree-char!”
There is love in their applause, genuine affection, certainly gratitude for all of the memories, the good feeling he brought them with the goals and the victories and the Cups. And, there is more, not just admiration, not just respect, but reverence, from all those who see him as the symbol of their rebellion back in 1955, when the French-Canadians looked to him, and he became the incarnation of their cause.