The Rocket lit up hockey

Updated: May 12, 2004, 10:28 AM ET
By Ron Flatter | Special to ESPN.com

"We played for The Rocket because we knew he was the home-run hitter. He could put the puck in the net. And that's why they call him the Babe Ruth of hockey," says former teammate Dickie Moore about Maurice Richard on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Few athletes could fire up fans like Maurice Richard. Name another athlete who had a city riot after he was suspended.

In the days when the NHL was a proud six-team league,
Rocket Richard
Rocket Richard (left) was the first NHL player to score 50 goals in 50 games.
Richard was the game's deadliest goal scorer. With menacing eyes and a nasty streak, he tried to intimidate opponents. He backed up his attitude with blazing speed and a devastating shot.

Richard was the first to score 500 goals in a career as well as the first to record 50 in a season. Eight times the 5-foot-10, 170-pound right wing was first-team all-league and six times second-team. Although he never led the league in scoring, he was the leading goal scorer five times. His NHL record of six playoff overtime goals is testament to his ability in the clutch. Eight of his 18 seasons ended with him skating around the rink holding the Stanley Cup.

He was also a role model for French Canadians, who regarded him the way African-Americans would later regard Muhammad Ali - as a hero.

Richard received his nickname during World War II when teammate Ray Getliffe saw his blazing speed and said, "You went in there like a rocket." A sportswriter overheard the remark and "The Rocket" was born.

Joseph Henri Maurice Richard was born on Aug. 4, 1921, in Montreal. Even though he was studying to be a machinist at Montreal Technical School, Richard had but one goal: to play in the NHL.

But ankle and wrist fractures kept Richard off the ice as he was making the transition from junior hockey to the Canadiens' senior-league farm team. If it weren't for World War II, Richard might not have realized his dream at 21.

Teams were desperate for players who weren't in the military. Richard, who twice tried to enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces but was turned down due to ankle injuries, made the Canadiens in 1942.

His rookie season didn't last long, though, as he suffered a broken ankle in his 16th game. Despite his apparent brittleness, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin predicted, "Not only will he be a star, but he'll be the biggest star in hockey."

Even though he was a left-handed shooter, Richard was a right-wing attacker, and that made for a perfect fit with center Elmer Lach and left wing Toe Blake. In 1943-44, the three formed the famed "Punch Line."

After scoring only nine goals in the first 28 games, Richard notched 23 in his last 18. That was just a prelude to his breakout performance in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Toronto's Bob Davidson was assigned to shadow Richard. "He stayed so close to me [in Game 1] that I got angry," Richard said. "I remember going up to their goalie, Paul Bibeault, and telling him things would be different in the next game."

Were they ever. Richard scored twice in 17 seconds of the second period. He finished with three goals that period and five that night - to tie a playoff record - in the Canadiens' 5-1 victory.

With Richard scoring 12 goals in nine playoff games, Montreal defeated Toronto and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in 13 years.

"The Rocket" proved he was no fluke in 1944-45, his 50-goals-in-50-games season. He had 10 multi-goal games and notched No. 50 in the Canadiens' final game.

Along the way, he missed the morning skate on Dec. 28, 1944, to move furniture into a new home. After convincing Irvin to put him in the lineup, Richard scored five goals and had three assists for a then-NHL record eight points in a 9-1 win over Detroit.

In 1946, Richard helped Montreal win its second Cup in three seasons. The next year he led the NHL with 45 goals and won his only Hart Trophy as MVP.

As the forties ended and fifties began, the emergence of Detroit's Gordie Howe led many fans to debate who was better - Richard or Howe? Both right wings seemed energized by the rivalry.

Although injuries limited Richard to 48 games in the 1951-52 regular season, "The Rocket" fired off perhaps his most storied moment in the 1952 Stanley Cup semifinals. In the second period of Game 7, Richard was checked by Bruins forward Leo Labine and fell headfirst to the ice. A hushed Forum crowd watched as Richard lay unconscious.

He should have been done for the night. He wasn't. With four minutes left and the score tied, Richard, with a bandage covering six stitches, made one of his famous rink-length dashes. He skated around three Bruins before scoring the series-winning goal as the crowd gave him a four-minute standing ovation.

Individually, Richard continued to dominate. He broke Nels Stewart's NHL career record on Nov. 8, 1952 with his 325th goal and the Canadiens won another Cup that season.

But that victory was an exception. Detroit dominated from 1950-55. Montreal's Cup drought contributed to Richard's frustration, his anger and, eventually, a contagious rage.

On March 13, 1955 in Boston, Richard's head was cut by Hal Laycoe. Richard retaliated, going after his former teammate with his stick. Linesman Cliff Thompson grabbed Richard, the two fell to the ice, and Richard punched him twice in the face.

It was the second time Richard had hit an official that season. After a hearing three days later, league president Clarence Campbell acted in unprecedented fashion, suspending Richard for Montreal's last three regular-season games and the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

The next night, on St. Patrick's Day, Campbell attended the Canadiens' next home game, where he was assaulted and pelted by food. After the first period, a tear-gas bomb was thrown his way. The Forum was evacuated, and Campbell forfeited the game to Detroit.

"I still dream about it at night," Richard said years later.

What ensued became known as the "Richard Riot." As fans poured on to St. Catherine Street, hooligans turned to vandalism, breaking windows and looting businesses to the tune of $100,000 in damage. More than 60 people were arrested.

With more trouble expected the following night, Richard went on the air to broadcast a plea for calm. Although there was no further violence, the "Richard Riot" became a seminal moment in the Quebec independence movement. Many Quebecois still regard Campbell's suspension of Richard as an example of anti-French bias. Without Richard, Montreal lost to Detroit in a seven-game Stanley Cup final. It was the last time that Richard would not finish a season as a champion.

Convinced Irvin was contributing to Richard's belligerence, Montreal general manager Frank Selke fired him and hired Richard's former linemate, Blake, as coach. Richard and his teammates, including younger brother Henri, won five consecutive Cups, the only time this has been accomplished.

In his final three seasons, Richard was plagued by injuries. At 38, he scored his 82nd and last playoff goal in Game 3 of Montreal's four-game sweep of Toronto in the 1960 finals.

After retiring that September with 544 goals (still a Canadiens record), Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame less than a year later, one of the few to be enshrined without the mandatory five-year waiting period.

Richard was given a low-level public relations job with the Canadiens. Relations slowly crumbled between Richard and the owners (the Molson family). Finally, he quit in disgust because management wouldn't give him any hockey decision-making responsibility. The situation was so bad that Richard refused to drink Molson beer for years.

With new management, Richard patched up his differences in the 1990s and became a goodwill ambassador for the Canadiens.

In his later years, Richard's health deteriorated. He had Parkinson's syndrome and doctors suspected the onset of Alzheimer's. On May 27, 2000, Richard died in Montreal of respiratory failure after a three-year battle with abdominal cancer. "The Rocket" was 78.

ALSO SEE