When he passed away in May of 2000, Maurice Richard was given a state funeral, the first non-politician so honored. When the National Hockey League suspended him in 1955 it led to the largest sports inspired riot in the history of Canada. He was so good, that the Hockey Hall of Fame waived its five year requirement and inducted him into the Hall one year after he retired in following the 1959-1960 season. A true legend in the sport.
Born August 4th, 1921 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, he was the first of eight children to Onesime Richard and Alice Laramee. The family always struggled, but the Great Depression hit them extremely hard. Onesime lost his machinist job with the railroad in 1930, forcing the family to go on public assistance until he regained his job in 1936. Maurice obtained his first pair of skates at age four, and learned to skate and play hockey on the local frozen rivers and ponds. He did not play organized hockey until age 14. Driven by a competitive spirit, he dominated every youth league he participated in.
In order to compete as often as possible, he played under several different names on many different teams. Included was one amateur club, that he led to three consecutive championships, where he scored 133 of the teams 144 total goals. He quit school at 16 to join his father as a machinist, but continued to thrive on the ice.
In 1940 he was signed by the Montreal Senior Canadians, the top minor league team of the Montreal Canadians. He was hampered by injuries during his two year stint with the Senior Canadians. Despite the injuries, Montreal called him up to the big club in 1942. He broke an ankle 16 games into his rookie season and missed the remainder of the season.
He exploded onto the league the following year, scoring 32 goals for the “Habs”, as they won their first Stanley Cup Championship since 1931. It would be the first of 8 Stanley Cup Champions that Richard would be a key part of.
The 1944-45 season was one for the ages, skating with Hector “Toe” Blake and Elmer Lach, he anchored the iconic “Punch Line” and set a record that lasted nearly 40 years by scoring 50 goals in 50 games. Lach won the Hart Trophy that year (Awarded to the NHL Most Valuable Player), but due to his uncanny ability to accelerate on his skates, Richard earned his nickname he would be known as forever, “Rocket”.
Always with a short fuse, and extremely competitive, Richard ignited the ugliest incident in league history. Late in the 1954-55 season, with Richard on the verge of his first scoring title, an altercation broke out between Richard and the Boston Bruins’ Hal Laycoe. It culminated with Richard going after Laycoe with his stick. One of the linesman intervened to break up the fight and the “Rocket” also struck him with his stick.
The penalty dished out to Richard by NHL President Clarence Campbell was swift and severe. Richard was not only suspended for the rest of the regular season, but also for the playoffs. The Montreal fans were outraged. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1955 during a game at the Montreal Forum, the fans attacked President Campbell, who was attending the game. The violence soon engulfed the entire stadium, and then flowed out to the streets of Montreal. The incident, now known as the “Richard Riot” would become the ugliest sports riot in Canada’s history.
That season culminated in Montreal again advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals, but without Richard they failed to dethrone the reigning Stanley Cup Champions, the Detroit Red Wings. Led by Gordie Howe the Wings prevailed in a 7-game series.
That would be the last season that Maurice Richard would not end the season hoisting the Stanley Cup Trophy. They would win the next five NHL Titles, before injuries forced Richard out of the game following the 1959-60 season. The Canadiens would surrender the Stanley Cup to the Chicago Black Hawks the next season.
When he retired he held 20 NHL Records, including most career goals with 544 goals and 422 assists in 944 games. That’s averaging more than a point a game! He was a 14 time All-Star in his 18 years, finishing in the top three of the MVP vote six times, including capturing the Hart Trophy in 1947.
But his lasting legacy is his ability to step it up when it mattered most. He had 82 goals in his 15 years in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and his goals were game changing events. He scored 82 goals in his 132 playoff games, and many were crucial ones. In his career he scored six goals in overtime, and had another 18 that were game winners. He joins the likes of Bill Russell, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, and Otto Graham as one of the biggest winners in American team sports.
Richard was made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967. The honor, established by Queen Elizabeth II, recognizes “dedication to community, and service to the nation.” He was the face of the early Quebecois movement in his native Quebec.
When Maurice Richard died in 2000 he was given a state funeral, the first one ever authorized for a Canadian athlete. A lasting legacy to this fiery competitor who left his lasting mark on Canada’s National Game.
Before there was Wayne Gretzky, before there was Gordie Howe, it was Maurice Richards that was greatest to skate and shoot.