Black eye in hockey's history

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:26 AM ET

After the Maple Leafs traded Wendel Clark at the 1994 draft in Hartford, general manager Cliff Fletcher kidded Toronto reporters, asking if Maple Gardens was being stormed by angry fans.

Fletcher realized he had pulled the tiger's tail by dealing the fans' favourite son -- even if Mats Sundin turned out okay in the long run -- but he also knew that blue and white rage would be confined to call-in shows.

But 50 years ago today, during the infamous Rocket Richard riot, a segment of angry Montrealers and Quebecois could not deal with the loss of their hockey god, who had been suspended for the balance of the 1954-55 season.

Their reactions at the Montreal Forum in a game against the Detroit Red Wings forced the first forfeit of its kind in National Hockey League history, made NHL president Clarence Campbell flee for his safety and did considerable damage to the rink and Montreal's downtown core.

"The people were going crazy," Habs forward Dickie Moore recalled. "You never knew what they'd do next, maybe blow the place up."

More than $500,000 damage was done from broken windows and looted shops, but the fallout for Richard, the Canadiens, the league and French-English relations was worse.

"That was a disgraceful exhibition to a (sport) that fellows like myself have worked 38 years to build," Wings' manager Jack Adams told London, Ont.'s CFPL TV the next day as the Wings changed trains on their way home.

But to understand the fury of the fans that St. Patrick's Day, one has to remember the late Richard's place in Quebec society.

A native Montrealer, Maurice Richard became a local favourite as a teen star, rising through the Canadiens' minor-league system and scoring 90 goals in 46 games by the time he was 16. Ankle and wrist injuries slowed the right winger's NHL development until he was 21, but he seized the opportunity in 1943-44 as Montreal won its first Stanley Cup in 12 years. The following spring, he reached 50 goals in 50 games, a race against time that captivated the sporting world and made Quebecers burst with pride.

"He gave us all hope," author Roch Carrier, who wrote The Hockey Sweater, once said. "French Canadians are no longer to be condemned to be hewers of wood and drawers of water, to be servants, employees. We, too, are champions of the world."

With Richard, the rest of the Punch Line and defenceman Doug Harvey at the head of a powerful team, the Habs made the final 13 times before the Rocket retired. The dynamic Canadiens captured eight Cups during that span with the last five coming in a row.

Few pictures of Richard in action didn't show his eyes ablaze.

"When he scored, he just didn't put it in the net, he tried to put it right through the net," former Rangers' goalie Emile (The Cat) Francis told author Dick Irvin Jr. of Richard's 544 goals in 18 seasons.

But Richard's temper could be as menacing as his shot. His career was checkered with violent behaviour, even for a league that tolerated its stars playing on the edge. Naturally that didn't endear him to on-ice officials.

On March 13, 1955, Montreal was playing in Boston and Richard was high-sticked by Bruins' defenceman Hal Laycoe, coincidentally an old Hab and the Rocket's former tennis partner. Richard didn't really notice the gash at first, but seeing the blood enraged him and he took off after Laycoe. He clubbed the Bruin twice with his stick and punched linesman Cliff Thompson, who had tried to intervene.

Put on parole by Campbell after an earlier run-in with an official, Richard was kicked out for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs. He had been in contention with teammate Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion for what would have been his only NHL scoring title and worst of all, the Habs would be without their best player in their efforts to stop Gordie Howe and the Red Wings from a second consecutive Cup.

Richard told Irvin years later that he regretted hitting Thompson, but felt the official had mishandled the Laycoe incident. Thompson never worked another league game. Richard also felt railroaded at the hearing by Laycoe and referee Frank Udvari, both of whom didn't say "the right things" in Richard's opinion. There was no video in those days and in the differing version of events, Richard and his coach, Dick Irvin Sr., were out-numbered.

Future Toronto Sun columnist Jim Hunt was in the NHL's Montreal head office when Campbell's decision was announced and recalled the phone ringing off the hook with threats of bodily harm to the president. Montreal newspapers the next day seethed at the perceived injustice.

"I blame the papers for building (the crowd) up," the late Adams said the next day. "They're partly to blame for making a hero out of Richard. They say all idols have feet of clay, well, he has feet of mud. When one man thinks he's bigger than the game it's pretty near time to do something.

"If they placed Richard where he belongs and laid the trouble at his and (Irvin Sr.'s) feet, there wouldn't have been any trouble."

Campbell was urged by police not to attend the sold out March 17 game, as about 10,000 protesters gathered outside the Forum with signs and effigies of him. But as the boos rained down, Campbell bravely took his seat near rinkside, accompanied by a female guest.

Perhaps a Canadiens' win would've changed the atmosphere in the Forum that night, but the Wings rolled to a 4-1 lead and the situation quickly deteriorated. A tomato splattered on Campbell and his friend and one fan reached out as if to shake hands only to throw a punch.

A tear gas bomb was set off, forcing the evacuation of the building and a shaken Campbell awarded the game to Detroit.

"The only bad thing I feel sorry for is the (Montreal) club," Howe told CFPL. "It lets them down. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong, but if he had have been stepped on long ago, he might not have gone this far."

The recent finding of the CFPL tape by local audio/visual archivist Paul Patskou is notable as future interviews with the Wings on the topic were much more tame.

With the game over, the fans (Adams referred to them as "smart punks") began breaking windows at the Forum and moved east, causing havoc on the main Ste. Catherine thoroughfare. If they didn't have hard projectiles, they used buckshot of rain galoshes.

Both the Habs and Wings were kept in their dressing rooms as the riot raged. About 70 people were arrested.

"We couldn't hear much and it took us awhile to get out," Moore recalled.

"We always went out by the Atwater St. exit. We took a quick look on Ste. Catherine and knew something bad was happening. We decided to go to a restaurant, one of Rocket's favourites, in the North End. There were four to six of us having a quiet dinner as if it was a regular night."

But it took another full day for the fans' anger to burn out, helped by a public radio address by Richard on the 19th, pleading for calm.

The Habs still made the Cup final, losing to the Wings, but Richard never forgot the lost chance at the Art Ross Trophy and the defeat that prevented what would have been a six consecutive Cup for the Canadiens.

"Rocket never spoke about those things, but I know it hurt him," Moore said. "But the person who probably was affected by the Riot after him was Boom Boom. He won the scoring title that should have been Rocket's and he was booed in Montreal for a long time after."


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