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Rocket Richard hugs the Stanley Cup in 1960. (Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail)
Rocket Richard hugs the Stanley Cup in 1960. (Harry McLorinan/The Globe and Mail)

EXCERPT

Lives really lived: ‘just a hockey player’, a Supreme Court judge and a war hero Add to ...

In his short biography Maurice Richard, Charles Foran describes Richard as having the upper body of a logger, complete with barrel chest, broad shoulders, tree-trunk arms, thick hands, and permanently swollen knuckles. “He does not skate over the ice so much as impose himself upon it with each pressuring stride. His strokes are economical rather than elegant, commanded by force more than grace,” Foran writes, having watched Richard’s solitary skate in a 1975 cbc documentary. “Shoulders square and elbows at 90 degrees, chin up and gaze ahead . . . he manoeuvres the puck side to side on the blade of his stick with the ease of someone stirring milk into coffee.”

Even more often than documenting Richard’s glide, journalists and opposing players invariably commented upon Richard’s gaze, especially the ferocious stare in his “anthracite eyes” as he barrelled towards the opposing team’s goal. Over the years several opposing players described the effect.

“When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying,” said Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall.

In his memoir, Tales of an Athletic Supporter , Trent Frayne described Richard as the “most spectacular goal scorer who ever played hockey.”

Nobody “electrified onlookers the way the Rocket did, dashing from the blue line in. And nobody I’ve seen since had his hypnotic flair, either. When he was battling for the puck near the net, driving for it with guys clutching at him, you could actually see a glitter in his coal-black eyes, the look wild horses get.”

Roch Carrier used the same animal image. “He’s half wild horse, half well-disciplined soldier . . . with a face as rough as a stone in a Gaspe field and the piercing eyes of someone who has the gift of seeing things invisible to others,”

he wrote in Our Life with the Rocket: The Maurice Richard Story .

Richard’s eyes even became part of the homily delivered by the archbishop of Montreal, Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, at Richard’s funeral at Notre– Dame Basilica on May 31, 2000. “What a look! Such strength, such intensity in those eyes. Poets have said that the eyes are the mirror of the soul. All of Maurice was in his eyes. We will not forget that look,” the cardinal promised.

And so it has become.

But, for all his power and spell-casting, Richard was injury prone. Even before he showed up at training camp for the Canadiens in 1942, the year he married Lucille, he had suffered a broken ankle and a broken wrist. That season he fractured his leg in December, after only sixteen games. Canadiens general manager Tommy Gorman tried to trade him to the New York Rangers, but the American team scoffed at the deal.

Despite the conscription crisis at the outbreak of the Second World War and the nationalist Quebecois opposition to fighting for the British Crown, Richard wanted to enlist in the army and go overseas to fight the Germans.

He tried twice to join the combat forces, beginning in 1939, but was refused as unfit because X-rays showed his injuries hadn’t healed properly. Finally, in 1944, he applied as a machinist but was rejected because he had neither a high school diploma nor a technical trade certificate, even though he had been working at the trade in a local factory since he was sixteen. Frustrated but determined, he enrolled at the Montreal Technical School, but by the time he had earned his certificate, the war was over.

Instead of serving the war effort overseas, he kept the home spirits stoked by playing hockey. After Richard’s wife, Lucille, gave birth to their first child on October 23, 1943, he went to Canadiens coach Dick Irvin and asked if he could switch his number from fifteen to nine to commemorate the lusty birth weight of his daughter, Huguette. For Richard, the number became a talisman symbolizing his love for his baby and his wife and his need to express that emotion, not in words but on the ice, as he skated, stick-handled, and scored goals. Hockey, plus whatever jobs he could get in the off-season, combined later with endorsements and commercials for a variety of products – from hair dye to fishing tackle – were essential in supporting a wife and seven children. Despite his fame and his prowess, Richard never made more than $25,000 a season playing hockey.

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