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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 ...

Maurice “The Rocket” Richard

Hockey Player

August 4, 1921-May 27, 2000

Maurice “The Rocket” Richard always insisted that he was just a hockey player. No matter how heartfelt and accurate, those denials didn’t stop fans, politicians, team owners, and opportunists from appropriating his name and power for their personal, political, philosophical, and commercial goals. Even after he died of abdominal cancer on May 27, 2000, his state funeral – extremely rare for an athlete – threatened to become hijacked by politics. Should the coffin be draped with the fleur-de-lys flag, symbolizing the nationalist aspirations of Quebec, as Premier Lucien Bouchard wanted? Or should it be covered with the maple leaf of Canada, as Prime Minister Jean Chretien desired in that tempestuous era of national unity debates? Wisely, Richard’s family chose the apolitical route that the hockey legend himself had always tried to skate: they ordered a blanket of yellow roses, insisting that the final public ceremony be about the man, not other people’s expectations or ambitions.

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His career statistics are still staggering: He was the first player to score fifty goals in a fifty-game season and to amass a career total of five hundred goals, achieving 544 markers in regular play and 82 in the playoffs in his eighteen years skating with the Canadiens. He helped win the Stanley Cup eight times for Montreal, was captain for four winning years in a row between 1957 and 1960, and played in every annual nhl All-Star game from 1947 to 1959.

He was also the only hockey player to single-handedly spark a riot in the streets of Montreal, on March 17, 1955 – St. Patrick’s Day – after league president Clarence Campbell suspended him for the rest of the season after a violent altercation with a linesman four days earlier in Boston.

Why was it that Richard became more than just a hockey player in the hearts and imaginations of Canadians? Sure, Howie Morenz was already a star before Richard laced up his skates for les Canadiens in 1942, but Morenz was an anglophone from Ontario. The Rocket was the first French-Canadian hockey legend. He emerged as a jet-propelled scoring ace in the 1940s and early 1950s, when radio controlled the airwaves. An entire generation of Quebecois boys, including future teammates Jean Beliveau and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, grew up listening to the play-by-play, visualizing the Rocket tearing up the ice (and any defencemen) in his zigzag path as he roared from the blue line, eyes blazing, to slap a puck into the opposing team’s net.

One of those kids was Roch Carrier, the distinguished playwright and short-story writer ( La guerre, yes sir! and Floralie, où es-tu? among other titles), arts administrator, and author of the classic children’s book TheHockey Sweater . Born in May 1937, Carrier turned eight the year that Richard scored fifty goals in fifty games. In The Hockey Sweater he describes his adulation for Richard and his chagrin when his mother ordered him a new sweater from the Eaton’s catalogue and the retailer sent a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater by mistake. “We all combed our hair like Maurice Richard . . .

We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard. . . . On the ice . . . we were ten players all wearing the uniform of the Montreal Canadiens . . . [and we] all wore the famous number 9 on our backs.”

Although Richard is often forced into the heroic mould of a hero of the Quiet Revolution, he is a reluctant and imperfect fit. He did grow up in Quebec at a time when anglophone commercial and cultural dominance was pronounced and he played in an era when the ultra-nationalist Maurice Duplessis was premier of the province, but Richard was always his own man.

Moreover, he retired from hockey a year after Duplessis died in September 1959, just as the not-so-Quiet Revolution was beginning.

Richard never made a political speech other than to complain, quite rightly, that in his day the owners treated the players, who drew in the fans and filled their coffers, more like serfs than heroes. But that was a common grievance throughout hockey and not limited to francophone players.

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