Introverted and shy, Richard remained apart – not aloof, but apart – from the camaraderie in the locker room and the kibitzing on the hockey award banquet circuit. Richard led by example, not words, as Canadiens goalie Jacques Plante observed decades after the legendary player had hung up his skates. “The Rocket was a very quiet man and on the road trips, he would watch us play cards and laugh at the jokes.” More important, “He always took the blame himself for a loss, never faulting anyone else. If a player wasn’t working hard enough or playing smart, one glare from the Rocket usually corrected the problem.”
That silence, that distance, left plenty of space for sportswriters and pundits to speculate about the extraordinary surge of emotion this smoulderingeyed, taciturn lumberjack on skates could summon from the stoniest heart.
There isn’t a single answer, but the best explanation is probably that fans and foes alike recognized in Richard a simple man driven by love – for the game, his family, and his country – all of those basic values that need no fancy filigree to shine brighter than precious metals.
Joseph Henri Maurice Richard, the eldest of eight children of Onesime and Alice Richard (nee Laramee), was born on August 4, 1921, in Montreal.
His parents, who were both from the Gaspe region, had moved separately to the city, seeking work during the First World War. They met, courted, married, and found a small house to rent in the east end, near Lafontaine Park. By the time Maurice was four, his father, a woodworker for the Canadian Pacific Railway at their Angus Yards, had saved up enough money to build a small house in the Bordeaux district, near rue Jean-Talon in the northeast part of the city. That’s where Maurice learned to play hockey on a backyard rink flooded by his father.
Organized hockey teams began when he entered the school system. He played peewee, bantam, and midget while a student at Saint-Francois-de-Laval elementary school. After Grade 9 he went to the Montreal Technical School and played for its team as well as the community one in his neighbourhood.
As a teenager he added boxing and baseball to his sporting repertoire while continuing to play as many as two games of hockey during the week and four on weekends – adopting aliases such as “Maurice Rochon” so he could be on more than one roster.
He even met his future wife, Lucille, through hockey: she was the younger sister of Georges Norchet, his hockey coach at the Paquette Club, in the Parc Lafontaine Juvenile League. Norchet often invited team members back to his parents’ house after games. Unlike his more outgoing teammates, Richard would stand quietly off to the side, sipping a soft drink, when the rugs were rolled back and the gramophone wound up. Lucille, then only thirteen, was a petite and pretty redhead with a ready smile and easy social skills. “I took it upon myself to teach Maurice to dance and to act as his fashion consultant too,” she reminisced later. Much to her parents’ shock, the couple became engaged when she was seventeen. By then Richard had quit school and was working with his father as a machinist as well as earning some money as a player for the Canadiens’ senior farm team in the Quebec league.
They married on September 21, 1942. The Richards had reared seven children and had been married for more than half a century when Lucille died of cancer in July 1994. Richard was so devoted to his wife that he refused to leave her side to accept a symbolic appointment to the Privy Council. The Queen herself was to convey the honour at Rideau Hall on Canada Day, 1992, in commemoration of the 125th anniversary of Confederation. Adding the designation L’honorable to his name paled next to comforting his ailing wife. The pmo offered to send a nurse to the Richard home, but the Rocket declined.
Finally, Richard agreed to accept the honour in a special ceremony organized in his hometown.
As a player, Richard was fast and relentless. He got his nickname “Rocket” in 1942 from another player. Left-winger Ray Getliffe was sitting on the bench in the Forum watching Elmer Lach feed “a lovely pass” to Richard. “I leaned over [to one of the other players] and said, ‘Wow, Richard took off like a rocket.’” The comment was overheard by Montreal Star sports writer Dink Carroll, who immortalized it in print.