In 1944 the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, with Richard scoring thirtytwo goals in the regular season and twelve in the playoffs, including all five goals in a 5–1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the semifinals, a stellar achievement that culminated in Richard’s being awarded all three stars at the end of the game that night. The following season Irvin switched the lefthanded Richard to right wing, alongside Elmer Lach and Toe Blake in what came to be called the “Punch Line.” That was the year he put fifty goals in the net in as many games.
Richard rarely started a fight, but he didn’t back away from one either, often using his training as a boxer to give back more than he got. He had a notoriously short fuse and, once ignited, his temper exploded like a fuelinjected missile. Heckled by rival players, victimized by referees, Richard was drafted into a symbolic martyrdom by a francophone minority who felt persecuted in their home province – the way they felt he was abused on the ice – by the mercantile and political masters of the rest of Canada.
One cultural commentator, Benoit Melancon, author of The Rocket: ACultural History of Maurice Richard , has actually gone so far as to compare a colour photograph of Richard in the April 1955 issue of Sport magazine with a seventeenth-century painting of Saint Sebastian, the early Christian martyr, by the Baroque painter Luca Giordano: “both bodies stand out against a black background; where one has an arrow in his side, the other holds fast to his stick.” But Melancon isn’t content with visual similarities between the painting of the martyr and the photograph of the hockey player. He contends that the photograph, which was hanging in the Montreal Forum before the March 1955 riot, gave marauders “the image of the martyr Richard was to become that very evening,” an overstretched juxtaposition that collapses under its own hyperbole.
In a much more restrained and powerful article in Saturday Night magazine in January 1955, novelist Hugh MacLennan wrote presciently about the “gentleness and ferocity” that co-existed in Richard and warned of the danger in provoking his rage: “Every great player must expect to be marked closely, but for ten years the Rocket has been systematically heckled by rival coaches who know intuitively that nobody can more easily be taken advantage of than a genius. Richard can stand any amount of roughness that comes naturally with the game, but after a night in which he has been cynically tripped, slashed, held, boarded, and verbally insulted by lesser men he is apt to go wild.
His rage is curiously impersonal – an explosion against frustration itself.”
Less than two months later Montreal itself exploded in what came to be known as the Richard Riot. Tensions had been percolating for years between Richard and the unilingual, authoritarian nhl president Clarence Campbell, a Rhodes Scholar, former nhl referee, and lieutenant colonel in the Canadian Army.
A year earlier, Richard, in a ghostwritten column in a Montreal weekly that he hadn’t even read, had called Campbell a dictator for the way he had “over-penalized” his brother Henri and Boom Boom Geoffrion for vicious behaviour in fights they had not initiated. Campbell went ballistic, with the result that Canadiens general manager Frank Selke persuaded Richard to offer an abject apology and to post a thousand-dollar bond. Campbell publicly released the details, which infuriated the French media. They accused the nhl of muzzling their hero, who by then had agreed to stop allowing his name to appear as a byline on somebody else’s prose.
An anglophone referee named McLean seemed to be blind when Richard was under attack and yet omniscient when the Rocket retaliated. Encountering the referee in a New York hotel lobby, Richard grabbed him and began swinging.
That earned him a $500 fine from Campbell. Then, in a losing game against the Bruins in Boston on March 13, 1955, Richard got into an altercation with opposing defenceman Hal Laycoe. Sticks were raised, and Laycoe opened a gash in Richard’s scalp. Trent Frayne, who was there, described Richard attacking the defenceman with his stick: “wielding it across Laycoe’s shoulders and neck as though taking an axe to a tree.” The benches emptied, and in the ensuing brawl Richard punched linesman Cliff Thompson, a retired defenceman for the Bruins, in the face – twice. Campbell ordered that Richard, the Canadiens’ leading scorer, be suspended for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.