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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 ...

The lengthy suspension outraged fans and killed Richard’s hopes of winning his first league scoring title. Everybody had an opinion on Campbell’s verdict, including Mayor Jean Drapeau, who publicly warned him to skip the Canadiens’ next home game because even showing up would look like a “provocation.” Campbell refused, which inflamed the already angry fans.

When he arrived at a game against the Detroit Red Wings, who were tied for first place with the Canadiens, Campbell was pelted with tomatoes and other debris. A fan punched him in the face, another hurled a canister of tear gas.

The game was abruptly forfeited to the Red Wings and attendees were ordered to leave the arena, swelling the militant crowds rampaging through the streets of downtown Montreal.

The rioters caused an estimated $100,000 in property damage, thirtyseven injuries, and a hundred arrests before the police exerted control. Even the Rocket himself was persuaded to speak on radio the next morning, in French and English, to calm the crowd. Richard’s teammate Boom Boom Geoffrion won the scoring title that season and the Detroit Red Wings took the Stanley Cup. The following year Richard returned to the ice and led his team to the first of five successive Stanley Cup victories.

After that, his glory days on the ice were over. He showed up at training camp in the fall of 1960, but nothing seemed the same, and impulsively he decided to retire in September, a month after his thirty-ninth birthday. He had put on some pounds, his reflexes were slowing down, and he had suffered injuries, including a broken bone in one of his ankles and a severed Achilles tendon, which had kept him from playing the full season in his last three years. Management wanted him to go while the crowds still roared as he slapped the puck into the net – sooner rather than later – and offered him a three-year post-retirement job in public relations at his playing salary.

Years later Richard admitted that he had left the game too soon. He really didn’t know what to do with himself off the ice. Several post-playing positions, including as inaugural coach of the Quebec Nordiques, fizzled. Unlike his teammate Toe Blake, who had a distinguished post-playing career as coach of the Canadiens, or Jean Beliveau, who moved into the executive ranks of the organization, Richard was really only at ease on the ice or at home with his family. Eventually he split with the Canadiens and started a number of business ventures, including owning a tavern, selling fishing tackle, and appearing in commercials endorsing hair products.

What brought him back into the fold and the public eye was the closing ceremonies for the venerable Forum on March 11, 1996. The game itself was not memorable. Instead of one of their traditional rivals – the Leafs, the Bruins, or the Red Wings – the Habs were up against the upstart Dallas Stars. After the final whistle sounded and the three stars had been named in a game in which the bleu-blanc-rouge defeated the Stars 4–1, a work crew unrolled four red carpets stretching in a huge square from the blue lines. As funeral music was played, surviving Hall of Fame players, wearing their team sweaters, walked on to the ice as the crowd roared. The last to appear was Richard. The building erupted in a standing ovation that lasted nearly eight minutes, despite the Rocket’s attempts to quell the cascading waves of applause. It was as though the fans – many of whom were too young to have ever seen him play – recognized the depths of passion in the vulnerable, ageing figure with the taciturn demeanour. They bathed him in love and admiration as though he represented all of their grandfathers. By the time francophone announcer Richard Garneau intoned, “ Mesdames et messieurs,vous avez devant vous le coeur et l’âme du Forum ,” the crowd was spent and Richard himself was weeping.

It was a living tribute, one that would be echoed four years later, when more than 100,000 fans lined up around the clock and around the block to pay their last respects as his coffin lay in state in the new Molson Centre on May 30, 2000. They then thronged the streets the following day to watch the funeral procession wend its way to Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. It was the end of an era – and the birth of Rocket Richard, nationalist hero.

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