Maurice “Rocket” Richard was one of the greatest players of all time. He played 18 seasons in the NHL, racked up over 500 goals, and nearly 1000 points in the lowest scoring era. He scored 50 goals in 50 games, he won eight Stanley Cups, and the NHL’s goal scoring trophy is named after him. Everyone knows about Richard’s accomplishments, but not as many people know how and why he was able to accomplish such great feats. So what did make him so great? Let’s take a look…
At 5’10 and only 180 pounds Maurice Richard may not seem like someone who was especially strong. From the ages of 16 to 18 Richard was denied entrance to the military. He was deemed unfit for combat. These two things combined would make most dismiss Richard as weak, but weak is one of the last words you should use to describe Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
Throughout and after his playing career Richard was touted as being incredibly strong. In a 2000 copy of La Presse, actor Pierre Gobeil compared Richard’s strength to that of a bear, and said that players would try to stop Richard by holding him by the arms, shoulders, hair, sweater, or whatever they could get a hold of. There was many a time where Richard would carry an opponent on his back up and down the ice. Former referee and Hockey Hall Of Famer Bill Chadwick recalled one of those moments, remembering him scoring a goal with a player on his back. Chadwick called his strength Herculean. This doesn’t seem to have been an overstatement.
Not only did spectators and referees talk up Richard’s strength but so did his opponents. Former opponent and longtime enemy Ted Lindsay once said that Richard was the most determined and strongest player in the league, and that “his power was equivalent of the power of Niagara Falls”. This was high praise from Ted Lindsay, Richard’s most hated rival. For nearly a decade Lindsay tried his best to get under Richard’s skin. He yapped at him, he threw elbows, and let out a constant flow of racial slurs, slurs that Gordie Howe in 2000 said “would get you called up in front of a judge” today. Not only was Lindsay yapping at Richard, he also constantly insulted his wife. Charlie Appleton, who worked as an usher at the old Montreal Forum for 46 years spoke in the Montreal Gazette on the Lindsay v Maurice feud where he said that the reason the feud lasted so long and was so intense was because Richard’s wife would always hurl verbal abuse at Lindsay while in attendance at Canadiens-Red Wings games at the Forum. “Terrible” Ted would shout things back at her and then he would tell The Rocket what he had just said to his wife. Richard would come out on the ice ready to kill Lindsay. The feud culminated in one 1951 match between the Red Wings and Canadiens where the two fought. Although there is no record as to who won the fight it was surely a good one. The fight didn’t mean that the feud had come to an end though. Rumour has it that the two met years after retirement while on vacation, and upon seeing Lindsay, Richard simply glared at him.
Richard and Lindsay on their rivalry
His bout with Lindsay wasn’t Richard’s only fight. Through his 18 seasons of hockey, Richard fought 29 times. Of those 29 fights 14 of them were confirmed wins and the majority of the others had an unknown outcome. When fighting, Richard was known to swing violently and quickly, moving his fists like a storm. Former Canadiens trainer Ernie Cook told the story of a bout with Rangers player Bob Dill. Cook recounted the fight, saying “All I could see from the other side were the Rocket’s arms swinging madly. When it finally stopped I ran around to the penalty box from our bench figuring Maurice might want some attention. Just as I got there Harry Westerby, the old Rangers trainer was coming out.
‘How is my man?’ I asked Harry.
‘He hasn’t a scratch!’ roared Westerby.
‘But look at my man’, pointing to Dill, who was walking to the dressing room with 2 ice packs on his face, covering a mass of welts and bruises from Richard’s flying fists.”
Dill and Richard had somewhat of a feud as well. Although their rivalry wasn’t as heated or long lived as the Richard v Lindsay territory, the pair clashed twice for the first two fights of Richard’s career… in the same game. The first fight ended quickly as Richard dropped Dill with a single punch, knocking him out cold. After being knocked out by Richard, Dill decided to test his luck, chasing Richard to the penalty box and taunting him, saying Richard had landed a “lucky shot”. The two had their second fight in the penalty box where Richard pulled Dill over the boards and fed him five or six punches, leaving him bloody and beaten. The 2005 film “The Rocket” had a fantastic re-enactment of the fights featuring Sean Avery as Bob Dill.
There’s a reason Maurice Richard was called “The Rocket”. Maurice Richard was one of the fastest skaters of all time. His nicknames say it all. Originally called “The Comet” and later “The Rocket” Richard was said to have accelerated as quickly as a rocket takes off, and like a rocket there was no stopping him. While some compared Richard’s speed to that of a superhero, Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner compared it to that of lightning or the thrust of a rapier, emphasizing the fluidity and speed of Richard’s movements. Richard was credited with carrying on the legacy of the ‘Flying Frenchmen’; a group of speedy French Canadian players that contributed to Montreal’s success. The first players to receive this nickname were Didier Pitre, Jack Laviolette, and Newsy Lalonde in 1917, and the fact that Richard was compared to this group of players is only a testament to how speedy he really was.
The claim for Richard being one of the fastest skaters of all time is not based only on comparisons and nicknames. In fact a 1945 issue of The Montreal Gazette credited Richard with skating a lap of the ice in 14.3 seconds during a veterans game. For comparison let’s see how that stacks up to the winners of the last few Fastest Skater competitions at the NHL All-Star Game.
It should be noted that that there are many that call into question the legitimacy of Larkin’s time. With that being said, Richard stacks up very favourably to the NHL’s all time fastest, even more so when you consider that skates have seen significant improvement since Richard’s time, becoming much, much lighter.
Unfortunately Richard would suffer multiple injuries to his legs including two broken ankles, a broken leg, and a severed achilles tendon caused by a skate blade. This begs the question of what Richard’s top speed truly could have been if he’d been able to stay injury free throughout his career. Below you can see a clip of Richard flying from one end of the ice to another after his achilles injury.
Once Richard used his speed to blow past the opposing defensemen with the puck on his stick a goal was almost guaranteed. One of his best assets, Richard’s shot was hard and deadly accurate. Richard worked very hard to build up strength in his wrists, training with Ben Weider fitness equipment even after he retired. One of the reasons Richard was such a threat was because he was so versatile. Not only could he take a quick, accurate wrist shot, but when he put all of his weight behind a slapshot goalies cowered in fear. Richard was also able to execute a backhand shot like few others could. Rocket is credited with being one of the best backhand shooters of all time, largely because he was ambidextrous meaning that he was as strong as his backhand as he was on his forehand.
It wasn’t just his shot arsenal that made him such a dangerous scorer. Richard’s most dangerous asset was his unpredictability. In a 1977 interview with CBC Richard gave insight on his scoring ability. With only six teams in the NHL at the time goaltenders saw the same players over and over allowing them to memorize just about every player’s moves. It was the special players like Richard and Gordie Howe who were able to surprise goalies every time. In fact Richard once said that he never knew where he was going to shoot, he would go to the net, pick a random corner and just shoot.
Like many of the greats that came before and after him, one of Richard’s greatest strengths was his mental strength. Richard was hands down the most intense player ever to play the game and his will to win is unparalleled to this day.
If you asked any goalie from the 1940’s or 50’s what scared them the most, many would surely tell you that it was it was Maurice Richard’s “Red Glare”. The Rocket would fly down the ice, fire in his eyes, trying his very best to intimidate the goalie, to strike fear into them before he loosed one of his powerful shots. Hall Of Famer Glenn Hall recalled Richard’s glare saying “What I remember most about the Rocket were his eyes. 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”. Richard’s intense glare struck fear into goaltenders and defensemen alike and is iconic to this day.
If the eyes are a window to the soul then Richard was a man possessed. The intensity in his eyes was a microcosm of his game. It didn’t matter whether he was playing in the Stanley Cup Final or in an exhibition game, Richard would never let up. In the 40’s the Canadiens would play exhibition games against amateur teams. In these games the Habs players were instructed not to show off too much as to not make the amateur teams look bad. This did not stop Richard. In one game against an amateur team from Johnstown, Pennsylvania Richard scored seven goals in only the first period of the game. He was immediately benched for embarrassing the opposing team.
Just as Richard was not deterred by rules or the words of his coaches, he was also not stopped by injury. Richard was famous for playing through pain, and what is possibly the most iconic hockey picture (left) was taken after one such situation. In game seven of the Stanley Cup Semifinals Richard suffered a severe concussion, knocking him unconscious and sending him to the dressing room. Richard needed six stitches and against his doctor’s advice he returned to the game and scored the game and series winning goal. Richard’s concussion was so bad that he couldn’t even remember the game or the goal the next day. “I was just like a boxer when he’s groggy.” Richard recalled “I didn’t know where to go. I knew that there was the colour of the Boston Bruins on one side… and I was just trying to skate away from all of those guys, and I went around the defensemen and brought the goalkeeper out of his net and then I scored that goal”. Richard collapsed immediately after returning to the dressing room after the game ended.
Richard again showcased his determination and will to win during the 1957-58 season. After missing most of the season due to a severed achilles tendon, many worried how Richard would perform in his return and whether he’d be able to play at the same level as before the injury. Rocket did not miss a beat in his return, although there were times where he favoured his right leg he seemed to be back in his element, scoring two goals in his return against the Bruins. Richard’s production showed down over the final few games of the season as he only tallied two goals in his final 13 games leaving fans worried about what this would mean for the Habs in the playoffs. Again Rocket rose to the occasion, tallying two goals and four points in an 8-1 win against the Red Wings in his first game of the playoffs. Richard would continue to come up clutch, tallying 11 goals and 15 points through ten playoff games, leading the Montreal Canadiens to their tenth Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately Richard’s intensity would occasionally get the better of him. He would frequently jump opposing players, and had a bad habit of hitting opponents over the head with his stick. On one such occasion Richard broke his stick over Rangers’ Bill Juzda’s head, leading to a ten minute misconduct and his ejection from the game. The most well known instance of Richard letting his temper get to him occurred on March 13, 1955 when Richard punched referee Cliff Thompson in the face twice in a scrum, knocking him out cold. Richard was escorted off the ice to the dressing room where Boston police would later search for him hoping to make an arrest. Richard was never arrested but he was suspended for the remainder of the NHL season and the playoffs. While most of the league felt that the punishment was too lenient, Montreal fans believed that Richard’s punishment was too harsh. This lead to the famed “Richard Riots”. At the next game against the Detroit Red Wings, NHL President Clarence Campbell, the man who issued Richard’s suspension attended the game. During the game Campbell was pelted with debris and physically assaulted. This went on until the end of the first period at which point the game was suspended and the arena was evacuated. The fans poured out into the streets and began to riot. They flipped cars, set newsstands on fire, and attacked innocent passersby. The riot resulted in approximately $100,000 in damages which translates to over $900,000 in 2017 money.
Because of his suspension Richard was unable to play in that season’s playoffs where the Canadiens fell to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final.
This wasn’t the first time Richard attacked an NHL official. Earlier that same season he punched linesman George Hayes who was trying to break up a brawl. Luckily Hayes was more stunned than hurt, and Richard was ejected and fined $250 ($2,260.60 in 2017). “I can remember that game well.” Hayes recounted in a 1962 copy of Hockey Illustrated
“It was between the Canadiens and the Leafs in Toronto on December 29, 1954. The fuse went off at 15:13 of the third period when Bob Bailey drove Richard into the boards. Richard charged across the ice and leaped at Bailey. Both fell to the ice with Richard falling face first and Bailey on top of him. Bailey must have clawed at Richard’s face as they were rolling on the ice. I helped separate them and everything appeared quiet until Richard rubbed his hands across his face and saw the blood on his hand. The sight of his blood infuriated Richard. He grabbed a stick and headed for Bailey. Bill Morrison, the other linesman, and I broke them up again with help from Dollard St. Laurent and Doug Harvey of the Canadiens. But, a few seconds later, Richard broke loose, grabbed another stick and headed for Bailey, who was surrounded by his teammates. We stopped him again but Montreal coach Dick Irvin said something to him as he skated to the Canadiens bench. Again, the Rocket started, making a wide arc rushing at Bailey. I stepped in front of him and he struck me with his glove. I guess I was lucky because he had a stick in his other hand”.
While Richard’s intensity was one of the things that made him great it was also something that he had trouble keeping under control leading to him getting himself and his team into trouble.
Richard was Something Special
Maurice “Rocket” Richard was one of the players that only comes around once in awhile. Not only was he a thrill to watch on the ice but he had a great personality and was a true Canadian hero. The combination of his Herculean strength, his superhero-like speed, his rocket of a shot, his fiery intensity, and his outspoken personality made him not only a generational talent but one of the greatest hockey players of all time.
Chris Carnovale is a “The Wraparound” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @Chris_Carnovale.