HOCKEY IS RELIGION: PART 2

by Ron Spence

Hector “Toe” Blake was a Habs’ rookie when Howie Morenz was in the autumn of his NHL career. Toe later became Maurice Richard’s linemate.

“He was an inspiration for all of us,” Blake said of Morenz. “…his skill was truly remarkable. Howie loved hockey and it was his whole life. He used to work and laugh wholeheartedly.”

George Gross – the founding sports editor of the Toronto Sun – said of “the Rocket”: “His greatest contribution was his love for the game of hockey. Because he loved the game, he gave all he had at all times.”

richard_maurice_018courtesy of ourhistory.canadiens.com

Maurice Richard was an intense man, passionate, true to his values and convictions,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Turcotte, the archbishop of Montreal, said at his funeral. ”His passing was felt by people across the country. It was like losing a friend.”

Howie Morenz and Maurice Richard were great hockey players, who loved the game, but had different personalities.

The Rocket was the first NHLer to score 50 goals in a 50 game season. That was in 1944-45 and he went on to score 544 goals during the regular season, with 82 in the playoffs. His playoff record – six overtime winners – was only surpassed by Colorado’s Joe Sakic, who has eight.

Maurice Richard led the NHL – in regular season goals – five times, won the Hart Trophy  once and amassed 421 assists for a total of 965 points in 978 games.

The Rocket held the NHL record – with 8 points in one game on December 28,1944 – until Darryl Sittler beat it with 10 points in 1976.

Maurice Richard also retired with 8 Stanley Cup rings.

And like Howie Morenz, Maurice “the Rocket” Richard was truly mourned.

one_richard04courtesy of legendsofhockey.net

The Rocket passed away on May 31, 2000 and thousands lined the streets of downtown Montreal to watch Maurice “Rocket” Richard travel down St. Catherine Street one final time.

Montreal’s Molson Centre stayed open an hour later than scheduled to accommodate all the mourners who wanted to say ‘goodbye’ to Richard. Almost 115,000 fans filed past his open casket to pay their last respects.

A funeral cortege – with 12 limousines carrying Richard’s immediate family – wound its way from the Molson Centre to the Notre Dame Basilica. More than 3,000 entered the cathedral, while another 1,500 watched the ceremony on a giant screen outside.

Flags were lowered to half mast across Quebec and the provincial legislature was suspended for the day. Maurice Richard was given a state funeral which was broadcast live across Canada.

CBC DIGITAL ARCHIVES

“His strongest skill was scoring goals,” George Gross said of the Rocket. “His ability to burst in from the blue line. If there was a defenceman in front of him, he went over him. The only other player I saw do this was Frank Mahovlich. The Rocket was only 5’10” was all muscle and power, and he was a great skater. The line of Richard, Elmer Lach and Toe Blake were called the Lamp Lighters because they lit the light behind the goal so often. And Richard was the greatest of all of them … His teammates told me that if a game went into overtime, they knew when the Rocket would score the winning goal. It was in his eyes coming out of the dressing room. His eyes said I am going to win this, I am going to score the winning goals.”

The Rocket’s eyes mirrored his strength and character.

He was a right winger who shot left handed, and used his great power to strong arm from the right side to the centre, and then whipping the puck behind the netminder (It’s said that close to half of the Rocket’s goals were scored on the backhand.).

When I talked to Glen Hall, he remembered the Rocket coming towards the Chicago net, with a couple of Blackhawks draped over him, with his saucer-like eyes getting larger and larger.

The Rocket’s passion often resulted in fights.

“…he was always in fights,” said Dick Irvin. “My dad always had a saying that Maurice Richard fought his way to the top because everyone would go after him … In those days, the best players were the toughest players … He had the best one-punch knockout in the history of the NHL. That was part of his mystique.”

Irvin’s father, Dick Senior, had been the Rocket’s coach, and often provoked him into playing with intensity. Irvin Junior was a broadcaster and got to know the Rocket on another level.

“I have a theory: Whenever he scored a goal the cheer at the Forum was just a decibel higher than when anybody else scored, no matter the importance,” Irvin Jr. said.

Rocket Richard wasn’t just a hockey superstar – he was also a symbol – for French-Canadians and working class Anglo-Canadians.

They loved Rocket Richard the player, but even more Rocket Richard the person.

“We loved especially what he represented: courage, strength, success, passion,” said Jean Carette – who was interviewed at the Rocket’s funeral.

The Rocket also became a symbol for me.

I talked to him when he was refereeing an old timers’ game at GM Place.

He was quite sick and you could see it in his eyes, but he was there – loving the game and the adulation.

My father died in 1999 and the Rocket in 2000 – two tough old guys who fought on until the end – symbols of a generation long gone.

*****

Dick Irvin Jr. once  said:  “I don’t know if the people of Edmonton would have rioted in the streets if Gretzky had been suspended in the playoffs.”

I think that had Gretz been tossed during one of the Islanders’ series two decades ago, the northern Albertans definitely would have been smashing windows.

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