|Some say the riot -- directed against NHL
president Clarence Campbell, with whom Richard had a running feud -- was a
symbolic beginning of Quebec's nationalist movement.
Historians are divided on the significance of the riot -- no one died but plenty of damage was done -- but something big happened that night and for reasons not everyone is sure of, it remains a key date of the 20th century for the city and the country.
March 17, 1955, at the Montreal Forum, Clarence Campbell was a wanted man.
Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, had just suspended Montreal
Canadiens legend and cultural icon Rocket Richard for the remainder of the
season and the playoffs.
It was a move that would cost Richard the scoring title and the Canadiens the Stanley Cup. To a frustrated French Canadian community it was a move that reeked of injustice and it would spark a furious seven hour riot that stretched for five kilometres along St-Catherine Street in Montreal.
It will forever be remembered as the Rocket Richard Riot.
On Wednesday March 17, 2000, "Fire & Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot" will premiere across Canada on Global television. Controversial writer/director Brian McKenna gives us an in-depth look at this historic incident through the eyes of those who were there on that tragic night when emotions ran wild and political passions turned violent, spilling out onto the streets. McKenna sets the stage with archival footage and dramatic re-enactments. Key hockey figures like Red Storey, Dick Irvin and Red Fisher give us a first hand account of the frightening action that night and of the overall political and social atmosphere of Montreal in the 50's.
In 1955 the face of Montreal was English. The wealthy anglo elite controlled. For French Canadians, Rocket Richard was a saviour, a symbol of rebellion who bowled his way over opponents and headed for the goal with eyes of fire. In "Fire & Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot", Richard is depicted not only as a hero to French Canadians, but as a resistance leader whose flag was the Montreal Canadiens jersey.
Clarence Campbell was on the other side.
To French Canadiens at the time, Campbell was seen as an arrogant man who looked down on his French speaking co-habitants. He was the boss who liberally made an example of his power.
Richard was outspoken and brash when it came to his opinions of Campbell, and in a newspaper column that Richard wrote, he accused Campbell of running a dictatorship.
A confrontation was brewing and when Richard was involved in a violent incident against the Boston Bruins, Campbell put the wheels in full motion, suspending Richard for the remainder of the season and the playoffs and cementing his reputation as public enemy number one in Montreal.
When the Canadiens hosted the Detroit Red Wings on March 17, 1955, a day after Campbell suspended Richard, the air was thick with tension. It got even thicker when Campbell showed up at the Forum 10 minutes into the game with three lady friends. He took his usual seat. Before long a young man approached Campbell and offered to shake his hand. Campbell instead got a slap in the face. Another man approached with a tomato that he rapidly hurled at Campbell, who remained calm and seated through most of the abuse. When a homemade tear gas bomb sent noxious fumes into the air, Campbell and his lady friends finally made their way to safety. The damage, however, was done. The game was cut short and angry mobs flooded into the streets to smash store windows, topple cars and vent their anger towards the percieved injustice and mistreatment of their hero.
The Rocket Richard Riot was underway. A riot that some claim was the symbolic beginning of Quebec's nationalist movement and most will remember as a defining moment in Canadian history.
For 18 seasons, Maurice "The Rocket" Richard graced Forum ice, exciting fans with his toughness, leadership, goal scoring ability, and, of course, his speed, which earned him the nickname "The Rocket" by sportswriter Baz O'Meara. The Montreal native became the first NHLer to score 50 goals in a season (the season was only 50 games long when he achieved this feat during the 1944-45 season), and the first to score 500 goals during his career. You can see Richard's name on Lord Stanley's Cup 8 times, which includes the 5 consecutive Canadiens Stanley Cup wins from 1956 - 1960. On December 28, 1944, The Rocket potted 5 goals and 3 assists for an 8 point game! Although many of Richard's records have been broken over the years, his 6 overtime playoff goals stands atop the record books even today!
As great as this Hall-Of-Famer was, Richard will always be remembered for what happened during the 3rd period of a game against the Bruins in the spring of 1955. At around the 14 minute mark, Richard skated past Bruin Hal Laycoe while the Bruins were killing a penalty (and while coach Dick Irvin had pulled the goalie for even another attacker!) and was struck by Laycoe's stick on the head. Referee Frank Udvari's arm went up to signal the penalty to Laycoe but the Habs still controlled the puck. Richard skated behind the Boston goal and then back out to the blue line when the whistle finally blew to stop play. Richard got the attention of the ref and rubbed his head to show that he had been high-sticked. Noticing Laycoe not too far away from him, Richard lost his temper even more and swung his stick at Laycoe, slamming him across the head and shoulder. Laycoe dropped his gloves and the linesmen tried to separate the two. Richard lost his stick, but somehow broke away from the linesmen, found another stick and took two more swings at Laycoe, breaking the stick over Laycoe's back! Richard then found another stick and nailed Laycoe across the back for a third time! The linesman, Thompson, finally was able to control Richard, but then Richard was able to get to his feet as a teammate pushed Thompson away, and unfortunately for the linesman, he was the recipient of two stiff punches thrown by Richard.
Referee Udvari handed out a 5 minute penalty to Laycoe for the high-stick (and a further 10 minutes for not sitting in the penalty box), but Richard was given a match penalty for his antics. On March 16, 1955, at the league offices in Montreal, Richard, Laycoe, and others present during the incident, tried to figure out exactly what transpired. Basically, Laycoe said he defended himself and Richard said he was dazed from the blow to head and mistakenly thought Thompson was a Bruin (did refs wear black and yellow in those days?). Clarence Campbell stunned the hockey world, especially Montreallers, when he suspended The Rocket for the rest of the regualr season AND the entire playoffs! Clarence Campbell received many death threats from die-hard Habs fans, but the suspension stuck, tarnishing Richard's career, but still adding to his mystique!
Visiting Boston on March 13, 1955, Richard's head was cut open by Hal Laycoe. Richard retaliated, going after Laycoe with his stick. Linesman Cliff Thompson grabbed Richard, the two fell to the ice, and Richard punched him.
It was the second time Richard had hit an official that season. League president Clarence Campbell acted in unprecedented fashion, suspending Richard for Montreal's last three regular-season games ... and the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.
Four nights later, on St. Patrick's Day, Campbell was assaulted and pelted by food while attending the Montreal-Detroit game. After the first period, a tear-gas bomb was thrown Campbell's way. The Forum was evacuated, and Campbell forfeited the game to Detroit.
"I still dream about it at night," Richard said years later.
What ensued became known as the "Richard Riot." As fans poured on to St. Catherine Street, hooligans turned to vandalism, breaking windows and looting businesses to the tune of $100,000 in damage. More than 60 people were arrested.
With more trouble expected the following night, Richard went on the air to broadcast a plea for calm. Although there was no further violence, the "Richard Riot" became a seminal moment in the Quebec independence movement. Many Quebecois still regard Campbell's suspension of Richard as an example of anti-French bias.
Without Richard, Montreal lost to Detroit in a seven-game final. It was the last time that Richard would not finish a season as a champion.