NHL legend 'Rocket' Richard dies at 78

The Rocket lit up hockey
By Ron Flatter
Special to ESPN.com

Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, one of the greatest scorers in NHL history, died Saturday of respiratory failure after a long battle with abdominal cancer. Richard, the first player to score 50 goals in a season, was 78.

No one fired up fans the way "The Rocket" did. Heck, he once caused a city to riot.

Maurice Richard was the essence of hockey in its golden age. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Richard had those eyes that seemed black as coal, that blinding speed, that devastating shot, that nasty streak, that passion to vanquish every opponent.

 Maurice Richard
Maurice Richard won eight Stanley Cups with Montreal.

These were the ingredients that enabled him to become the first National Hockey League player to score 500 goals in a career. He also was first to score 50 goals in a season. Eight times he was first-team all-league and six times second-team. Although he never led the league in scoring, he was the leading goal scorer five times. His NHL record of six playoff overtime goals is testament to his ability in the clutch. Eight of his 18 seasons ended with him skating around the rink holding the Stanley Cup.

He was also a role model for French Canadians, who regarded him the way African-Americans would later regard Muhammad Ali -- as a hero.

Joseph Henri Maurice Richard was born Aug. 4, 1921, in Montreal. Even though he was studying to be a machinist at Montreal Technical School, Richard had but one goal: to play in the NHL.

But ankle and wrist fractures kept Richard off the ice as he was making the transition from junior hockey to the Canadiens' senior-league farm team. If it weren't for World War II, Richard might not have realized his dream at 21.

Teams were desperate for athletes who weren't in the military. Richard was available, and he made the Canadiens in 1942-43.

At his first training camp, his burst of speed earned him his nickname. The war was part of everyday conversation, and Canadiens veteran Ray Getliffe kept thinking of rockets whenever he saw Richard skate. "The Rocket" was born, but the legend was a long way off.

He broke his ankle 16 games into his rookie season. Despite his apparent brittleness, Canadiens coach Dick Irvin predicted, "Not only will he be a star, but he'll be the biggest star in hockey."

Even though he was a left-handed shooter, Richard was a right-wing attacker, and that made for a perfect fit with center Elmer Lach and left wing Hector "Toe" Blake. In 1943-44, the three formed the famed "Punch Line."


After scoring only nine goals in the first 28 games, Richard scored 23 in his last 18. That was just a prelude to his breakout performance in the Stanley Cup semifinals.

Toronto's Bob Davidson was assigned to shadow Richard, and his defense helped the Maple Leafs register an upset in the first game. "He stayed so close to me that I got angry," Richard said. "I remember going up to their goalie, Paul Bibeault, and telling him things would be different in the next game."

Were they ever. Richard scored twice in a 17-second stretch of the second period. He finished with three goals that period and five that night -- to tie a playoff record. After the Canadiens' 5-1 victory, Richard waited to be named the No. 1 star. The ritual announcement started out with the No. 3 star and to the surprise of everyone at the Forum, it was Richard. The reactionary booing was quickly squelched when the No. 2 star was announced. It, too, was Richard.

It didn't take long to realize he was named all three stars. His performance spurred the Canadiens to their first Cup in 13 years.

"The Rocket" proved he was no fluke in 1944-45, his 50-goals-in-50-games season. He had 10 multi-goal games and notched No. 50 in the Canadiens' final game.

Quickest Goal Scorers to 500
Player Date # of Games
Wayne Gretzky 11/22/86 575
Mario Lemieux 10/26/95 605
Mike Bossy 1/2/86 647
Brett Hull 12/22/96 693
Phil Esposito 12/22/74 803
Jari Kurri 10/17/92 833
Bobby Hull 2/21/70 861
Maurice Richard 10/19/57 863
Marcel Dionne 12/14/82 887
Steve Yzerman 1/17/96 906

Along the way, he missed the morning skate on Dec. 28, 1944, to move furniture into a new home. After convincing Irvin to put him in the lineup, Richard scored five goals and had three assists for a then-NHL record eight points in a 9-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings.

In 1946, Richard helped Montreal win another Cup. The next year he won his only Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP.

As the forties ended and fifties began, the emergence of Detroit's Gordie Howe led many fans to debate who was better: Richard or Howe? Both right wings seemed energized by the rivalry.

Although injuries limited Richard to 48 games in the 1951-52 regular season, "The Rocket" fired off perhaps his most storied game in the 1952 Stanley Cup semifinals. In the second period of Game 7, Richard collided with Bruins defenseman Bill Quackenbush and fell head first to the ice. A hushed Forum crowd watched as Richard was carried out unconscious.

He should have been done for the night. He wasn't. With four minutes left and the score tied, Richard, with a big bandage covering six stitches and blood dripping down his face, made one of his famous rink-length dashes. He skated around three Bruins, including Quackenbush, before scoring an amazing, series-winning goal.

Not that Richard knew what happened. "I heard the crowd yell and by that time I was too dizzy to even see," he said.

Individually, Richard continued to dominate. He broke Nels Stewart's NHL career record on Nov. 8, 1952 with his 325th goal and the Canadiens won another Cup that season. But that victory was an exception. Detroit dominated from 1950-55. Montreal's Cup drought contributed to Richard's frustration, his anger and, eventually, a contagious rage.

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.

Convinced Irvin was contributing to Richard's belligerence, Montreal GM Frank Selke fired him and hired Blake as coach in 1955-56. Richard and his teammates, including younger brother Henri, won five consecutive Cups, the only time this has been accomplished.

In his final three seasons, Richard was plagued by injuries. At age 38, he scored his 82nd and last playoff goal in Game 3 of Montreal's four-game sweep of Toronto in the 1960 finals.

After retiring before the following season with 544 goals (still a Canadiens record), Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame less than a year later, one of the few to be enshrined without a five-year wait.

The retirement of "The Rocket's" No. 9 jersey was a fait accompli at the Forum. But more than all his goals and championship rings, Richard was a hero to French Canadians.

"'The Rocket' was more than a hockey player," Irvin said. "It was his fury, his desire and his intensity that motivated the Canadiens."