Eyes On A Dynasty - Day 6: The Rocket and the Riots

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Three years into hockey's television era, an incident never captured on film in 1955 nontheless became the most talked about development of the decade. The Maurice Richard suspension and ensuing riots at the Montreal Forum in March of that year have since overshadowed most hockey events of the decade in terms of press coverage and popular opinion and perception. Today, it remains a touchstone in Canadiens history, garnering as much noteriety as the five Stanley Cups that followed it. On Day 6 of the Eyes On A Dynasty series, we take a look at these events with four clips from the 2000 documentary Fire And Ice.

Perhaps because cameras filming games were not on hand on the night of March 15 in Boston, but were pointed in all the right directions two evenings later at the Forum, the event remains a controversial one from start to finish. The incidents on the ice in Boston involving Richard, the suspension handed down two days later by NHL president Clarence Campbell, and the reaction in the Montreal streets on March 17 have been endlessly documented in print and on film.

Likely due to the absence of film evidence from the start, the entire series of incidents remain an incendiary one to this day. A full accounting of facts remains a blurred ideal, one brought about by not so impartial participants as prime witnesses. No amount of documentation can ever change that. At the heart of everything that transpired, the Richard suspension was unprecidented, and suspicious. The riots themselves, both a stain on the city, but a testiment to its passion and anger uncorked.

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While television cameras of the day may have missed the intial sparks on ice, they were definitely well placed to capture all that followed.

What you are about to watch in these four clips is the 2000 documentary Fire and Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot, directed by Brian McKenna. A description at the Galafilm.com site can be found

The Rocket Richard fan site hosted at Spelten.com describes the documentary like this:

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.

  

The game in which the Laycoe incident occurred on March 13 would also mark the final time Dick Irvin coached the Rocket. Many including Habs' GM Frank Selke, felt that Irvin too often helped light the Rocket's fuse, by goading into an anger that often he took with him onto the ice. For Selke, the incidents in Boston were the final straw.

Toe Blake would be brought on to coach Richard and the Canadiens from October 1955 on. The previous summer, Blake and Selke met with the team's fiery star, urging him to see his challenges in a different light. As a former linemate of the Rocket, Blake had been successful in helping Richard focus his fire on scoring goals, and his mandate as coach would be the same.

Richard was now 33, and the Canadiens lean years were in the past. Richard was urged to leave his personal battle behind as well. Blake made it understood that the time for him to be the sole carrier of the team had passed. Richard was advised that it was time for him to help the younger elements on the team become leaders. The new coach put it in simple terms - the Rocket should no longer battle with other club's young guns one decade younger.

The coach's strong words were applied to the letter. Under Blake, the Rocket would never again end a hockey season without sipping from Lord Stanley's mug.

Maurice Richard on the Ed Sullivan Show

Such was the popularity of Richard in Quebec and the rest of Canada that United States television also took note. In December of 1954, Sports Illustrated did a feature article on the Rocket they called Fire on the Ice (read it here) and the following August he appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town show, as it was then called. On this particular episode, the theme was to gather the best athletes in all major sports for short interviews. The appearance occurred only months after the riot. For achivists seeking out the show, it is episode #373 in the Sullivan catelogue, or episode #49 of season 8. The musical guests were the Mills Brothers and the Four Aces. 

 

For more on the Rocket, and the riot on March 17, 1955, check out these links.

18 newspaper clips from the Montreal Gazette between March 15 and March 18, 1955 - historic stuff!

Maurice Rocket Richard Tribute Website

Canadian Musuem Of Civilization Online

Maurice Richard at Wikipedia

Richard's HHOF Profile

CBC Television and Radio Archives of Richard

Leave Our Richard Alone - NY Times March 17, 1955

The Hockey Game That Broke Out During A Riot - Detroit News

EOTP - The Rocket Richard Riot: 55 Years Later

Ya! The Habs Rule! - Dawn of the Richard Riot

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