The Montreal Canadiens have a long and mostly great history, but it can't all be great. Today, we look back at the events of Saint Patrick's day 1955, and the unbelievable events that led up to it.
For my first article I didn't want to cover one of the darkest moments in team history, but as your Habs history correspondent, I feel it is incumbent upon myself to cover all aspects of our history, including the negatives. The anniversary of the riot was March 17th but I wasn't called up from the farm team (otherwise known as the comments section) until a couple of days ago. So, today is the day I'll take us back to what is arguably the worst moment in this team's storied past, as well as the unbelievable events leading up to, and after it.
Midway through the 1954-55 season, Maurice Richard was on track for the scoring title and the team couldn't have been better positioned. The Habs were battling with Detroit for first place, and with guys like Richard, Jean Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Emile Bouchard, Doug Harvey, Bert Olmstead, and Jacques Plante in goal, the team was absolutely stacked. The season, however, would become ill-fated due to an altercation in a game against the hated Bruins, in Boston on March 13th, 1955.
Richard was high-sticked in true Marty McSorley fashion by the Bruins Hal Laycoe. While a delayed penalty was signaled, Richard was furious, skated over to Laycoe and cross-checked him in the face after play had stopped. Referees moved in to restrain Richard but he kept breaking free and attacking Laycoe. Linesman Cliff Thompson would finally get a hold of Richard but he broke free once more, only to two-punch the linesman and knock him unconscious. Richard was handed an automatic match penalty and, as a repeat offender, was summoned to a hearing by then-NHL president Clarence Campbell.
Boston Police actually tried to arrest Richard in the dressing room, but were turned back by Canadiens players who barricaded the door. Bruins management would eventually persuade them to leave, promising that the league would handle the discipline. You can't make this stuff up folks. It was dramatized in the movie "The Rocket," which if you haven't seen, I highly recommend you do as soon as possible.
At the hearing, Richard would argue that he was dazed, and did not mean to attack the linesman. Campbell didn't buy it, and suspended Richard for the remainder of the season and playoffs. This was the longest, and certainly the most significant suspension he would hand out during his 31 years as NHL president. Richard was a repeat offender, having slapped an official earlier that year in Toronto, and attacking an official is a very serious offence. However, it should come as no surprise that the suspension drew the ire not just of die-hard Canadiens fans, but of French Canadiens in general. Many thought it was not just a hockey matter, but a concerted effort by the English to further oppress French Canada by sidelining it's favourite son.
In spite of receiving numerous death threats, Clarence Campbell would pull a truly idiotic move by announcing his intention to be in the Forum for the next Canadiens home game against Detroit. Why he thought this was a good idea is something that I will never be able to understand. Richard was a hero in Montreal and his suspension generated untold fury. In modern terms, this would be like Gary Bettman declaring the same suspension for Carey Price, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec, and David Desharnais for good measure, then showing up to do a ceremonial face-off at the Bell Centre days later.
Protests were ongoing outside of the Forum well before the Detroit game even started, and first-hand accounts from that night suggest that the game (which was for first place) was far from the main attraction of the night. It went a little something like this: Campbell shows up as promised, takes his seat and is almost immediately pelted with eggs and various other projectiles for about 5 straight minutes. Fast forward to the end of the first, with the Habs down 4-1, the barrage starts again. A fan walks towards Campbell with his hand outstretched as if to shake his hand, but he reaches back and slaps Campbell, following up with a straight-right hand punch. As he is dragged away by police amid a barrage of food and garbage, a tear-gas bomb goes off, and all hell breaks loose.
The game is suspended, the Forum evacuated, Campbell and Canadiens GM Frank Selke write a note to Jack Adams declaring Detroit to be the victor, the fans from the Forum meet with the protesters outside, and the riot ensues. Fans outside had already been smashing windows and pelting cars with ice throughout the game, but now a full fledged riot is tearing Rue Ste. Catherine to pieces.
The riots would eventually subside around 3 am. Richard went on the radio and pleaded with the fans to stop, promising to return the next year and help the team win the cup. The damage, however, was done. Adjusted for inflation, the damage to the Forum, local businesses and private property was just under a million dollars. To make matters worse, the forfeit win for Detroit gave them first place and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. The Canadiens would lose the cup final to Detroit via a 7 game series in which the home team won every game.
Now, did Richard deserve the suspension? Probably. As mentioned, he was a repeat offender of a very serious infraction. It is noteworthy that he and Campbell butted heads earlier that season when Richard was forced to retract a statement he made in the papers, calling Campbell a "dictator" for suspending Bernie Geoffrion. But, if that was a factor, he surely would have been suspended for the first of his infractions, instead of just fined $250. Just imagine what Brendan Shanahan would award a player for doing something like this just once today. Regardless, had Campbell not been at that game, it is entirely possible that the riot would never have occurred. Jean Beliveau would later state that his absence may not have made a difference, while game official Red Storey attributed the entire riot directly to him. Whether or not the suspension was warranted, I find it hard to believe that there would have been a riot if Clarence Campbell stayed home.
The whole incident seemed to transform Richard into a mythical figure that embodied the socioeconomic struggles of French Canadians at the time. Some would go on to credit the Richard Riot with inspiring the "Quiet Revolution" of the 60's, that led to the FLQ crisis and separatist movement in Quebec. Despite being completely apolitical, and by all accounts not in favour of Quebec secession, Richard was viewed by some as the champion of the movement. The much simpler reality is that French Canadians were, for the most part, highly disadvantaged in that era, and their political uprising was almost inevitable. Richard became a case-study of sorts for Francophone nationalists who needed something like the intense passion of Montreal hockey fans to provide a spark for their cause. At any rate, the fact that this discussion could even take place shows how important hockey, and Maurice Richard, were and still are in Montreal. There is no other NHL city where the suspension of a single hockey player could cause a violent riot, and become the subject of geopolitical analysis decades afterwards.
Alas, life went on for the Montreal Canadiens. Dick Irvin lost his job as Head Coach during the off season, replaced by the legendary Toe Blake. As he promised while pleading for the end of the riot, The Rocket returned the next year and led the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory. Then he did it four more times in a row, for a record of 5 straight that still stands today, and probably will for eternity. 58 years ago today, Montreal was in shambles, and fans of the Tricolore had little hope. The very next year, they experienced the elation of a cup win. Last year, we felt a similar despair, without the theatrics. Here's hoping that this year's Canadiens can channel the ghosts of the Forum, and the spirit of Maurice Richard to rise from the ashes of a failed season, and do something spectacular.
Rest in peace, Maurice.