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Happy 18th Henri!

Today, February 29, 2008, is Henri Richard's 18th birthday - he turns 72!

A leap year baby born in 1936, Richard was a man born to defy odds and circumstance.

I learned about Henri's birthdate at a young age. My father was a great and astute hockey fan to whom I owe a tremendous amount of perspective to. He was born on August 31, 1931 - the same day as Jean Beliveau! My mother, oddly enough, was born on February 28th, likely just hours before Henri.

Me, I've had to settle with sharing a birthday with Eric Desjardins and Valeri Bure in Habs lore!

Henri will assuredly take great pleasure today in joking that is finally eligible for the NHL draft and enjoying his first legally consumed brews in the bars of Montreal.

This birthday post is my tribute to Henri. I hope that younger fans of the Canadiens are able to appreciate this man, not having seen him play, for he is not only unique in many ways, but he is a life story waiting to be turned into a movie.

Enjoy the post folks, and by all means check out each link below and learn about the man many consider a hockey icon. Henri, should you read this - all the best to you in love, family, health, and happiness. May the current Habs family provide you with another Cup win!

Henri Richard is not only one of my all time favorite Montreal Canadiens, but in my books he is one of the best and most complete NHL'ers of all time.

My appreciation of Henri goes beyond the incredible 11 Stanley Cup championships he has been a crucial ingredient in. My regard for him has less to do with him being the younger brother of the iconic Rocket Richard.

The reason I love the Pocket so much was that he is in every possible way the consumate Montreal Canadiens player. Despite a bundle of offensive gifts, Henri Richard was a team player first and foremost, and possibly wore the CH emblem on his chest with more pride than any Montreal Canadien before him or since.

I consider myself quite fortunate to have not only seen him play, but see him in one pivotal game, late in his career when he was at his very best.

The game in question, the seventh of the 1971 Stanley Cup final against Chicago may have been Richards best game ever.

With Montreal down 2-0 in Chicago Stadium and the Blackhawks one period away from the Cup win, Henri Richard almost singlehandedly destroyed the Hawks hopes. After Jacques Lemaire scored his legendary 90 foot goal in the fog to make it 2-1 late in the second period, Richard took over and gave Chicago fits.

Poised against the Blackhawks dynamic duo of Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull, Richard not only shut them down and got under their skin, he forced them into taking penalties, pounced on their mistakes and led the Canadiens to an unexpected 17th Stanley Cup.

Four minutes after Lemaire scored, Richard tied the game at 18:20 of the second, while the Canadiens were down a man. Early in the third, Richard struck again at the 2:34 mark, breaking loose from Chicago defenders to streak in alone and beat Tony Esposito.

Henri was motivated by pride and sheer seeing red anger, having been benched by coach Al MacNeil the game before with the Habs trailing. Richard had made some blistering headline declarations that he'd latter regret concerning MacNeil's coaching abilities and was determined to prove him wrong in game seven.

Richard played this game as he had played many during his 20 year career - with an edge.
Entering the NHL as the Rocket's younger brother, Henri felt he had something to prove. He ended his career in much the same manner.

He was the consumate Hab because he understood the team ethic and was always prepared to sacrifice body and soul in order to win. Henri, after entering the NHL, retooled his game beyond his goal scoring and playmaking talents, to become one of the most well rounded players the game has known.

He became the Hab for all occassions, playing on both the powerplay early in his days and as a penalty killer in his latter years. He was frustrating to play against because he was relentless in his thirst for victory. At 5' 7", 170 lbs, Richard smartly used his speed rather than his physique to foil and disturb opponants.

When the going got rough, and it often did due to Henri's tactics, he never backed down. If there was a scrum, Henri was in it face first and likely at the heart of it.

Amassing over a 1000 career points from 1955 to 1975, Richard did it the hard way as he was never the team's number one pivot. Playing behind Jean Beliveau in the Canadiens pecking order at center for his first 16 seasons, Richard was often aligned against players of Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull's stripe, and his career numbers show that he did more than just shut them down.

In 1999, The Hockey News ranked it's top 50 NHL players of all time. The panel of hockey experts rated the Pocket Rocket 29th, but in my book, he was top 20.

Henri wouldn't care - he's won 11 Stanley Cups and owns hockey most unattainable record. When eternity is over, he'll still own it!

Here's what The Hockey News had to say:

Maurice Richard was very good at being great. Henri Richard was great at being very good.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference between the player THN judges to be the fifth greatest player of all time and his brother, Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard.

Rocket Richard was perhaps the most dramatic hockey player to ever grace the NHL, but aside from the essential question of goal scoring, his brother was a better player.

"Henri is better all around than I was", Maurice Richard said. "He stickhandles better, controls the puck more and skates faster. He's better in every way but goal scoring."

Henri delivered more seasons, played more games, and accrued more regular season and playoff points than the Rocket.

The second best goal scorer in the Richard family still managed to outscore Hall of Fame gunners such as Andy Bathgate and Nels Stewart, but if the real measure of the professional is victories, the little richard stands on the top of the mountain.

Henri Richard was a first team all star only one time, but more summers than not he went home to a parade. He won 11 Stanley Cups in 20 seasons. The great Rocket, by comparison, won eight and only two others, Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer, broke double figurs with 10. Former Bostob Celtics star Bill Russell, also an 11 time champion, is the only other North American athlete to have as many big league championships as Richard.

Just 5 foot 7 and 160 pounds, Richard was the best little man to step into the NHL. Dave Keon, the Toronto Maple Leafs Hall of Fame center, was among the legion of smallish players who learned not only how to survive but also thrive by watching Henri Richard.

Henri was only six when Maurice broke in with the Canadiens. Because of the 15 year gap in age, "Maurice was more like an uncle to me", said Henri.

Henri eschewed comparisons to his brother. His sister dated a plumber and when someone asked, that's the profession to which Henri Richard said he aspired.

Inside, he knew better.

"Playing hockey was what I wanted to do since I was six years old," Richard said. "I wanted to play with Montreal. Without hockey, I don't know what I would have done."

While his talent and drive were unquestioned, Richard's size made the NHL a longshot.

He weighed only 120 pounds as a star with the Jr. Canadiens, but he filled out and eventually made the Canadiens just in time to fit into the supporting cast of the club's five Cup run from 1955-56 through 1959-60.

A prolific goal scorer in junior - Richard had 56 goals and 109 points in 1953-54 - he never scored more than 30 goals or recorded more than 80 points in a season.

Instead, he fashioned himself into a steady 20 goal scorer as a pro, one whose skating, tenacity, positioning and playmaking made him an outstanding NHL player. Richard led the league in assists twice.

"I wanted to be like Maurice, but I soon found out I couldn't be like him", Henri said. "I just couldn't put the puck in the net, so I had to change my style."

That style made him a perfect counterpoint to the Rocket, whom he centered for the first five seasons in the league.

"Henri kept me in the league a year or two longer than I normally would have stayed", said the Rocket. "The way he skated, the way he worked, he made my job easy, much easier than I would have found it otherwise."

"You can take Jean ( Beliveau ) and all the others", said former Canadiens defenseman Ken Reardon, "Give me Henri. That little bugger could skate for five minutes without getting tired."

When he arrived in the league, Henri Richard was unilingual and he was so intimidated by the hallowed Forum, he did not feel at home enough to shave there for 10 years. He matured, however, into a well respected leader and captain.

After quarrelling with then head coach Al MacNeil in the 1971 finals, Richard scored the tying and Stanley Cup winning goal in game seven at Chicago Stadium.

Richard also scored the controversial Cup winner in 1966 when he knocked in the decisive goal with his arm while skidding on the ice. The losing Detroit Red Wings were incensed.

"They say there is no room in the game for small players", said former team mate Pete Mahovlich. "I'll tell you something: if they have the same fire and drive that Henri Richard had, there's always room for players like that."

Here are a handful of links about Henri Richard to complete the picture of the man, starting with one from this site, arguing that it is a no brainer that Henri is one of the top 50 NHL'ers of all time.

11 Stanley Cups Ought To End Any Debate - Eyes On The Prize

Q. How did the Chicago Blackhawks blow the 1971 Stanley Cup? - Pro Ice Hockey

Leap year baby Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard to celebrate 18th birthday - Canadian Press

Above, a pic from the Henri Richard Tavern in the 1970's.

A Weekend With Henri Richard - Habs World

"He exudes a certain dignity that he carries wherever he goes. And even while checking into the hotel, he made a point to talk to all of the younger hockey players. While many of them were unaware of who he was, there was a light that went off on many of the youngsters faces as soon as their fathers told them who this dignified looking gentlemen was." - T.C.

HHOF: Henri Richard Biography

HHOF: Spotlight - One On One with Henri Richard

"I wanted to play hockey because Maurice was playing hockey. But I never said it to anybody. When I was in school, they used to ask me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I never said, 'A hockey player.' I always said, 'A plumber' or something like that." - Henri Richard

HHOF: Henri Richard Photo Gallery

The Henri Richard Collection at Classic Hockey Auctions

A Bio by Kevin O'Shea at Montreal

A Bio by Mike Wyman of Inside Hockey

A Bio from Hockey's Greatest Legends

Above: Prior to the 1959-60 season - Rocket Richard's final year - the Canadiens invited Maurice and Henri's youngest brother Claude to training camp. The three Richard brothers played on a line together during a pair of exhibition games that year.

Above: The Pocket sticks it to the Blackhawks a second time in 1973, winning his 11th and final Stanley Cup as captain of the Habs.

Here is Henri today

This recent photo was taken by Dave Sandford and features the surviving members of the Canadiens five in a row dynasty from the 1950's

(Bottom L-R) Dickie Moore, Jean Beliveau and Tom Johnson (Top L-R) Don Marshall, Jean-Guy Talbot and Henri Richard pose for a group photograph during the "Salute to the Stanley Cup Legends" on June 1, 2007 at the Brookstreet Hotel in Ottawa, Canada.