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Rocket Richard: How could I know it wasn’t his mother?

Rocket Richard scored the last goal of his remarkable, record-setting career in Game 3 of the 1960 Stanley Cup finals against Toronto at Maple Leaf Gardens. It was classic Richard, a goal scorer’s goal- a sudden turnaround backhand shot that beat Johnny Bower

My own appreciation for the Rocket goes back even further than that. I was born into it.

As I’ve alluded to in earlier articles, for the men in my family, love of and for the Montreal Canadiens was just behind love of Church and faith, and tied for second with love of family.

My Dad was born in 1910. As a young man he had made a trek to New York City to watch his favorite baseball team, the Yankees, in action. He saw all-time greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig first-hand, and also had the opportunity to watch them live several times closer to his home at old Navin Field, later re-named Briggs Stadium, in Detroit.

But as much as he loved the Yankees, his real passion was the Canadiens, and especially “Rocket” Richard.

My two older brothers, especially my eldest brother, were also fans of the Habs. In perhaps my only outward form of rebellion, I decided at the age of 4 to cheer not for Montreal, but for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (See my earlier post How I Became a Leaf fan.)

With the Rocket (and later, his younger brother Henri) helping the Canadiens win many Stanley Cups in the 40s and 50s, the Canadiens were important in Quebec and French-Canadian society. Their successes on the ice somehow created a sense of pride within those who cared for the team.

Though not a Montreal fan, with all this in my blood, it was an honor for me the first time I had an opportunity to interview the Rocket. I never actually met him in person, but in 1978, I was newly married and living for a brief time in Montreal. I was working primarily as a newscaster for a then fledgling local radio station, flag shipped in Ottawa but with a local affiliate in Montreal.

I had negotiated my way into hosting a once-a-week sport talk show on Sunday evenings, and I wanted to land the Rocket as a guest. Now, I was all of 25 years old at the time, but wasn’t afraid to pick up the phone. I contacted the office of the Canadiens, to see how I could make a contact with Richard. He wasn’t associated with the club at the time, but I was hoping they could at least help me contact him. They passed me along to a man who was Richard’s business agent, who in turn gave me Richard’s number.

The Rocket wasn’t home when I called, but I left a message and he was kind enough to return my call.

By way of background, my family was southern Ontario francophone, not Quebecois, and my French-language skills had eroded significantly by the late 70s. Of course, because my last name is French the Rocket naturally spoke in French when he called me back, referring to me as “Michel” (the many nuns who taught me in my French-speaking elementary school would have been pleased) instead of Michael.

I stumbled around trying to sound comfortable in French, and said to him, in somewhat broken French, “Merci pour retourner mon appel…J’ai parlez avec votre mere”… which roughly translated (I realized too late) is “Thanks for returning my call…I had spoken earlier with your mother…”

Now, understand, the Rocket would have been in his late 50’s by then. I had no doubt spoken with his wife, not his mother- who may well have been long dead by then.

Was I somehow picturing the Rocket as some 60 year-old guy still living with his mother? I mean, I had seen photos of him from his playing days, with his own children. So I’m not sure what I was thinking, but let’s blame it on my discomfort with the language.

In any event, the Rocket was too gracious to correct me. He readily agreed to be interviewed over the phone the following Sunday evening, and we had a great conversation.

He did me the favor of also appearing by telephone on a program I hosted at a different station a year or so later, where again he was gracious in recalling various events from his playing days. (Click on the audio link if you’d like to hear my last interview with him.)

When Richard died a few years ago, the province of Quebec virtually stopped - and mourned. Someone of importance, someone who mattered deeply to many people in Quebec and beyond, had died.

I was too young to see him play in person. I only saw him a little bit on television. He retired when I was turning 7. But by all accounts he was the finest goal scorer and the best player under pressure the game has ever seen.

Opposing players often spoke of his passion, and of how his eyes would light up when he had the puck and was fighting his way to the net.

In Quebec, and for that matter across Canada, there was and will only ever be one “Rocket”. Everyone knows who you’re talking about when you say that name.

To speak with him (and his wife…or mother…) was a privilege, especially given my family history.

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