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With Boston-Vancouver upon us, the Rocket’s name is still legendary at playoff time more than 50 years after his retirement

When I was a young boy, in the late 1950s, my oldest brother had a nickname for me—I was “Rocket”.

That meant a lot because I looked up to my older brother (he was 11 or 12 years older than I was and he was a great athlete, etc.) and his reference to “Rocket” had to do with his then favorite hockey player, Maurice “Rocket” Richard. As a kid, I was thrilled.

I’ve written here in the past about my father’s love for his Montreal Canadiens. Following the Habs was a passionate interest of his. Dad always spoke with reverence about a number of old-time Montreal greats from the ’20s and ‘30s (players such as Aurel Joliat and Howie Morenz, for example). Dad loved all the Montreal greats and saw them and Richard play in person a number of times. But for Dad, Richard was someone special.

Maybe it was because, in some ways, especially in terms of his competitiveness and fiery temper, Richard was like my Dad. But more importantly, as a fellow French-Canadian, there seemed to be a feeling of being a minority, the sometimes disrespected underdog.

On a socio-cultural level, something deeper and more important was at stake when Richard and the Habs played.

When you cheered for the Rocket (shown at right in his later years when he was the team captain), you were seemingly cheering for more than a player. You were pulling what he stood for- the French-Canadian culture- though Richard himself always said he was just a hockey player, not a political force.

What brought this on was a reminder from a colleague on Twitter this week that it was exactly 11 years ago that the Rocket died. (I've included one of my favorite old-time photos above of the Rocket cutting around a then young Pierre Pilote to fire a backhand against another future Hall-of-Famer Glenn Hall.) If you saw the funeral television coverage, you will remember that his passing was treated like that of a Head of State—only in his case, he was just an everyday guy who was a beloved figure in his home province of Quebec. Tens of thousands paid their respects.

When I think of Richard specifically at this time of year (the playoffs) it is in the context of what a dynamic big-game player he was. I don’t know all the old playoff records he held for many years, but one number stands out to this day: Richard scored 82 goals in his playoff career in only 133 games.

That number, 82, was the NHL record for a long time—probably Gretzky broke the mark, but in the old “Original Six” days, that was an amazing number to achieve. The number always stayed with me as, again, something special.

The thing is he scored big goals, and probably had more playoff overtime winners than anyone in the history of the game. He was considered to be the best of the big-game players in his— or perhaps any—era. He played for 8 Stanley Cup winners in his brilliant 18-year career.

Perhaps his most famous goal was his OT winner against “Sugar” Jim Henry one year. That was the night he had been knocked out of the game but came back onto the ice, though not really recovered, to play in overtime. (Richard had undoubtedly suffered a serious concussuion. Nowadays, it wouldn't be possible for a player to return, given the modern protocols in place…)

Richard fought his way around the Bruin defenseman on his side of the offensive rush (Bill Quakenbush, I think it was, the great old Boston defenseman) and then deked past Henry in goal to score the winner- long one of the most storied goals in NHL history. (On the right, you can see the remarkable and forever famous Roger St. Jean photo taken of a bloodied Rocket with Henry after the game.)

The only Richard playoff goal I personally saw (that I can remember at least) on television was his last ever NHL goal. It was in the 1960 finals in Toronto. He turned quickly and sent a quick rising backhander past Johnny Bower at Maple Leaf Gardens. I can’t remember if it was in Game 3 or Game 4 of the series.

How many Conn Smythe Trophies would he have won, if such an award were around when he played?

It’s ironic—I remember, as a kid, reading a magazine article about Richard, where he said he found it hard sometimes to get motivated to play when the playoffs went well into April, because the weather was too nice outside.

I doubt the Rocket would like having to play in June (as the Canucks and Bruins now must) but he did just fine in the playoffs way back when, even when the weather was “too nice”…

1 comment:

  1. Game 3! 5-2, Montreal. Richard's 82 and final goal. Here's how it sounded:

    "A pass, intercepted by Maurice Ricahrd, Maurice Richard pass it right in front of the net, Moore took a whack at it, Maurice Richard, sets, HE SCORES!"

    "Maurice Richard, finally came througth there with a beautiful effort."

    Richard scrooped up the puck and skated over to the bench. Somehow, he knew it was all over!

    Have to admit, he was one competitor! But if you ask me, Howe is the best right winger ever, and Beliveau, the best Hab ever. Still, Richard gave you your money's worth - every night. And his brother wasn't have bad either!