One of the most important events in Quebec’s history in the 20th century came about because of a hockey game but it had nothing to do with a Stanley Cup. Instead, it was a suspension and the subsequent riot that would become a precursor to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s for the province.
At the time, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was the star of the Montreal Canadiens and an icon of the province. Known for his intense play, he was often antagonized by opposing players to push him into fighting or acting with anger on the ice.
Frank Selke would say of Richard, quote:
“he’s on fire inside all the time he’s on the ice. I’ve never had a player who tries so intensely.”
Several times throughout his career, he was suspended or fined, including once when he slapped a linesman in the face, earning a $250 fine.
Richard at the time was an incredibly important person to the Francophones of Quebec. In the 1950s, most of the industries and resources of the province were controlled by English Canadians and Americans, while the French-Canadians were the lowest paid ethnic group in the province. This caused growing discontent within the province and it would lead the riot that would alter the province forever.
On March 13, 1955, in a game in Boston, Richard got into a fight with Hal Laycoe after he was high-sticked in the head. Richard needed five stitches to close the cut on his forehead. When the whistle was blown to end the play, Richard skated up to Laycoe and hit him in the face with his stick. A linesman attempted to restrain Richard who repeatedly tried to attack Laycoe. Richard eventually broke the stick over the body of Laycoe. Linesman Cliff Thompson attempted to contain Richard and Richard punched him twice in the face, knocking him out. Richard was given a match penalty and an automatic $100 fine.
In the dressing room after the game, Boston police attempted to arrest Richard but were blocked from getting into the dressing room by Canadiens players. Eventually, the Bruins convinced the officers to let the Canadiens leave on condition that the NHL would take care of the issue.
The Canadian Press wrote of the incident quote:
“Maurice Richard, whose explosive temperament has again rocketed him into the sports headlines, finds himself Monday in familiar quarters, the National Hockey League doghouse.”
Many would call for Campbell to go easy on Richard. Grant Warwick, the coach of the world champion Penticton Vs, would state quote:
“If President Campbell is listening I want to ask him on behalf of all players with me to go easy on The Rocket.”
At the time, Clarence Campbell, a Western Canadian, was in charge of the NHL as its president, a role he held from 1946 to 1977.
A hearing was held, which dominated the news the following day. As for Richard, he was dealing with the impact of being hit in the head by a stick.
Coach Dick Irvin would say of Richard that day quote:
I noticed the Rocket looked pale and strained when he reported for practice this morning. He told me about the headaches and said he hadn’t slept all night. After talking with him I immediately called Dr. Young and the doctor ordered Richard to the hospital at once.”
Richard stated he was dazed by the hit to the head. He would state that he did not remember what happened, adding quote:
“When I’m hit, I get mad and I don’t know what I do. Before each game, I think about my temper and how I should control it, but as soon as I get on the ice, I forget all that.”
He stated he thought Thompson was a Bruins player, not a linesman.
Campbell would rule that Richard be suspended for the rest of the season as well as the playoffs. It was the longest suspension that Campbell would issue during his 31 years as league president.
Campbell would issue a statement after the hearing, stating that he did not believe Richard had struck the linesman by accident as Richard had claimed. He cited the previous instance where Richard had slapped a linesman of evidence of this.
He would say in his statement quote:
“I am also satisfied that Richard did not strike Linesman Thompson as a result of mistake or accident as suggested.”
Campbell would continue in his statement, quote:
“The time for probation or leniency is past. Whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or willful defiance of the authority in the games does not matter. It is a type of conduct which cannot be tolerated by any player, star or otherwise.”
Over the course of his career, Richard had only been suspended once before. He had also paid $2,500 in fines to the NHL.
The Edmonton Journal reported quote:
“Richard himself left the meeting glumly and in silence. He wore a patch over the cut on his scalp. He came to the session from a hospital where he was sent Tuesday for x-ray and other examinations as a result of his head wound.”
In Montreal, it was felt the punishment was unjust and too severe. It was another example for the Francophones of the province of the power that Anglophones held. CKAC, a French radio station, had listeners call in with their opinions. Roughly 97 per cent said that while punishment was justified, the suspension of the playoffs was too severe.
Minutes after the judgement was announced, the head office of the NHL received hundreds of phone calls from enraged fans. Many of the fans made death threats against Campbell. One person said to Campbell’s secretary quote:
“Tell Campbell I’m an undertaker and he’ll be needing me in a few days.”
Another person told Campbell quote:
“I intend to kill you and I already have a hiding place picked out.”
One NHL official suggested that Campbell be provided with police protection and a bodyguard.
Mayor Jean Drapeau would say that the NHL was trying to kill hockey in Montreal. He would add quote:
There was speculation that Richard would choose to retire, and plenty of job offers came in for him. Richard was quoted as saying after hearing the judgement against him, quote:
“I’m sorry my career should end this way.”
A butcher shop would display an advertisement in the Montreal Gazette stating quote:
“We’re with you 100 per cent and personally feel you were the object of a raw deal decision. Being unable to contact you personally at this time, we are, via this ad, offering you a bona fide position with our firm, selling wrapping papers, twines, refrigeration and allied lines.”
In the House of Commons, Leon Balcer, a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament, attempted to introduce the issue of the suspension but there were loud cries of order and the Speaker of the House said that he could not bring up such a topic as a question of privilege.
Campbell, refusing to back down, stated he would attend the next home game of the Canadiens on March 17.
Campbell would state after quote:
“I never seriously considered not going to the game. I’m a season ticketholder and a regular attendant and I have a right to go. I felt that the police could protect me. I didn’t consult them and they didn’t advise me not to attend.”
Richard, for his part, didn’t know if he would go to the game. In the end, his wife told him that she was going, and he decided to go along.
Two hours before the game, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the Montreal Forum. Many tried to crash the gate but were stopped by police. Eventually, the crowd grew to 6,000 people.
CKVL had a mobile sound unit at the game. Marcel Beuregard, feature editor of CKVL would say later quote:
“We were almost certain that there was going to be trouble. It was in the air.”
The mood eventually started to sour among the crowd and some protestors began to smash windows and throw chunks of ice at street cars.
Campbell would arrive midway through the first period of the game and 15,000 people began to boo him. Some fans started to throw eggs and vegetables at him, something that continued for six straight minutes. An orange hit him square in the back, and another object knocked his hat off.
Campbell would say quote:
“I tried to avoid doing anything that would provoke the crowd.”
With the Canadiens down 4-1 by the end of the first period, the fans were becoming more irate. At one point, a fan was able to get close to Campbell. The incident is described as such quote:
“One man, pretending to be a friend of the NHL president, slipped by the guard of ushers and police and extended his hand to Campbell. When he was close enough, he slapped Campbell across the face and then punched him. As he was tackled by police, he still struggled to attack the NHL president flailing his arms and legs.”
Soon after this point, a tear gas bomb went off near where Campbell was sitting. While it was never found who threw the tear gas bomb, what is believed is that whoever did it, ironically, saved Campbell’s life. The Chief of Detectives, George Allain, would say quote:
“The bomb thrower protected Campbell’s life by releasing it at precisely the right moment.”
Ottawa Journal reporter W.G. Westwick would write quote:
“Smoke poured up, billowing straight up and then spreading through the section. Women were screaming and all near the scene either fanned out or retreated. Campbell left shortly afterwards. I’ve never seen as many people with tears streaming down their face.”
The Montreal fire chief then stated the game had to be suspended and the Forum evacuated for the safety of the fans.
Campbell then sent a note to Jack Adams, the GM of the Red Wings, stating that the game was forfeited to his team.
Outside the Forum, fans began to riot with the demonstrators who were not inside the game. People chanted Down With Campbell and Vive Richard.
Police pushed the crowd back towards the park. The chief of police would say why the police didn’t run into the crowd to grab anyone who was throwing items, stating quote:
“It was dangerous to rush into the crowd to get them. It was full of women and children, some of them in carriages, some in arms. It was slippery. Had we used too much force, many people might have been trampled. As it was , there were several close calls.”
More windows were smashed, newsstands were lit on fire and cars were overturned. By this point, it was estimated there were 10,000 people in the rioting crowd.
In a 15-block radius around the Forum, about 50 stores were looted and vandalized.
Many at the riot were not hockey fans. One police officer arrested a man who said he was a lumberjack from Chalk River, Ontario. When asked if he loved Richard, the man said quote:
“Richard, who’s he?”
At 11:15, the back entrance of the Forum was quiet so Richard’s car was brought up to the door so he and his wife could be loaded in. Richard would say later quote:
“When I got home, I listened to the riot on the radio. I felt badly. Once I felt like going downtown and telling the people over a loudspeaker to stop their nonsense. But it wouldn’t have done any good. They would have carried me around on their shoulders.”
Campbell couldn’t get out of the arena until 11:30. The Montreal Gazette reported quote:
“Led by Acting Director Tom Leggett, a police escort accompanied Campbell and Miss King to the back of the Forum while thousands of fans shouted for his scalp outside the front entrance. So riotous were the fans that only a few ushers would chance to move about in the lobby as pieces of ice, bottles and various other missiles came sailing through the window.”
As soon as he got home he called his father to tell him he was okay. He then took the phone off the hook because of the constant phone calls.
Lester Patrick, the owner of the New York Rangers would say quote:
“I’m astonished. I’m flabbergasted. This has never happened before in sport anywhere in Canada and it never happened at the fights in Madison Square Garden in New York as long as I was there.”
Elmer Ferguson of the Montreal Herald would write quote:
“You may not agree with his judgement but you can’t but admire the superb courage of Clarence Campbell, a man who faced death throughout World War Two, to whom the heckling and the minor missiles and the torrents of verbal abuse ranging from stupid to obscene hurled his way bounced like thistledown off one who had faced shells and shrapnel.”
By midnight, the riot was growing and rocks were thrown through the windows of the Royal Bank. Constables were armed with a stick and revolver, and a police car was loaded with teargas bombs, while firemen had a high pressure hose ready. The chief of police chose not to use any of these methods, stating quote:
“It might have led to panic and hysteria and that’s when people get killed.”
The riot continued for hours, until 3 a.m., leaving the entire area is shambles.
The riot led to the arrest of 100 people, and $100,000 in damages, almost $1.1 million in 2022 funds. In one jewelry store, the damage were $68,000 in today’s funds. About 25 civilians and 12 police officers were injured. As well, eight police cars, several streetcars, taxicabs and cars were damaged.
The director of police would say quote:
“It was the worst night I’ve had in my 33 years as a policeman.”
Jack Adams of the Red Wings would blame Montreal officials for the riot stating quote:
“If they hadn’t pampered Maurice Richard, built him up as a hero until he felt he was bigger than hockey itself, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Frank Hanley of Montreal City Council blamed Mayor Jean Drapeau for publicly criticizing the decision by Campbell to suspend Richard. The mayor would blame the riot on Campbell, saying he provoked it by attending the game.
Frank D. Corbett, a local citizen, wrote in a letter to the editor quote:
“French and English relationships have deteriorated badly over the past 10 years and they have never been worse. The basic unrest is nationalism which is ever present in Quebec. Let’s face it, the French Canadians want English expelled from the province.”
At 6 a.m. the next day, a reporter knocked on his door, which was answered by Richard’s six-year-old son who said quote:
“I hope you didn’t come to talk to him about hockey.”
Newspapers quickly condemned the riot. The Montreal Star stated that it was shameful, while the Toronto Star stated quote:
“It’s savagery which attacks the fundamentals of civilized behaviour.”
Newspapers as far away as London and Los Angeles reported on it, highlighting what was seen as the violence of hockey. One Dutch newspaper stated that the stadium had been destroyed, 100 people were injured and 27 were dead.
Richard would give a statement in French and English on March 18, he would say quote:
“Because I always try so hard to win and had my troubles in Boston, I was suspended. At playoff time, it hurts not to be in the game with the boys. However, I want to do what is good for the people of Montreal and the team. So that no further harm will be done, I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and to help the boys win from the New York Rangers and Detroit.”
Campbell, for his part, refused to apologize. Many were angry at Campbell for attending, saying he was trying to assert his power over the NHL and he disrespected Montreal. Jean Beliveau years later that he disagreed with Campbell for attending, but stated that even if Campbell was not there, it likely would not have made a difference with the riot.
Toronto Maple Leafs president Conn Smythe would state of the riot quote:
“I’m glad I’m in Florida. It is a shame a man like Clarence Campbell has to take abuse of that kind. It’s terrible.”
Campbell would state that he was being at the game quote:
“I have already received this morning three calls from governors of the league who are owners of their clubs, commending me very highly for my decision on the Richard case and the manner in which I have conducted myself, including my attendance at the game. As far as I personally am concerned, I haven’t changed my attitude in the slightest regarding my privilege as a citizen to attend a game.”
One Montreal city councillor would state that Campbell should be arrested, stating quote:
“I want a warrant not only for last night but also if he ever sets his foot in the Forum again.”
The suspension and the ending of the game against Detroit had far reaching consequences. For one, Richard was leading the NHL in points when he was suspended. He would lose the scoring title to his teammate Bernie Geoffrion, who was booed by Canadiens fans when he won the scoring title over Richard by one point. Thanks to Montreal forfeiting the interrupted game to Detroit, the Red Wings took first place in the league and gained home ice advantage. They would win the Stanley Cup that year over Montreal in game seven, which was played in Detroit.
After the season, coach Dick Irvin left the team, to be replaced by Toe Blake. Many felt that Irvin had riled up Richard, causing his eruptions on the ice. One year later, Irvin was dead from bone cancer.
Richard, of course, did not retire after the suspension.
In the end, he chose to work with Toe Blake to control his temper on the ice and he played a further five seasons. In those five seasons, he won five straight Stanley Cups, scored another 122 goals and 240 points, earned First & Second Team All-Star honours, won the Lou Marsh Trophy and two Canadian Press Male Athlete Of The Year Awards. When he retired at the end of the 1959-60 season, he was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
More importantly, the Richard Riot proved to be a factor in the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. French Canadians saw the suspension of Richard as a slight against a cultural icon. The riot was seen as a sign of rising tensions in Quebec over the divide between French and English residents.
Only days after the riot, many saw it as an example of the growing nationalism in the province.
As time passed, the riot gained greater significance and mythology around it. Some ascertained that if there had not been a riot, there would not be a Rocket Richard myth.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Regina Leader-Post, CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Windsor Star, Edmonton Journal, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Journal,