Category Archives: Maurice Richard

R.I.P. Gordie

Howe and Rocket

When I was a kid in the schoolyard, the conversation with my buddies would go something like this:

Rocket’s better.
Nope, Howe’s better.
No way. Rocket’s better.
Howe’s better.
Take off, hoser.
No you take off.
Shut up and your mother wears army boots. (Or words to that effect).

That’s what it was. Always the same thing. Rocket and Howe. Two completely different players, but Howe was the enemy and Rocket was my hero, so I won. And I’ve  known now for years that Howe was the better all-round player, but I didn’t then and I wouldn’t have admitted it even if I did.

In the 1990s I had breakfast with the legendary goalie Glenn Hall, who was in Powell River for the Allan Cup. Glenn was a teammate of Gordie’s in the 1950s with Detroit, and played against him while with Chicago and St. Louis.

Glenn had also faced the Rocket and Orr during his Hall of Fame career, and because he lived near Edmonton and still involved in hockey in various ways, was as familiar with Wayne Gretzky as practically anyone.

I asked who he thought was the greatest ever and he didn’t hesitate. Howe, he answered, because he could do it all, and the others couldn’t.

I didn’t tell Glenn his mother wore army boots.

But Howe could do it all. His wrist shot was something to behold, his passes pinpoint, his deft scoring touch like few others, his unequaled on-ice intelligence, the unparalleled respect he rightfully earned from other players.

And tough? You want tough?

My friend and former co-worker Gilles Gratton was a backup goalie during the 1974 WHA Canada-Russia Summit Series, and he told me about the time Gordie’s son Mark was leveled by a Soviet defenceman in dastardly fashion, so much so that an unsteady Mark initially skated to the wrong bench and had to be steered to the right one by Soviet players.

Not long after, Gordie just happened to skate by the player who nailed Mark, and the guy just happened to end up with a broken arm and was gone for the series.

You didn’t mess with Gordie or his kin.

Players in the NHL, WHA, or Russia didn’t go in the corners with Gordie. They timidly poked their sticks at the puck and then got the hell out of there before one of those famous elbows crushed their faces.

He did it all, legally or not. There was absolutely no one like him.

Several years ago Howe came to Powell River for an autograph signing and the prices charged for his signature were incredibly outlandish. Way higher than normal, maybe because Powell River is fairly isolated.

I was astonished at these abnormal prices and I wrote a column about it for the local newspaper in which I wasn’t very nice, coming down hard on him and the grocery store where the signing was held.

I regret that I did that. Extraordinary prices or not (and they were), this was a fine and friendly fellow, a legendary man, possibly the greatest hockey player to ever play the game,  and he was there trying to make a buck. What an asshole I can be sometimes.

Now he’s gone and it’s a sad day for me and you and millions of others. I can almost hear angels in heaven’s schoolyard: “Rocket’s better”. “No, Howe’s better.” “Take off, hoser”.

Gordie & Rocket

Bob Hill’s Rocket Riot Tune

From 1955, Bob Hill and his Canadian Country Boys sing about the Rocket and the events leading up to and during the Richard Riot on March 17th of that year.

It’s called Saga of Rocket Richard, and his 78 rpm record sells for several hundred clams now if one could find it.

But if you click right here you can listen to it for free on the Museum of Canadian Music site. (Just scroll down below the info and you’ll see ‘tracks.’)

It’s a fine little ditty, and I hope it makes you smile.

Because I like it when you smile.

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Saga of Rocket Richard

In this great game of hockey,
To which we do play,
There are heroes near and afar.
But the mightiest name in our national game,
Is Maurice the Rocket Richard.

When we need a man,
To encourage the fans,
He’ll shatter all records and more.
In fact quite the cream,
Of the Montreal team,
Is Maurice the Rocket Richard.

One evening in Boston, they struck at his head,
And cut him right over the ear.
With his temper so red and the way that he bled,
His thinking could not have been clear.

In the confusion,
Before they subdued him,
He’d struck an official I fear.
In so doing you know,
He’d trod on the toes,
Of Campbell, the man with no fear.

Says Campbell – young man,
That stick in your hand,
Has put you in trouble, by gar.
Though you needed five stitches,
You’re too big for your britches,
Just who do you think that you are.

Now you’ve done this before,
And you’ve made me quite sore,
And although you are a great star.
You’re through for the year,
Do I make myself clear,
Mr. Maurice the Rocket Richard.

In a terrible plight,
Was our Forum that night,
A riot got into high gear,
And when Campbell appeared,
He was slammed and jeered,
And his danger it soon became clear.

A fan tried to drop him,
The cops couldn’t stop him,
And a bomb made ’em all shed a tear.
As the president fled,
They cried “off with his head,”
Of Campbell the man with no fear.

Now our town has lost face,
And our team has disgrace,
But those hot-headed actions can’t mar,
Or cast any shame,
On the heroic name,
Of Maurice the Rocket Richard.

For he will return,
And his legend will burn,
In the annals of sport near and far.
There was never a name,
Of such stature and fame,
As Maurice the Rocket Richard.

Soup Riot

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When Clarence Campbell suspended Maurice Richard for the remaining three games of the season and all of the playoffs in March of 1955, he was not a popular man.

And of course Clarence wasn’t popular. His suspension of the Rocket was incredibly harsh, although Maurice did whack Bruins d-man Hal Laycoe a bunch of times with his stick after Laycoe had high-sticked him (which called for five stitches), and there was that coldcocking of linesman Cliff Thompson with a punch or two. But I digress.

Richard fans took to the streets, and as we all know, trashed shops along several blocks of Rue Ste. Catherine, which forever after became known as the Richard Riot, or the St. Patrick’s Day Riot.

But there was more than just smashing and looting. Only ordinary greaseballs just smash and loot.

One disgruntled Habs fan came up with a much more creative protest – design, print and cover Campbell’s (no relation to Clarence) soup cans with Maurice Richard labels, and for a short time after the incident, various stores sold their tomato soup this way.

 

The Big House For Tony

In almost all ways, Tony Demers, who played for the Montreal Canadiens from 1937 to 1943, was just another in a long line of players who came and went and are mostly forgotten now because they were never a Richard or Beliveau or Lafleur.

But unlike others who at one point in the lives had that cup of coffee in the bigs, Demers’ story carried a slight twist, one that is rarely discussed, and it’s a story with details that remain sketchy even today.

The beginning is about hockey.

In my house, I have a really nice photo of Demers posing with the Rocket and Elmer Lach on a line, so they gave him a shot with the big boys, I suppose. He looked like a guy poised to replace Toe Blake at some point on the Punch Line.

But Demers played parts of just five seasons in Montreal as he bounced up and down from the minors. He scored only 20 goals in total and was no star, not by a long shot. His short career ended during the 1943-44 season when he played one game with the New York Rangers, and that was that.

Sort of.

In 1945, Demers was fined for an assault on a hotel keeper. Then, the next year while playing senior hockey in Sherbrooke, he became involved in a gambling situation and was given a ten-game suspension. Things were bad up to this point, but they were about to get worse.

In 1949, Demers was hauled in to the police station regarding the death of a woman who was later revealed to be Demers’ girlfriend. The story issued was that the two had been drinking heavily, they had gotten into an argument, and that he had hit her.

Hospital officials said it was more than a simple hit, it was a thorough beating. Demers claimed she had gotten all her bruises from jumping from his moving car. And he didn’t take the unconscious woman to the hospital until the following day which was far too late, and tragically, the lady passed away.

The court didn’t buy the ‘jumping from the car’ story and Tony Demers was found guilty of manslaughter, given 15 years in the maximum security St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary in Montreal, and he served eight years of the fifteen before being released.

In the late 1980s, while I was living in Ottawa, it was announced that this notorious St. Vincent de Paul was finally closing its doors after about 100 years, and the public was invited to tour the closed prison for a dollar. So I took my family to Montreal for the day to have a look.

The penitentiary was a horrendous place. They had left the cells the way they were, so clothes, writings, and graffiti on the walls were there as they had been. It was dirty and dark and my kids were nervous. I think it might have set them on the straight and narrow from that day on.

In Roger Caron’s book Go Boy, he described St. Vincent’s as the meanest and most dangerous prison in Canada, and he knew what he was writing about because he had served most of his adult life in different institutions across the country. It was a prison that served its purpose in the most brutal of fashion..

It sure didn’t seem a fitting place for a hockey hero. While the Rocket, Blake, and Lach thrilled the Forum faithful with big goals and Stanley Cups, an old teammate, one who had once shared the dressing room, train rides, restaurants, and hotels, sat in a dark cell inside Canada’s worst prison, maybe listening from time to time on the radio as his old friends carried on.

Demers went mostly into obscurity after his release eight years later, did some youth coaching from time to time, and eventually died in 1997. It has to be one of the sadder stories in the 100-plus years of the Montreal Canadiens.

Below, Demers, Lach, and Richard.

Hi Normand, You Don’t Know Me But…

JIM WITHERS: FOR USE WITH STUBBS COLUMN IN EDITIONS OF MONDAY, MARCH 15, 2010: Canadiens legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard tapes a stick in the Canadiens dressing room during the 1959-60 season, the final season for the Habs great, watched by sons Normand (centre) and Maurice Jr. A new bilingual, two-DVD set featuring the Rocket is being released now, shortly before the 10th anniversary of his death, and Maurice Jr. says he's amazed at the enduring popularity of his late father. CREDIT: DAVID BIER STUDIOS, GAZETTE FILES

The Rocket tapes his stick during the 1959-60 season, while sons Normand and Maurice Jr. watch carefully.

Normand is the same age as me, and when I was living in Montreal a couple of years ago, I phoned him. Twice.

The first time I called, I opened with “Hi Normand, your dad was my hero!”, or something like that. The second time was more along the lines of, “Hi, it’s that guy again who called that other time.”

Normand was very nice and seemed just fine with the fact that some stranger was calling. I appreciated that.

Both times I called we talked for about 20 minutes or so, and during the second chat he agreed to meet me for coffee, although he said he was driving a friend’s car to Florida the next day and we’d have to wait until he got back.

I was very excited. I wanted to tell him that when I was a kid, I often wondered what it would be like to be the Rocket’s son. And I wondered if we’d need menus.

I wanted to be Normand’s friend back then, and I wanted to be his friend now.

But it wasn’t to be. Mainly because when he got back from Florida, I was back in Powell River.

Ralph Backstrom Was The Guy

He was all the things I knew were good in life – he skated like the wind, had a great brush cut and a pretty wife, and he wore the sweater of the Montreal Canadiens.

What’s better than that?

This was Ralph Backstrom, and I wanted to be just like him. I knew I wasn’t going to be another Rocket or Beliveau or Geoffrion, but I thought maybe I could be like Backstrom. And I wasn’t even on drugs when I thought this.

It meant getting a brush cut and trying to look like him when I watched him on TV taking faceoffs and darting up the ice with the puck. I could do that and I did. I got the brush cut.

Ralph came out of Kirkland Lake, Ontario, a little town in northern Ontario that churned out NHL players in abnormal fashion, having produced him and Ted Lindsay, Mike Walton, Dick Duff, Mickey and Dick Redmond, Wayne and Larry Hillman, the Plagers, and many others.

About 30 in all. That’s a lot of players.

Ralph was a phenom in Kirkland Lake minor hockey, and became captain and the best of the powerhouse Hull-Ottawa Canadiens juniors before he joined the big club. He had it all, I thought. I gotta practice more, I thought.

I admired the way Ralph Backstrom played, the way he skated and was so solid both as a playmaker and a checker. And I loved the way he and rival Dave Keon of the enemy Leafs went head to head on glorious nights when the Habs and Leafs were what life was all about for Canadian kids from coast to coast.

This guy isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and when he played he sometimes got into coach Toe Blake’s bad books. But he was a great hockey player. Underrated maybe, but absolutely great.

And I wanted to be just like him and I was. I had the brush cut.

DK

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John Scott A Hab?

john-scott-parros-201213

Above, a new Hab and an ex-Hab. Will the new one be as fantastic as the old one?

I come home and see this? Big John Scott traded to Montreal from Arizona for Jarred Tinordi, with a bunch of other names and Nashville involved, although these don’t matter.

Sam Pollock, looking down from above, sure must be impressed.

Finally, the team’s goal scoring problems have been addressed. Big John has notched 5 goals and 6 assists in his 285 games, which is awesome because we all know it’s hard to score in the NHL, and he did it 5 freakin’ times!

This is fantastic. Now we wait to see who will score first, John or Tomas Plekanec.

And 5 goals in 285 games is almost exactly what the Canadiens as a whole are doing.

Big John reminds me in many ways of Guy Lafleur, Rocket, and Jean Beliveau. He knows how to skate, sort of, and those three could skate too, albeit way better.

Beliveau was big, but John, standing 6’8″ and weighing 260 pounds, is bigger, so that’s good, right?

And he’s an all-star like them. Fan%$#&tastic! Forget about the difference between fans voting John in as a joke while Guy, Rocket, and Jean got there by merit. This is only a technicality. They all put on their all-star sweaters the same way.

I’m sure there are other similarities too. But right now, with the numbness in my brain, I can’t think of any.

Anyway, who needs a young, skilled, huge, rough d-man like Tinordi who was also a first round draft pick. When the opportunity to grab John Scott arises, you take it.

Beauty trade, Marc Bergevin.

I need a drink.

 

Letters On My Shelf

Many of these letters were written to me, while some I collected along the way. If you find these boring, please don’t tell me.

Beginning with –

Red Fisher (1965) (after I complained to him that Stan Mikita swore at me when I asked him for his autograph at a Hawks-Leafs exhibition game in Peterborough during the Leafs training camp).

Red

Phyllis King (1951) – Clarence Campbell’s secretary and future wife.

Phyllis

Here’s Clarence and Phyllis on their romantic date at the Forum, which helped spark the 1955 St. Patrick’s Day Richard Riot.

coverofTHN

Legendary sports editor Elmer Ferguson (1929). The Elmer Ferguson Memorial Award is presented to outstanding hockey journalists and includes the likes of Jacques Beauchamp, Red Burnett, Trent Frayne, Red Fisher, Andy O’Brien, Michael Farber, Roy MacGregor and others.

Elmer

Sam Pollock (1964). By far my favourite letter.

Claude Mouton (1985)

Irving Grundman (1983)

Almost three months to the day after General Manager Grundman wrote this letter, he was fired by the Canadiens and Serge Savard would take his place.

Forum secretary Manon Bruneau (1984)

Letter from Sam Pollock to Habs prospect Michel Lagace (1962). This is the kind of letter I would have liked to receive.

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Looking for tickets at Maple Leaf Gardens (1965 & 1966)

Two replies from Claude Mouton (1983) about my request for a stick. He gave me a Bob Gainey stick, signed by the entire team, which I picked up at the Forum after driving from Ottawa after graveyard shift.

Jean Beliveau (1984)

I decided I needed an 8X10 glossy of the Rocket shaking hands with Sugar Jim Henry, so I went right to the top. I wrote a letter to La Presse and it ended up on the desk of editor-in chief Gerard Pelletier (1964)

Pelletier would later serve in the Pierre Trudeau government, and was eventually awarded the Order of Canada.

Frank Selke Jr. (1961)

Happy 2016

New Year

Wishing all of you a fantastic New Year, with great health and happiness throughout.

I know the year will be a beauty for me because when you add up each digit in 2016 it totals 9, which was of course the Rocket’s number, and which has always been my special number because of.

And because I’m feeling good about that and other things, I’ve decided to give you a gift:

THE hangover cure.

Drink a bottle of Gatorade before you get into the alcohol. After you’ve finished enjoying your alcohol, drink three more Gatorades and have a nice bowl of chicken soup.

If that doesn’t work, smoke eight joints, drink a case of beer, and go to bed for two days.

nine

The Finest Jacket And Crest

Rocket’s jacket –

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Jean’s jacket –

Jean's jacket

My jacket –

Roy's jacket

My jacket belonged to a man I knew when I was a kid, Roy Faubert, who was a part time scout for the Canadiens. It came up in an auction in 2013 and I made sure I got it.

I knew it was Roy’s because I happened to be working at Classic Auctions in Montreal at the time, where it was put up for bids, and I saw his name and date on the inside pocket.

It was my job to write the description of the jacket for the auction catalogue, and when I saw Roy’s name, I couldn’t believe it.

(The fact that this jacket came back into my life after more than fifty years is weird, don’t you think?)

But before I even knew Roy, I was already after that unusual Habs crest, because the Rocket had one in the picture above which is in my scrapbook.

I was eleven when I wrote the Canadiens asking about the crest, and below is Frank Selke Jr’s reply.