On the verge on a new hockey season, it is important to recognize and give respect to the roots of this amazing game. In this piece, we remember one of the most iconic moments in the long history of the Montreal Canadiens.
ROCKET SPORTS MEDIA – If there is one thing that hockey is famous for, it is inspiring a deep passion and devotion in both its players and the fans who support them. Lovers of the great game show their support in many different ways, and for the most part those ways are all calm and respectful. However, as many hockey fans will know, these passions can boil over into near hysteria on occasion, resulting in fights both on and off the ice that highlight the differences between teams and their fans.
This is the story and the history behind the infamous Richard Riot that took place on March 17, 1955.
Maurice ‘The Rocket’ Richard was famous for many things, not the least of which was his fiery temper that often saw him sent to the penalty box. He was by no means an outlier in the NHL of the 1950’s. Much like the games of today, fighting in hockey was seen by many NHL team owners and fans alike as a great way to sell tickets because it gave the fans something to look forward to during the game apart from the actual sport itself. The Rocket was frequently at odds with anglophone NHL president Clarence Campbell because of his temper, resulting in several fines and suspensions before the events of March 1955.
To fully understand why it was so important that Campbell was an English speaker, it is first important to understand Montreal’s history and the relationship between the English and the French following the Second World War. Quebec was increasingly isolated from the rest of Canada during Maurice Duplessis‘s tenure as the premier of Quebec between the years of 1936-1939, and then again from 1944 until his death in 1959. Quebec was already a conservative province that saw the recent national shift towards centralization as a negative for themselves.
Duplessis led a party that was completely independent from any other party in the country that demanded autonomy for Quebec. He saw himself as the guardian of Quebec’s Roman Catholic values, and as such, these values had to be protected at all costs, which also meant protecting Quebec’s wealth from being shared with the rest of the country. Because the church was pro-conservative and held so much power in the province, especially over education, it was difficult for Duplessis to be ousted from power. This era of political corruption, where many things were kept from the people of Quebec, was known as The Great Darkness.
The divide between Quebec’s English and French speakers had been growing ever wider since the days of the seigneurial system in Quebec. For those unfamiliar with what the seigneurial system was, it was a system of land distribution that was established in New France in 1627. 80 percent of New France’s population lived under this system of occupation in which a landowner, or seigneur, granted a piece of land to an individual or family under a royalty system, not dissimilar to the feudal system in Europe. The system was officially abolished in 1854, but many francophones saw the English as economic descendants of the seigneurial system in Montreal.
During the Duplessis era, the division between the English and French speakers of Canada that had been around since the days of the English seigneurs grew even deeper, and Richard as a Quebecois player was seen as a symbol of provincial identity. French-Canadian players already operated under the assumption that they would be treated unfairly in a predominantly English speaking NHL. As such, tensions tended to run a bit higher between Francophone players and their English counterparts.
Richard’s French Canadian fighting spirit was on full display during a game against the Boston Bruins on March 13th, 1955. Montreal and Boston were facing off in an incredibly heated game that came to a head at the 15:11 mark during the third period when Hal Laycoe struck Richard in the head with his hockey stick. In the scuffle that followed, linesman Cliff Thompson began bleeding from his eye after suffering a deliberate punch to the face from Richard. As a result, Richard was given a game penalty for trying to fight Laycoe while Laycoe went unpunished.
Three days later, at a meeting between representatives from the NHL, Boston, Montreal, and both Laycoe and Richard, Richard was suspended for the remaining three games of the season as well as the entire post season. Both the Habs and their fans were infuriated by this decision, claiming that it was Richard’s French Canadian heritage that motivated the decision to begin with, but they were also angry because it put the Habs at risk for losing the Stanley Cup alongside their first place position.
However, their rage was only made worse after Campbell showed up at the following night’s game between Montreal and the Detroit Red Wings 10 minutes after the game had already started. Fans began throwing food and other objects at Campbell as he made his way to his seat, and one fan even managed to slap him in the face. Soon after, a teargas bomb went off forcing the game to a close and the angry fans onto Rue Ste. Catherine in Montreal.
Fans were already on high alert due to the fact that it was St. Patrick’s Day, but they also clamoured for revenge following Campbell’s decision to suspend Richard. Those participating in the riot smashed windows, flipped cars, looted stores, and did over $500,000 dollars worth of damage to the area surrounding the Forum. That night alone, 137 arrests were made in connection with the riot.
The following day, Maurice Richard, who had been in the stands during the game that led to the Riot, was convinced to appear on national radio.
I want to do what is good for the people of Montreal and the team.
In a plea for the violence to stop, Richard said, “Because I always try so hard to win and had my troubles in Boston, I was suspended. At playoff time it hurts not 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. I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and the younger players to win the Cup.”
The Richard Riot has gone down in history as one of the darkest nights that hockey has ever seen, and further served to divide the Canada’s anglophone and francophone populations.
By Cate Racher, Hockey History Researcher.
All Habs Hockey Magazine
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