Sunday, 28 June 2009

Launching Rockets

We've checked out some of the major hardware that is handed out in the NHL. So far, we've learned the history and some facts about the Stanley Cup, the Hart Trophy, the Art Ross Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Trophy, the Norris Trophy, the Vezina Trophy, and the Calder Trophy. In each case, there has been some interesting history behind each of the trophy in terms of how and why it was donated. Today, we look at one of the harder trophies to win in the NHL simply due to the fact that everyone is trying to stop you from winning. The Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy is the newest trophy in the history of the NHL, and is awarded "annually to the goal-scoring leader during the regular season". Where did the Richard Trophy come from? How did the NHL obtain it? Who has been the most prolific goal-scorer thus far?

The trophy was donated in 1999 by the Montreal Canadiens to the NHL to honour the life of one the NHL's best scoring threats. Richard spent his entire 18-year career with his hometown Canadiens, and set numerous scoring records while playing in the NHL. However, it was almost as if his path had been chosen for him before he ever embarked on a professional hockey career.

Joseph Henri Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Sr. was born in Montreal, Quebec on August 4, 1921. He was an exceptional hockey player as a child, and worked hard on being the fastest skater as a young player. However, in 1939, he applied to become part of Canada's military with the outbreak of World War II. He was denied twice by the military as a com,bat soldier, citing him "unfit for military duty", after x-rays showed that his previously broken wrists, ankle, and femur had not healed properly. These were injuries suffered in junior hockey.

He applied with the military again as a machinist, but the military again denied his application. This time, he was turned away due to not having a high school diploma or technical school diploma. Richard had dropped out of school at age 16 and worked in a local factory to help out at home. Because he had not graduated, the military would not accept him.

He enrolled in Montreal Technical School as a machinist, and worked hard to earn his degree. However, the war ended before Richard completed the four-year program, and he was no longer needed in the Canadian military. This disappointed Richard greatly as he was fiercely patriotic and wanted the opportunity to serve.

Richard almost had his rights traded by the Canadiens prior to joining the team. The Canadiens viewed him as too injury-prone after having suffered the various ailments above. However, they did like his speed and tenacity, and decided to give the kid a chance as a left winger, an unnatural position for Richard considering he had played right wing most of his life.

When Richard joined the Canadiens in 1942, he was given #15 as a rookie. As you may know, numbers were assigned by sleeping cars on the train, and the rookies always got the highest numbers. Coach Dick Irvin watched him struggle in 16 games as a rookie, only scoring five goals and adding six assists. It was questionable whether or not Richard would even be back with the Canadiens in the following year after he failed to make an impression on the Canadiens' management staff.

However, Irvin stuck to his intuition, and moved Richard back to the right wing to start the 1943-44 season. Richard also made a personal request to Irvin - he wanted to wear #9. The reason for the change was due to the birth of his first daughter, Huguette, who weighed nine pounds at birth. Irvin granted the number change, and the Canadiens would see incredible changes from Richard after these two minor adjustments.

Richard played in 46 games in the 1943-44 season, collecting 32 goals and 22 assists as part of the "Punch Line" with Toe Blake and Elmer Lach. His 32 goals at that time was fourth-highest in Canadiens' history, and the fans were drawn to him due to his speed, scoring, and toughness. In nine games in the playoffs, Richard added 12 more goals and another five assists en route to winning the Stanley Cup. Montreal's son had brought home the Stanley Cup to La Belle Province for the first time since 1931.

Irvin's moves paid off in spades in 1944-45 when Richard set an NHL scoring benchmark. Richard was scoring goals at an unreal goal-per-game pace, and it became apparent that he may become the NHL's first 50-goal scorer before the season ended. By Game 48, Richard has scored 49 goals, leaving him with two games to achieve this then-unparalleled mark. While the media called him "The Comet", Ray Getliffe, a Canadiens left winger, likened him to a rocket, and the new nickname stuck.

He was blanked in Game 49 against the Blackhawks despite Montreal winning the game. With 49-in-49, Richard needed a big effort in Boston against the Bruins at the hostile Boston Garden. Richard managed to dent the twine in a 4-2 victory over the Bruins to give him his 50th goal in his 50th game, the only player to ever achieve the 50-goal mark in a 50-game schedule. And your trivia answer is Harvey Bennett. That's the goaltender who Richard beat with his 50th goal of the season. Ironically, the 1944-45 season would be the only season Bennett would play in the NHL, going 10-12-2.

Richard would win another Stanley Cup in 1945-46, and led the league in goals another two times before the infamous 1954-55 season. The Canadiens were simply dominant this season, led by Richard goal-scoring abilities. However, a common tactic to keep him off the ice was to goad him into a fight. Richard's temper was legendary at this point, and teams would simply chip away at him until he snapped on the ice and engaged in a fight. Having the NHL's best goal-scorer off the ice outweighed any other factors, so Richard found himself in the penalty box more times than any other season in 1954-55.

On March 13, 1955, the NHL would spark a battle like no other. Richard had been suspended numerous times throughout his career at this point for stick-swinging and abuse of officials. The game against the Bruins on this night would alter what could have been incredible history. Instead, it became ugly NHL history.

Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe high-sticked Richard above his eye, cutting the star's head open. This was a common tactic to ignite Richard's fiery temper, and it worked. Referee Frank Udvari allowed the play to continue as the Canadiens controlled the puck, and finally blew the play dead a few seconds later. Richard charged at Laycoe, who already had his gloves off and fists up expecting the enraged Richard to come after him. Richard swung his stick like a baseball bat at Laycoe, and caught him along the back and side of his face.

Linesmen jumped between the two players, but Richard was a raging bull. He hit Laycoe two more times with his stick using one-handed swings. Linesman Cliff Thompson restrained Richard again, but he managed to get away from Thompson. Richard grabbed a stick and again struck Laycoe across the back with a baseball swing.

Thompson tackled Richard to the ice, attempting to pin the enraged star until he calmed down. However, a teammate knocked Thompson off Richard, and, as the two were rising, Richard punched Thompson twice in the face. With his rage starting to waver, the Montreal trainers escorted Richard off the ice under a chorus of boos.

Police arrived at the Canadiens dressing room to charge Richard with assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, but coach Dick Irvin barred the door. The officers only agreed to leave after Bruins President Walter Brown and General Manager Lynn Patrick assured the officers that the league would handle this situation accordingly.

On Wednesday, March 16, Richard, head coach Dick Irvin, and assistant GM Ken Reardon met with Clarence Campbell, NHL President, to discuss the events that occurred on March 13. Laycoe, Lynn Patrick, the game officials, Referee-In-Chief Carl Voss, Campbell, and the Canadiens' delegation met for three-and-a-half hours. At 4pm, Clarence Campbell addressed the media:

"An incident occurred less than three months ago in which the pattern and conduct of Richard was almost identical. Consequently, the time for leniency or probation is past. Whether this type of conduct is the product of tempermental instability or wilful defiance doesn't matter. It's the type of conduct that cannot be tolerated. Richard is suspended from playing in the remaining league and playoff games."
With that last sentence, Clarence S. Campbell turned the hockey-mad city of Montreal into a mob. Death threats were issued by Montrealers towards Campbell. Demonstrators waited outside the Montreal Forum for Campbell to arrive for Montreal's March 17 game against Detroit as the top team in the NHL would be crowned that night.

Campbell arrived midway through the first period, and sat at the south end of the rink behind the goal judge. With Detroit leading 2-0 when Campbell arrived, the fans were already unhappy. However, it only got worse. Detroit scored two more times in the first period, staking them to a 4-1 lead, and each time that Detroit scored, a deluge of items rained down on Campbell: programs, toe rubbers, eggs, tomatoes, assorted vegetables, and picked pig's feet. The pig's feet were particular in that Campbell had been portrayed as an "English pig" for his condemnation of the French superstar.

During the first intermission, a man crushed two tomatoes against Campbell's chest. Another man faked a handshake, and slapped Campbell across the face twice. Someone set off a smoke bomb, and the fans poured out of the arena as the thick smoke filled the interior. And then all hell broke loose.

Young men threw bottles and chunks of ice at windows. A side door to the Forum was torn off its hinges. Pieces of brick and concrete from a nearby construction site were launched through windows of nearby businesses. Police estimated there were 10,000 people in the mob outside the Forum at 11PM. By 1AM, the mob had dispersed, but the damage had been done: 15 blocks in Montreal had been trashed and looted. All because of Campbell's decision to suspend Richard.

Montreal forfeited the game to Detroit that night, and, three nights later, lost to Detroit again, giving Detroit the best record in the league. Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, who had battled with teammate Richard all season for the scoring lead, overtook Richard and won the Art Ross Trophy by one point in that final game. He was booed mercilessly by the Montreal fans.

To add more fuel for the fire, the Canadiens lost in seven games to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. It was a stinging reminder for everyone in Montreal of Clarence Campbell's decision. However, the lesson had not gone unlearned. Richard would never finish with more than 89 PIMs after his suspension.

Richard would retire from the NHL after the 1959-60, having helped the Canadiens win five straight Stanley Cups in the previous five seasons. He would end his illustrious career having scored 544 goals, becoming the first player to break the 500-goal plateau. He won eight Stanley Cups, seven as a player and one in 1965 as Assistant to the President of the Canadiens, one Hart Trophy in 1947, and was an NHL All-Star each season from 1947 until 1959. He led the NHL in goals five separate times during his career.

Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961, having the customary three-year waiting period waived in his honour. In 1967, he was inducted as an Officer in the Order of Canada. 1992 saw him appointed to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada, ensuring that he would be referred to as "The Honourable" for life. In 1998, he was made Companion in the Order of Canada. This last honour is normally reserved for members of Cabinet, Chief Justices of Canada, and other dignitaries who require access to classified documents. His recommendation came directly from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

The city of Montreal showed him just how important he is to them when he stepped onto the ice at the Montreal Forum before the final game in the arena's history. The fans in attendance gave him a 16-minute standing ovation, causing the legend to cry over the outpouring of admiration for him. The normally humble and private Richard mouthed the words "thank you" over and over as he wept on the carpet - a moving tribute to Montreal's most controversial hockey icon.

In 1999, the Montreal Rocket began play in the QMJHL, named for Maurice Richard. While the Rocket moved to Prince Edward Island in 2003, the logo, prominently displaying Richard's #9, remains the same. In 2001, Richard was added to Canada's Walk of Fame.

Maurice "Rocket" Richard passed away from an inoperable form of abdominal cancer on May 27, 2000, and there was an incredible turnout for the viewing of Richard at the Bell Centre. It is estimated that more than 115,000 people came through to pay their respects to Mr. Richard and his family. After his passing, the Montreal Expos wore a #9 on their sleeve to honour his life and memory. Richard was given a provincial state funeral, the first time such an honour has gone to an athlete in Quebec.

Without a doubt, Maurice Richard was larger than life in the city of Montreal, and the admiration shown by the fans proves that he was loved for his abilities. As much as he enjoyed scoring goals, his private life remained private, and the media in Montreal respected that wish - something that rarely happens in today's society. Due to his idolization of Richard while growing up, Canadiens President Ronald Corey created the Maurice "Rocket Richard Trophy in honour of the legend, and donated it to the NHL to be awarded to the league's top goal-scorer each season.

While there have only been a few players to win the trophy since 1999, let's take a look at a few interesting facts:
  • Teemu Selanne was the first winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy in 1999. Selanne scored 47 goals for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim that year.
  • Pavel Bure was the first back-to-back winner of the award when he won in 2000 and again in 2001 as a member of the Florida Panthers. Bure scored 58 goals in 2000 and 59 goals in 2001.
  • There was a three-way tie for the Maurice Richard Trophy in 2004. Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames, and Ilya Kovalchuk of the Atlanta Thrashers all scored 41 goals that season to lead the league.
  • The 41 goals scored by those three players is the lowest total to win the award in the nine times it has been awarded.
  • Alexander Ovechkin currently holds top spot for the most goals scored by a Maurice Richard Trophy winner. In 2008-09, Ovechkin scored 65 goals, breaking Bure's mark of 59 goals.
  • There has not been an American-born player who has won the Richard Trophy yet. By nationality, there have been four Canadians, three Russians, a Finn, and a Czech.
  • Bure and Iginla have won the most Richard Trophies in their careers with two each.
So there's some history on the newest trophy in the NHL's trophy case. Honestly, the history of Maurice Richard is amazing, and he literally carried French-Canada for a long time. There's no denying, however, how important Richard was to the Montreal Canadiens, the city of Montreal, and the game of hockey.

He is deserving of an award in his name and his honour.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Nick said...

Hey Teebz, great post, but I think you meant March 16 and not June 16 for the date of meeting with Campbell announcing the suspension of the Rocket.

Teebz said...

Good catch, Nick! It has been changed.