The Rocket’s 1955 suspension led to an ugly riot in the Montreal streets
By Brandon Yip, Senior Columnist
Richard had a temper that would have made a bull in Spain seem timid.
This week marks an infamous anniversary in Canadian hockey folklore. On the night of March 17, 1955, an ugly riot referred to as the “Richard Riot” erupted at the Montreal Forum—and later spilled into the streets of Montreal.
Maurice “Rocket” Richard was a hero and an icon in the city of Montreal. His tenacity, grit, and determination made him beloved as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. He could also score goals and became the first NHL player to score 50 goals in one season (1944-45 season).
Prior to the riot, in a game against the Boston Bruins at the Boston Garden on March 13, 1955, Richard was involved in an altercation with Bruins defenceman, Hal Laycoe (who later became the first coach of the Vancouver Canucks in 1970). Laycoe struck Richard over the head with his stick opening a wound that later required stitches. Richard had a temper that would have made a bull in Spain seem timid. He went after Laycoe swinging his stick and breaking it over Laycoe’s back. While being restrained by linesman Cliff Thompson, Richard would punch the official in the face. Oh mon Dieu! The Rocket was now in big trouble.
A hearing was later held at NHL president Clarence Campbell’s office. He suspended Richard for the rest of the season including the playoffs. Habs fans were outraged; their hero was gone for the rest of the season and the Canadiens were planning to make another playoff drive. Richard had been in the running for the scoring title before his suspension. Also, there was a clash between language and cultures as many French-Canadians felt the Richard suspension by the NHL (English speaking) was unjust and a sign of prejudice and disrespect towards the Francophone population in Quebec.
Fans in Montreal were irate that Richard was gone for the rest of the season. The bad blood and animosity by Canadiens fans would reach its apex at the Forum on the evening of March 17, 1955: the first game the Canadiens played without Richard. The Rocket watched the game sitting in an unaccustomed seat behind the goal. The late NHL referee, Red Storey, was the official for the Red Wings and Canadiens game. In the 2000 documentary, Fire and Ice: The Rocket Richard Riot, Storey sensed something ominous in the Forum that evening: “The place is loaded [with people]. There was no atmosphere. There was no noise. It was like if somebody lit a match, this building was going to blow up!”
And to add fuel to the fire, Clarence Campbell attended the game but arrived late in the first period. The wrath of Montreal fans increased immediately after Campbell’s arrival. The tension had been building; clearly something bad would occur and that was inevitable. The late writer, Red Fisher, was sitting in the stands that evening working his first assignment covering the Habs for The Montreal Star. He believed that Campbell being in attendance with tensions escalating was a mistake. “The terrible thing about that night and the first bad thing about that night really was […] Clarence Campbell,” Fisher said in the same 2000 documentary. “Not only did he come to the game. He made it a point of getting to the game five or six minutes after it [had started]. So, the entire building saw this NHL president who had suspended the ‘Rocket,’ walking up the stairs to his seats on the aisle. He had his girlfriend with him, his secretary [Phyllis King] he later married her. And this infuriated the crowd.”
On the other hand, Phyllis King defended Campbell’s actions in showing up to the Forum. King felt Campbell was put in a difficult position, explaining in the same 2000 documentary: “We walked into the Forum a few minutes late, which was bad. But you know, it would’ve been just as bad if we’d gone early—because it would’ve given everybody a chance to really boo him. But you know, if he hadn’t gone, he would’ve had to face the music the next time. I mean if he hadn’t gone, a lot of them would’ve called him a coward. It was just a no-win situation.”
The CBC stated that shortly after Campbell had taken his seat inside the Forum, “[garbage] and various fruit rained down on the NHL boss, one man raced up and smeared a tomato on Campbell, and less than a minute later a homemade tear gas bomb went off.” The game was soon canceled with Detroit being declared the winner (Red Wings were leading by a score of 4 to 1).
With the game over, unfortunately, it would not be over for the restless and angry crowd. Many people had exited the Forum where rioting had ensued in the Montreal streets. The CBC reported that “out on the street, the largest riot since Conscription was passed in 1944 (bringing in the draft for the final year of the Second World War) broke out along a seven-block length of Rue Ste. Catherine, featuring overturned cars, smashed windows, a shot fired from somewhere, and 137 arrests.” The property damage cost approximately $100,000.
After the chaos and rioting in the streets with businesses and storefront windows damaged and cars turned over and set on fire—Maurice Richard appeared on Montreal television. He pleaded for calm and told fans he would accept the suspension—and return next season to help the Canadiens win hockey games. Richard would deliver on his promise. After his return to the Habs lineup the following season, he led the Canadiens to five straight Stanley Cup wins before retiring in 1960 (Richard won a total of eight Stanley Cups). He scored 544 regular season goals, with 422 assists for 966 points in 978 career NHL games. He also won the Hart Trophy in 1947. Since 1999, the NHL has honoured his memory with the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy awarded to the player who scores the most goals during the regular season.