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Takin' It to the Streets




Human nature seems to dictate that when two cultures try to coexist, there will be clashes. No matter how strong the similarities may be, the differences always seem to rise to the top at some point or another. For instance, despite over a century of being a part of Canada, the primarily French-speaking province of Quebec nearly voted for independence in 1995, and from 1993 through 2008, the separatist Bloc Quebecois won a sizable percentage of the vote and a majotiry of that province's ridings in every federal election.


Relations between the Francophone and Anglophone populations within the province have not always been sterling either, and we can see an example of that in the history of Montreal hockey. Though the entire city rallies around the Canadiens today, in the early 20th century, the two demographics could not agree on something as simple as which hockey team to support. The Canadiens were the team for the city's French speakers, while first the Wanderers, and later the Maroons were the English-speaking population's team.


Interestingly, some historians trace the root of the previously mentioned separatist movement to an event strongly tied to hockey: the Richard Riot of 1955. Maurice "The Rocket" Richard was a cultural icon in Quebec in the 1950s, and his fans defended him rabidly. So strong were the passions of the fans that during that time, one of the quickest ways to start an argument among hockey enthusiasts was to begin a debate about who was better: Richard or Gordie Howe. In many respects, that debate became a part of the French-English "battle." As such, while the modern consensus gives the nod to Howe, that would have been an afront to Richard's supporters during his career.


The incident in question began on March 13, 1955, during a game in Boston between the home standing Bruins and the Canadiens. In the third period, while the Bruins led 4-1, Richard took a blow to the head by the stick of Hal Laycoe which created a cut that required five stitches. Play was not immediately whistled dead because the Canadiens had possession of the puck, and the ill-tempered Richard decided to take matters into his own hands. Making a beeline for his assailant, Richard began to pummel Laycoe with his fists and stick. On ice officials attempted to restrain him, but he repeatedly escaped their clutches and continued his assault. In the fracas, Richard punched linesman Cliff Thompson, knocking him out.


Richard was ejected from the game. Boston police attempted to arrest him, but were barred from the Montreal locker room by other Habs players. Though he escaped legal punishment because thanks to the protection of his teammates, he would not escape league punishment. On March 16, after a meeting with the game's on ice officials, Richard, Laycoe, Montreal assistant general manager Ken Reardon, Boston general manager Lynn Patrick, Montreal coach Dick Irvin, and NHL referee-in-chief Carl Voss, NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the remainder of the season, playoffs included.


The general opinion around the league was that Richard had gotten off lightly, with Ted Lindsey going so far as to say that he thought Richard was lucky not to be banned for life. That sentiment was not shared by Montrealers, however, who felt that the punishment was excessive, and Campbell's office was flooded by calls from angry Canadiens fans.


Some feel that the now famous riot that began after the next Montreal home game might not have occurred, but for one thing. Against the advice of the Montreal police, Campbell chose to attend the St. Patrick's Day game when the Detroit Red Wings visited the Montreal Forum. Immediately after his arrival was noticed, fans began pelting the League President with food, trash, and even shoes. One fan, claiming to be a friend of Campbell's made it past security, and after appearing to offer a handshake, punched him in the face.


Sadly, that was not the height of the mischief, as at some point during the uproar, a tear gas bomb was triggered. The game was forfeited to Detroit, and the Forum evacuated. The clearing of the building did not end the chaos. On the streets outside the arena, protesters attacked bystanders, looted stores, and set fires to newsstands. Thirty-seven injuries and 100 arrests were reported in addition to $100,000 in monetary damage to property. The tension did not subside until the next evening when Richard himself took to the radio waves to urge for peace.


The emotions stirred up by the Richard suspension and riot continued to be felt throughout the season. Richard never won a league scoring title, and the 1954-55 season was the closest he ever came. On the last day of the season, when fellow Canadien Bernie Geoffrion passed Richard in the points standings, he was booed by his own fans. Montreal advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals that season, but Richard's absence loomed large when they lost to the Red Wings (appropriately) in seven games.


The Richard Riot was a moment of major historical importance not only for hockey, but for the nation of Canada. Perhaps the 2011 decimation of the Bloc Quebecois caucus signals some level of subsidence of the separatist movement, but even if so, assuming the historians are correct about the role the riot played in its creation, the incident with Richard impacted the nation for over half of a century. I would not advice tugging on Superman's cape, but even that might be smarter than messing with Maurice Richard in 1950s Quebec.


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I had no idea that incident even happened!  Great post, and thank you!  If the Richard Riot is indeed, an integral part of the Quebecois separatist movement, perhaps it's beginning to dissolving simply as a factor of time, that the next generation of hockey fans can't defend Richard quite so vehemently simply because they hadn't been born yet.  

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You're very welcome, and thank you for the kind words. I think there may be some truth to what you said. If the current generation doesn't know about the events that trigger a situation, they may not have any feeling for the grievances, thus causing the issue to subside. Regardless, it's interesting to see how sports can affect an entire nation. Sometimes, they're of major cultural impact.

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Richard DID face a certain racial bias against, not to the extent of a Jackie Robinson or a Roberto Clemente necessarily, but probably not far off. The French Quebec natives have always had a chip on their shoulder, talking of leaving Canada for a reason, they are different and outnumbered and haven't melted into the pot the way that other English speaking whites have. They take pride in their heritage and consider themselves to be as much Franco as anything, and take every sleight personally. I love Quebec, the city and the Province, but they are a different breed up there.

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Sometimes I wonder if there is anything in the US that is so unifying as hockey is to Canada.  Just the other day I (re)watched that documentary on the '72 Summit Series.  How a single (non-tragic) event can bring an entire country to a stand-still is beyond comprehension.  I can't think of much in US history that had quite the same effect.  Maybe the moon landing?

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@yave1964 I agree that there was some ethnic bias against Richard because of being his being French, but I also believe that chip you mentioned caused it to be played up to more than it was. I really think it went both ways. But yeah, they are definitely a different breed in Quebec.


@WingNut722 I don't really think there is a clear cut comparison to hockey in Canada in the United States, though baseball would probably be the closest thing. Ironically, the most unifying sports event in American history is likely hockey: the Miracle on Ice.

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That's very possible.  However, in trying to think of just such an event, I decided to open it up to all categories, outside of sports as well.  I wasn't around for the Miracle on Ice, but did that make the whole country stand still?  Since hockey is not America's passion sport, I doubt so many folks were watching that day.

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Outside of sports, there was 9/11. At least for a while, everyone came together after that tragedy


The Miracle on Ice had a TV rating of 23.9/37, and while it wasn't broadcast live, the tape delayed broadcast drew 32.4 million viewers. People in areas which are certainly not hockey hotbeds watched the game. It was the feel good moment that we could actually beat the Soviets in something.


Even so, I still agree with you that in the sports world, it's hard to think of any time that an event had such an impact on the nation as the Richard Riot. In many ways. hockey is inseparable from the history of hockey. In a sense, the sport and the nation grew up together.

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