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.