Henri Richard: Another Hall of Famer and childhood hero is gone

He played in the shadow of his older brother, the legendary Rocket Richard, but Henri Richard played with a skill and passion that made him an icon with the Canadiens and hero to many.
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First, a personal reflection. One night in the summer of 1971, my father arrived home with his lunch pail in hand and told me had heard on the radio that Henri Richard was appearing that night at the Evan’s Lumber store in my hometown of Sudbury and we’d better get going if we wanted to see him.

My 8 1/2-year-old self could hardly believe I was going to see an NHL player, and the guy who just months before had scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for my favorite team to boot, up close and in the flesh. And I was going to get a signed picture! We arrived just as the event was just wrapping up. I approached Richard with all the courage I could muster and asked if I could have a picture for him to sign. “There aren’t any left,” Richard said, putting his hand on my head and mussing my hair. “But I’ll give you this instead.”

And with that, he signed a scrap of paper and handed it to me. I can’t remember whether my father actually drove me home that night or if I just floated back. The autograph was lost a long time ago, but that doesn’t matter because I can still feel Henri Richard’s hand patting me on the head. After I learned of Richard’s death on Friday, I spoke to Ken Dryden about him. “I’m losing all my childhood heroes,” I lamented. To which Dryden replied: “Yeah, well he was a good one to have.”

In the four-plus seasons they played together on the Canadiens, Ken Dryden and Henri Richard would occasionally get together to play tennis in the off-season. Richard was very much at the tail end of his NHL career by that time, but was an outstanding amateur tennis player. Dryden saw the same traits on the tennis court that made Richard such a force on the ice.

“I think he changed hands to hit his backhand and I think he may have served with a different hand,” Dryden said. “On the tennis court, he was exactly what he was on a hockey rink. He was tireless. He would run down everything. I was a fairly defensive player, but he could always out-defend me. He would never get impatient. I could beat guys who were better than I was because they would just get impatient. And Henri wouldn’t. He would just keep going and going. And finally I would be the one who would break and become impatient and try a shot I couldn’t make.”

It could not have been easy for Henri Richard to grow up and play in the shadow of his older brother, the greatest player in Canadiens’ history. But perhaps that’s what drove him to succeed, to be the most tireless player on the ice and to be sure, it drove him to win. And nobody did it as a player in the NHL more than he did. As a player, he won 11 Stanley Cups with the Canadiens. Only Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics can lay claim to that many titles in one North American professional sport.

Scotty Bowman, who would go on to coach Richard for four-and-a-half seasons with the Canadiens, first saw Richard playing Jr. B hockey in Montreal when the latter was 14 years old with Bowman’s younger brother. He was on his way up the ranks with Claude Provost, with whom he would win nine of his 11 Stanley Cups. “He went to the Canadiens’ training camp in 1955 and they weren’t expecting him to make the team, but he was just so dynamic,” Bowman said. “He just played hard. He was an exceptional skater. Aside from being a steady offensive player, he was really good defensively because he always had the puck. He would take it and you couldn’t get it off him.”

For a book I wrote over a decade ago, we had a panel of experts rank the greatest Montreal Canadiens from one to 100 and Henri Richard was ninth, after Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey, Guy Lafleur, Howie Morenz, Jacques Plante, Larry Robinson and Patrick Roy. That is incredible company for a player who scored 30 goals and 80 points only once during his career. Bowman said Richard was the Canadiens’ version of Dave Keon, a two-way center who would have had an armful of Selke Trophies had that award existed back in the day.

So much of their careers were focused on the differences between Henri and Maurice, who was 15 years older, more gifted offensively and bigger, both in physical terms and his stature with the Canadiens. But Dryden said the gap between the two men was not that wide at all. “He didn’t have the same eyes as his brother did,” Dryden said. “But if you knew Henri, it was the same expression. It was the same approach, the same attitude, the same fire. People would always comment about how different he was from his brother, but I always thought they were the same person in a different package. One was bigger and broader and the other was smaller and quicker, but they were driven by the same need and it came out in different ways.”

When Dryden came onto the scene in Montreal in the spring of 1971, just before he and the Canadiens would win one of the most unlikely Stanley Cups in franchise history, he said Richard was one of the most welcoming players to him. They actually used to tease each other mercilessly. Richard always had a thing for poking fun at goalies and Dryden would counter with digs about Richard’s shot, which was probably the weakest part of his game and one of the major reasons he wasn’t a 500-goal scorer. “He had a terrible shot and that was a source of great amusement,” Dryden said. “Here was a guy who scored 358 goals and I would say, ‘Henri, how could you score even 20 in your life with that shot of yours?’ ”

Richard arrived with the Canadiens in time for them to win their five straight Stanley Cups from 1956 to ’60, but much of his best work came with the Canadiens’ forgotten dynasty of the 1960s, a team that won five Stanley Cups and would have won five in a row if it hadn’t been upset in the final by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967. In the 1971 final, Richard had been benched for several shifts against the Chicago Black Hawks by rookie coach Al MacNeil and lashed out, saying MacNeil was, “the worst coach I ever played for.” That led to MacNeil stepping down after the season and replaced by Bowman, even though he had won the Cup. Richard, who had just 12 goals that season, responded by scoring the tying and winning goals in Game 7.

“I mean, that is an act of will,” Dryden said. “It’s not an act of the goalscorer. The goalscorer sometimes can’t score under those circumstances. It was the will that did it. That was Henri, and that was always Henri.”

Richard had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2015 and had been confined to a nursing home for the final years of his life, so his death was not entirely unexpected. Yvan Cournoyer was told a couple of days ago by Rejean Houle, who runs the Canadiens’ alumni group, that things were looking grim. But when he got the phone call Friday morning, expecting the news did not take the sting out it. “He was my second captain after Jean Beliveau,” Cournoyer said, his voice shaking. “It really hurt. He was not only my friend on the ice, but off the ice, too. I lost my first captain five years ago and now I’ve lost my second captain.”

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