At one point during Henri Richard’s rookie season of 1955-56, a reporter asked Canadiens coach Toe Blake whether the young Richard spoke any English.
“I don’t think he can even speak French,” was the reply. “I’ve never heard him talk.”
Richard, who passed away Friday at the age of 84, was so quiet that when his older brother, Maurice, marched him up to GM Frank Selke’s office to sign his first contract, Henri left without even knowing his salary.
For the record, it was $7,000 in the first year and $8,000 in the second year.
“Mr. Selke asked Maurice, ‘Is Henri ready?’ and Maurice said, ‘Yes, he’s ready,’ and he turned around and walked out of the room,” Henri Richard said in 2008. “I couldn’t speak English, and they put this paper in front of me, and I signed it. I didn’t know what I was making, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to play.”
Such humble beginnings for a player who would carve out a Hall of Fame career even if his name were Joe Blow and his brother was a plumber instead of the greatest player ever to wear the Canadiens uniform. Dealing with the pressures of being Rocket Richard’s little brother, Henri Richard instead became his own man and player, never resenting that his brother would always be more revered.
“We’d go places all the time after games and people would see Henri and the first thing they would say was, ‘How’s Rocket?’ ” recalled Dickie Moore, who was a linemate of both Richard brothers, in 2008. Moore passed away in 2015 at 84. “He always answered and was always courteous to people. It never seemed to bother him and he never once lost his patience because of it.”
“It’s still that way and Maurice has been dead for a few years now,” Henri said in 2008. “Just the other day a man introduced me to his son and said, ‘This is Rocket Richard’s brother.’”
In some ways, Henri was a superior player to his superstar brother. Rocket was a mercurial and dramatic player, who relied on instinct and reflexes and had a burning passion to score goals. Henri, on the other hand, was guided more by hockey intellect than passion and was a far better two-way player and playmaker.
He was also one of the best-conditioned athletes of his time. Henri Richard was a tireless worker who could skate a three-minute shift and come to the bench without a heaving chest. He always played a lot of tennis in the summer and credited that with his superior cardiovascular stamina.
“(Former Canadiens coach) Toe Blake used to yell at me all the time,” Henri said. “He used to give me hell. ‘Get off the ice and change!’ But I wouldn’t change, I think because I just loved playing the game so much.”
The one area of the game where Henri usurped his brother was in championships. Henri’s 11 Stanley Cups is unmatched by anyone in NHL history and is one of those records that surely will stand the test of time. Only Bill Russell, who won 11 titles with the Boston Celtics dynasty, has as many titles in North American professional sport as Richard.
And to hear Henri tell it, he was actually responsible for a good number of his brother’s Stanley Cups.
“In 1955, Maurice had had enough of the game and was going to retire,” Henri said, “but he decided to keep playing when he saw I made the team.”
The Canadiens won five consecutive titles from 1956 through 1960, giving Henri five championships in his first six NHL seasons. The younger Richard was never a big conversationalist, but he did grow out of his shy demeanor as his career progressed.
He became a strong-willed player as well as a fierce competitor. In 1968, Richard didn’t show up for a team meeting and was suspended for a game by the Canadiens for challenging the authority of his employers. In 1972, he left the team briefly after a post-game confrontation with teammate Serge Savard resulted in Richard hitting Savard across the face with his open hand.
When Richard was offered a two-year contract worth $200,000 per season by the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association, he instead stayed with the Canadiens and was paid $165,000 for his last season.
“I’ve been happy with the Canadiens through the years,” Richard said at the time. “Underpaid, but mostly happy.”
But Richard’s boldest stance came in the 1971 Stanley Cup final when the Canadiens, who had finished third in the East Division, were in the midst of an unlikely run to the Cup. After being benched for several shifts against the Chicago Black Hawks, Richard described first-year Canadiens coach Al MacNeil as, “the worst coach I’ve ever played for.”
Despite the predictable French-English controversy that emanated from the confrontation, Richard went on to lead the Canadiens to the Cup by scoring both the tying and winning goals in Game 7 of the final.
“I met him (in 2006) and it turns out he was a hell of a good guy,” Richard said of MacNeil. “We talked a little bit, and he didn’t hold anything against me. His wife wouldn’t talk to me, though. I guess she was still mad.”
Richard never scored more than 30 goals or 80 points in a season, but he is remembered as one of the all-time great players and ranks No. 29 in The Hockey News Top 100 Players Of All-Time. Former Canadiens GM Sam Pollock once said Henri Richard belongs in the same stratosphere as Maurice, Bobby Hull and Jean Beliveau. Henri Richard twice led the NHL in assists and made his mark with an all-around game that would have made him a multi-millionaire many years later.
Even though he grew out of his shyness later in his career, Richard was never comfortable being the center of attention. Intense interest was focused on his brother whether he liked it or not, but Henri Richard would not welcome the spotlight. When the Canadiens wanted to hold a Henri Richard night in 1974, he only agreed to go along with it if the proceeds from the ceremony would go towards building a gymnasium for a local orphanage.
“My father worked 48 years in the Angus (railway) shops,” Richard said at the time. “He never missed a day at work in all that time, and they never held a night for him.”
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