"What makes Toronto tick?" asked the TV announcer. "What makes Toronto dead?" Maurice (the Rocket) Richard asked back. Richard, who has played right wing for the Club de Hockey Canadien Inc. every winter since 1942, sat, his shoes off, in a dark room in the Royal York hotel, laughing at Red Skelton and smoking a cigar—a burly man of 38 with an erect carriage, tilted, somber, devout face, inflexible eye, abundant black hair which also thickly mats his chest and back, making him look like a mangy bear, and queer, thin, knobby legs. "If he had another hair on his back, he'd be up a tree," says Kenny Reardon, who is vice president of the Montreal Canadiens. Richard's roommate in Toronto, Marcel Bonin, who once wrestled a toothless, suffering bear in a carnival ("I never win," he admits) was out somewhere in the cold, solid city. The Ontario Good Roads Association was making roisterous marches up and down the long, dim hotel corridors, X's on the backs of their red necks and violent apocalypses on their neckties. One of them hammered on Richard's door.
"Go to bed, damn it!" Richard shouted. "That's my whole life trouble," he said, "trying to sleep. My mother was the same way. If I sleep four or five hours a night, it's good. TV puts me to sleep every time. Where would we be without TV, eh?
"Eighteen years of this," he said. "In the town. Out of the town. I really get tired of all these trips." He got up and closed the transom, shutting out the racket. "People bother me," he said. "The young ones, they're all right. It's the old ones who have had a drink or two too much, yelling at me, asking all sorts of questions." He made a face. "I was at this sports banquet. A famous person got up to speak. He had too much to drink, like James Dean in that movie. He kept on talking, and no one knew how to stop him. It was embarrassing. I'll never be like that."
And no one, certainly, will ever be quite like Maurice Richard, who next week, as their captain, leads the Canadiens toward their fifth consecutive Stanley Cup. Not even himself. "You should have come up five years ago," he had said in the men's room of a Montreal-Detroit sleeper several days before, where he has sat so many nights reading until the porter fills the room with hockey players' shoes. "It's getting to be my time now. I'm getting near the end. I have had some good times, some bad. I started out with three bad injuries [fractured left ankle, left wrist, right ankle] and am ending with three bad injuries [sliced Achilles tendon, fractured left tibia, depressed fracture of facial bone]. The old days are gone. These are the new days. I'll never score five goals in one night." He looked out the window at the dismal, glaring snow, listening to the wheels as the train bore him to his 1,091st game. Behind him, the glorious past, the records: 50 goals (and in a 50-game season); five goals in a playoff game; 18 game-winning goals in 14 playoff series, six of which were in overtime; 26 hat tricks; 618 goals; 1,076 points; at least one goal in nine straight games; etc.
March 14, 1994
"He was a wartime hockey player," says Frank J. Selke, the 66-year-old managing director of the Canadiens. "When the boys came back, they said they'd look after Maurice. Nobody looked after Maurice. He looked after himself. When the boys came back, they said they'd catch up with him. The only thing that's caught up with Maurice is time."
"It's changed. I'm the oldest; the rest are kids," Richard said one night in a Detroit bar that advertised a stereophonic jukebox. "I know I'm not playing good hockey now. I'm weak now. My legs are tired. After a minute and a half, I'm tired. I will try to diet. I weigh 194 pounds. I got to take off five or six pounds before the playoffs. Only one beer. That's all I'll drink. I'll drink gin. That isn't fattening."
He watched on TV a tape of the game he had played in an hour earlier. He had scored two goals. The bartender got in front of the TV while he scored the first goal, and Richard did not see it. He was told he had been chosen the game's best player. "Me?" he said. "I don't believe it. I did not deserve it. Luck."
"He kids himself that if he's feeling well, he's at the right weight," Selke says. "You don't feel well at the right weight. You're crabby. But he makes so much money!. He's wonderful to sign. 'How much do you want?' I ask. 'How much do you want to give me?' he says. I always give him a little more than anyone else I hear about through the grapevine. He has done so much for the game."
Richard's annual income has been estimated at $60,000—half of it from his contract with the Canadiens—his total worth at $300,000. He is a public relations man for Dow Brewery and Quebec Natural Gas, has part interest in a store that sells gas appliances, has bought a tavern that he is calling No. 9 after his uniform number and referees professional wrestling matches. "They're smart guys, the wrestlers," he says. "Ninety percent of them are educated. I know most of the guys. I wrestle a lot with Boom Boom [Geoffrion] in the room. Do a lot of crazy things."
"I've been in hockey 53 years, and I've never had an aging athlete admit he was through," Selke says. "He misses passes he never missed. He tops the puck like a golfer. He never did that. He's gotten too big in the middle. I'd bench him. He'd damn well get in shape. I wouldn't sign him for another year. I wouldn't let him make a fool of himself in front of a crowd." Richard had played ineptly the night before, and Selke, like a proud, rigorous, loving father, spoke not in intemperate anger but with old, gruff affection, hurt by loss and memory. If his Maurice wanted to play next year, he would probably relent.
"If I play bad," Richard says, "people will talk. I like to leave the game before people criticize me, boo me. I used to skate a little better, go around the fence a little better. I've got to watch myself. The day of the game I'm afraid to get hit. I know when I feel that, it is getting close to the end.
"I have to work so hard all the time," he says. "When a guy is a natural he doesn't have to drive himself."
"He used to be a whirlwind," says Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings. "Now he's just a whirlwind half the time. But when he's not doing a lot, you notice it. Not like the others."
"I'm a little too old to be called Rocket," says Richard.
"I first saw him in 1942," says Reardon. "I was playing for an Army team. I see this guy skating at me with wild hair and eyes just out of the nuthouse. 'I'll take this guy,' I said to myself. He went around me like a hoop around a barrel. 'Who's that?' I asked after the game. 'That's Maurice Richard,' the guy said. 'He's a pretty good hockey player.' 'Yes,' I said, 'he is.' "
"When he's worked up," says Selke, "his eyes gleam like headlights. Not a glow, but a piercing intensity. Goalies have said he's like a motorcar coming on you at night. He is terrifying. He is the greatest hockey player that ever lived. I can contradict myself by saying that 10 or 15 do the mechanics better. But it's results that count. Others play well, build up, eventually get a goal. He is like lightning. It's a fine summer day, suddenly...."
"Holy Dirty Dora!" says Montreal coach Toe Blake. "You got to give it to the fellow. The fellow was fantastic. That's why you got to give it to the fellow. That will!"
"In all my experience in athletics, academic pursuits, business," says NHL president Clarence Campbell, "I've never seen a man so completely dedicated to the degree he is. Many people who prosper take prosperity for granted. He doesn't to this day. He is the best hockey player he can be every second. You know, he is the eldest of a fairly extensive family raised in relative poverty. Somehow or other, he was going to lift himself. He has an inner urge to transcend."
"He is not the Pope," says Camil Des Roches, the Canadiens' publicity man, wistfully.
"He is God," says Selke.
Richard is regarded in Canada as no athlete is in the United States. He is not only a sports idol, he is the national idol, particularly among the French-speaking people of Montreal and the province of Quebec. When Maurice Richard scores a goal in the Forum, even an insignificant goal in a meaningless game, it touches off a unique celebration. First, an astonishing, prolonged din of cheering and applause, then newspapers, programs, galoshes, hats are thrown onto the ice. Richard skates in abstracted, embarrassed, lonely circles through the heavy snow of objects. The game has to be stopped until the attendants clear the ice. But adulation sits on him like an uneasy crown.
"Nothing goes to my head," he says. "I don't think I deserve it. That's my whole trouble all the years. There are better hockey players, but they don't work as hard. I like to win."
"We were playing Toronto once in a benefit Softball game," Selke says. "Instead of just using the Maple Leaf players, they used the best softball players they had in their entire organization. They were beating us 25-5. Maurice was playing third base. Someone laughed about the score. 'You might think it's funny getting licked 25-5 in front of 14,000 spectators,' Maurice said to him. 'I don't think it's a bit funny.' "
"I never did like to sec anybody laughing," Richard says, "making a farce out of something. I don't like to lose. I like to meet people, but not to talk about hockey when we had a bad game and lost. I stay away from everybody and go home. But I'm afraid to let the French people down. That's why I'm worried. I don't want to be kept on the ice through sympathy."
"He is more important than the cardinal or Duplessis," explains one fan. "There are many cardinals. Duplessis was only the head man of Quebec. Maurice Richard was not only the best of the French but of the English as well. He came to epitomize the desire of superiority of the French Canadian nationalists. He was one of their best expressions. But you must understand that he has no personal interest in that. Maurice Richard never did a thing to accentuate it. He was a person to fix their eyes. Here was a demonstration."
While an idol, Richard has also been a figure of controversy. He fought a lot on the ice, violently and well, although the sight of blood makes him ill. "I see myself bleeding or anyone else bleeding," he says, "I feel funny. Once I cut my hand as a little kid and I passed out." In 1955, after a series of incidents culminating in the slugging of a linesman, Campbell suspended him for the last three regular-season games and the playoffs. That decision caused the notorious Forum riot and inspired a ballad to the tune of Abdul Abulbul Amir:
Now our town has lost face
And our team is disgraced,
But these hotheaded actions can't mar
Or cast any shame on the heroic name
Of Maurice (the Rocket) Richard.
Richard has also been called aloof, sullen, moody, uncommunicative, tight. "I'm unpredictable," says Richard, cheerfully.
"His difficulty was the language barrier, a very modest formal education and the disparagement of no war service," the fan says. "He was tagged with aspersion."
"Somewhere at the back of his mind," says Selke, "there is a feeling that someone is trying to put it over on him. He has a tremendous dread of poverty."
"You can say that again," Richard says, laughing.
"You can say a lot of things to Maurice," Selke says, "but you got to be careful of your adjectives. Maurice just can't take anything. But there is no meanness in Maurice Richard. He's 100 percent solid gold; someone you'd be proud to have as the husband of one of your daughters; faithful, devoted."
"For 15 years he's been a law unto himself," Reardon says. "He has been so good he didn't have to do the things others did. The time hasn't come when he realizes he's human and has to do the things everyone else does. But if he wasn't so obstinate, he couldn't have done the things he has done. He was watched, watched, watched until he finally blew. When he blew, he blew good. No one could have taken [the cheap shots] as long as he did and done less about it."
"It's different," says Richard. "Today they don't have to bother me like before. But every fight I've been in, every suspension, I was not the first. I'm not the type to hit a guy. Many times I don't like a guy, but I get on the ice, I forget all about it. Now it's no use to fight. Ten minutes, $25 fine. If you keep fighting too long, they send you out. It's a match penalty, $100fine!"
"I told him," says Selke. "You don't prove anything at your age to take on a young buck. You win? You've won so many fights already. You lose? They'll say you let a bandy rooster lick the cock of the walk."
"I am a very quiet man," says Richard. "At the beginning of my career I didn't know what the English people were talking about. Even today, they ask me to make a speech. I like to, but I am a man of few words."
"Richard the sphinx!" says Reardon. "He used to ride all the way to Chicago, sitting in the corner. He didn't even read a book. Henri, his brother, was that way, too. After Henri had been with the club two years, a reporter asked the coach if he could interview him. 'Sure,' he said, 'go ahead.' 'Docs he speak English?' the reporter asked. 'Hell,' said Blake. 'I don't even know if he speaks French.' Maurice is just a great company man. He shows up for the game. Does a great job and disappears into his shell."
Richard lives in a spacious one-story house by the Back River on the rim of Montreal. "I have six kids," he says. "One for each 100 goals. If I reach the 700 mark, I'll have to get another one, but I think I'll have to stop. I mean, there's no more on the way yet. My oldest is Huguette. She is 16 and studying to be a beautician. All she does now is ski. She doesn't do her skating anymore. I'd like to do figure skating too, but I'm embarrassed. Then there is Maurice Jr., who is 14. He's good at school. Not too bad. He's a fair hockey player, right wing. He wants to play hockey, too. He is an inch and a half taller than me. Normand is nine. This one is the one that likes every sport. A right wing, too. He's a natural. Just fair in school. Then Andre, who is five. He is starting to go to school this year. He's kind of young, but he's all right. Suzanne is two, and Paul is one. My wife, Lucille, has missed only two hockey games in 18 years. She was sick for a week this year."
Richard adores children and is, perhaps, most at ease with them. He always carries postcards with his picture on them, which he signs and gives away. Children adore Richard. If they are not French, he asks them if they speak French. If they do, they proudly and hurriedly say their few words of high school French and flee with their autographs.
"I never wanted to have a fan club," Richard says, "because of the exploitation. I have fans but no clubs. Instead of the kids spending money on us, let us spend money on them."
Richard often skates with kids or referees their games. "The kids all call this one place where we skate Maurice Richard Park," he says. "That's not the real name. In Montreal most of the people things are named after are dead people. Parents should spend more time watching their kids play," he says. "I come out after the game starts and stand hidden in a corner. I like to play with them in the park. The kids get such a kick out of it. They talk of nothing else for a week afterward."
One night in Detroit several weeks ago, Richard sat at the bar in a steak house with some businessmen friends. "When I got friends," he says, "I keep them and stay with them all the time." He had been telling his friends about Varadero Beach in Cuba, groping for words to describe its beauty. "The wife and I were swimming 50 or 60 feet offshore," he said. "Fish of all different colors came around us and touched our legs. The wife got scared. It was so beautiful. The water was all different colors." Suddenly he stopped and drank his screwdriver. "You never know what you want to do in life, eh," he said. "I'm fed up with hockey, I don't want to skate anymore."
"You said that last year," a friend said.
"And four years ago," Richard said and smiled thinly.
"No, I'm not fed up with hockey," he said, as he walked back the dark blocks to his hotel through the snow in his deep-blue overcoat and a hat with a red feather in the band. "That's my living. I'm fed up with the traveling, the fear of accidents, the.... I.... Good night," he said, "I'm going to watch The Late Show until I get sleepy."
There is a poster on the wall of the Canadiens' dressing room in the Forum. It is a quotation from Abraham Lincoln. It reads, in part, "I do the very best I know how—the very best I can—and I mean to keep on doing so until the end."
"I read that almost every game," Richard says. "Dick Irvin [the late Montreal coach] put that up. It's right in front of me."
At the NHL meeting last year there was some facetious talk of the end, the day when Richard would get so old Montreal would no longer protect him and he would be available for the $20,000 waiver price. "I'd pay $20,000 for him," said Phil Watson, then coach of the New York Rangers. "I'd put him in a glass case in Madison Square Garden and say, 'Pay your money and take a good look at the great Maurice Richard!' "
This is one of 40 classic Sports Illustrated stories to be presented during 1994 as a special bonus to our readers in celebration of SI's 40th anniversary.