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Loud Start To The Quiet Revolution MARCH 17 1955 The RIOT OVER ROCKET RICHARD

Nov. 29, 1999
Nov. 29, 1999

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Nov. 29, 1999

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Loud Start To The Quiet Revolution MARCH 17 1955 The RIOT OVER ROCKET RICHARD

There are moments when life gets in the way, when sports and the
real world collide at some intersection--which, almost 45 years
ago, happened to be the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine
streets in Montreal. This was the site of the Forum, hockey's
temple, which now lives only in the soft-focus haze of fond
memory. On the night of Thursday, March 17, 1955, the haze was a
ghostly yellowish white. Smoke from a tear-gas canister had
driven thousands of hockey fans into the streets, sparking a
four-hour rampage that yielded the requisite fires, shattered
windows, looted stores, overturned cars and 137 arrests. Sports
riots have become commonplace, but the one in '55 was like no
other because one of its central figures, Maurice Richard, was
like no other hockey player.

This is an article from the Nov. 29, 1999 issue

No athlete has embodied the soul of a city and the spirit of its
people as Richard did in the 1940s and '50s in Montreal, my home
for the past 21 years. The Rocket was the preeminent presence,
if not player, of his era. Whenever he stormed a goaltender,
Richard's glare could be seen from the top row of the Forum--and
in taverns for hundreds of miles around, where the predominantly
French-speaking Quebecois listening to the game on the radio had
a clear picture of the man whom newspapermen covering the
Canadiens had raised to mythical status. The Rocket's triumphs
were the people's triumphs. His rare defeats were their defeats.
And no defeat was as personal, as galling, as the suspension
that NHL president Clarence Campbell had handed Richard the day
before all hell broke loose.

In a match the previous Sunday, Richard had twice viciously
slashed his nemesis, Hal Laycoe of the Boston Bruins, and then
assaulted a linesman. Three days later Campbell suspended
Richard for the Canadiens' three remaining regular-season games
and the entire playoffs. Montreal was aghast. Campbell's ruling
was considered an act not of justice but of vindictiveness, the
English-speaking boss thwarting the aspirations of the
French-speaking populist hero. Richard had led the Canadiens to
three Stanley Cups and had scored 50 goals in 50 games, but he
had never won a scoring title and was on the brink of his first.
With teammate Bernie Geoffrion three points behind him, it was
apparent that Richard wouldn't win it this year, either.

The gray weather on that St. Patrick's Day mirrored Montreal's
mood. Mayor Jean Drapeau telephoned Campbell at the NHL office
in town and begged him not to attend the game that night. The
imperious Campbell not only ignored the mayor's advice but also
made a diva's entrance at the Forum, taking his customary aisle
seat in a corner of the arena a few minutes into the first
period. The Detroit Red Wings would take a 4-1 lead over the
Rocketless Canadiens, driving a combustible crowd closer to the
edge. During the first-period intermission a fan marched up the
steps and extended his hand for what Campbell assumed would be a
handshake. Campbell stuck out his hand. He got a slap in the
face. Retired Red Wings tough guy Jimmy Orlando had spotted the
fan heading toward Campbell and bounded from his seat in
pursuit. An instant after the slap, Orlando spun the fan around
and socked him in the jaw, scattering teeth like jujubes. There
were shouts, invective, a rumbling in the Forum. The tear gas
came 30 seconds later.

The melee, which forced the game to be suspended, ushered in a
revolution. The Richard Riot is generally considered the first
explosion of French-Canadian nationalism, the beginning of a
social and political dynamic that shapes Canada to this day. The
riot was a harbinger of the 1960 election of Quebec premier Jean
Lesage, which gave Francophiles a greater sense of empowerment,
and the so-called Quiet Revolution, in which French Quebecois
began asserting greater control over their lives. Montreal
Gazette writer Red Fisher, covering his first NHL game that
night, now says, "If that was the start of the Quiet Revolution,
it wasn't very quiet."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY EDWARD SOREL Campbell (far right) hit Montreal's favorite son with a harsh penalty, igniting a Forum frenzy.