If you’re a hockey fan, you’re likely familiar with Maurice “Rocket” Richard, the Canadiens legend whose name graces the trophy presented to the player who scores the most goals over the course of the regular season.
When you consider Richard played his last game in 1960, I think it’s safe to assume the vast majority of people reading this never got to see him play—and unless you’re a fan of the team he spent his entire career with, there’s a good chance you’re not intimately familiar with what he was able to achieve over the course of his 18 seasons in the league.
That includes the 1944-45 campaign, where he not only became the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in the same year but managed to do so in 50 games (a feat only four other players—Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull—have been able to achieve since).
While he’s certainly in some impressive company there, it seems very likely Richard will be the only NHL player in history to boast one of the most unique achievements you’ll ever encounter: getting hit with a suspension that sparked a massive riot that led to 100 people being arrested.
I consider myself a fairly knowledgeable hockey fan who’d somehow never heard that story until I stumbled across it while browsing the internet, and after going down a bit of a rabbit hole, I feel obligated to bring it to the attention of others who may not even be aware of one of the stranger sports sagas I’ve ever come across.
How the NHL’s decision to suspend Maurice “Rocket” Richard led to a massive riot in Montreal
While I don’t want to get too bogged down in the ethnopolitical history of Canada, you can’t talk about what is known as the “Richard Riot” without discussing the background of a man who was born to two French-Canadian parents who raised him in Montreal.
It’s impossible to unpack the various intricacies of an issue stretching back literally hundreds of years, but Richard’s heritage meant he was just one of the many members of the French-speaking Québécois minority who were routinely subjected to harassment and discrimination due to the widespread belief they were second-class citizens.
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what led to the riot in question by traveling all the way back to March 13, 1955.
That night, Boston Garden hosted a matchup between the Bruins and the Canadiens that devolved into chaos after Hal Laycoe hit Richard with a high stick before his former teammate retaliated by repeatedly striking him in the head with his own stick after the play was whistled dead.
Officials attempted to intervene—including linesman Cliff Thompson, who was knocked unconscious after Richard repeatedly punch him in the face after being restrained.
Both players were ejected from the game, and when the contest ended, the Canadiens had to prevent members of the Boston Police Department from entering the locker room to arrest Richard before members of the Bruins organization convinced the cops the NHL would handle the matter (interestingly enough, law enforcement in Montreal toyed with the idea of charging Zdeno Chara with assault over a controversial hit on Max Pacioretty in the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs).
NHL president Clarence Campbell ordered Richard to appear for an in-person hearing on March 16th, and when everything was said and done, the Canadiens star was suspended for the rest of the season (including the playoffs).
It’s safe to say that unprecedented punishment did not sit well with fans in Montreal.
When the Canadiens hosted the Red Wings the following night, thousands of fans—including a number of Richard supporters who felt Campbell and the NHL had taken Richard’s ethnic background into consideration before issuing the suspension—descended upon Montreal Forum to protest the supposedly unjust discipline.
Campbell’s somewhat inexplicable decision to attend the contest did not go over well with the fans who figuratively pelted him with boos as well as literally pelted him with various objects until he was assaulted by an angry spectator.
He retreated to safety shortly before a tear gas canister was set off in the vicinity of where he’d been sitting, and the fire department ordered fans to vacate the arena after calling off the game.
Many of those fans spilled into the streets surrounding the Forum and let off their frustration by flipping cars, smashing the windows of nearby businesses, and lighting multiple newsstands on fire.
Police were able to restore order in the early hours of the morning, but not before the rioters caused an estimated $100,000 in damage (close to $1 million in the present day) while wreaking an amount of havoc that resulted in 37 people being treated for various injuries.
Richard appeared on television the following day and issued a statement where he took the blame for his actions and urged fans to use their energy to support the hometown team as opposed to continuing to harm the city they call home.
However, that wouldn’t be the last time hockey caused a riot in Montreal, as the city was overtaken by fans in the wake of the team’s Stanley Cup victories in 1986 and 1993 (Vancouver, on the other hand, gave their city a similar treatment after losing in the final in 1994 and 2011).