ARTICLES

THE MAURICE RICHARDS

Off the ice, French Canada's greatest modern herohockey's explosive is a mild, indulgent family man who, with his wife Lucille, lives in quiet dread of the day when he must hang up his skates

May 9 1959
ARTICLES

THE MAURICE RICHARDS

Off the ice, French Canada's greatest modern herohockey's explosive is a mild, indulgent family man who, with his wife Lucille, lives in quiet dread of the day when he must hang up his skates

May 9 1959

THE MAURICE RICHARDS

ARTICLES

Off the ice, French Canada's greatest modern herohockey's explosive is a mild, indulgent family man who, with his wife Lucille, lives in quiet dread of the day when he must hang up his skates

Maurice Richard and his wife Lucille live with their six children in a thirteen-room stone house on the northeast shore of“ the island on which Montreal is built. Their living-room windows overlook, a strip of park, beyond which is the river where in summer the Richard boat is in constant use. towing the older children or their father on water skis.

In the winter Maurice is kept busy at his trade, which is hockey. The man known as Rocket holds sixteen individual scoring records, the greatest scorer the game has ever known. Only four players in the history of the National Hockey League have scored more than three hundred goals; at midwinter this year Richard had scored five hundred and twenty-five in season play and an extra eighty-one in playofï games. He has been named on all-star teams fourteen years in succession: only severe injuries, a broken leg one season and cut tendons the other, kept him from stretching that record to sixteen.

This winter, in his seventeenth season, the Montreal Canadiens’ phenomenal right winger was injured again. He broke a bone in his ankle, an accident that reminded apprehensive fans that Richard at thirty-seven is the oldest active player in the league and cannot be expected to withstand much more battering. Richard himself needed no reminders; for the past few years he has been thinking of little else; he is heavy with dread.

In February, while Maurice was still limping around with his left foot in a cast, I visited the Richards for Maclean’s to discuss with them such

topics as their marriage, which has a tenderness incongruous with Maurice’s reputation for taciturnity and temper; their children, whom they frankly indulge; hockey and French Canadians, fame and the future. The interviews were conducted in pockets of time over a period of three days and were laced through with the ringing of the telephone as many as five times to the half hour, with tumbling French exhortations to the children, who speak no English, and with Popeye (pronounced P'peye by the small Richards) rescuing his shrill lady friend with such volume from the television that Maurice’s soft, accented answers were difficult to hear. Lucille was at home only the first day, departing that night to give birth to their sixth child, an almost-ten-pound boy the Richards have named Paul.

Some of the appointments inside the Richard home could be transposed, just as they are, to a Maurice Richard wing on hockey’s hall of fame. The wrought-iron frame of the mirror, in the front hall, for instance, is studded with four-hundredth-, five-hundredthand six-hundredth-goal pucks. The living-room mantel holds nine trophies, awards or mountings of other pucks. Several other trophies, including a small version of the Stanley Cup, are scattered through the room.

Lucille has stored literally dozens of cups, statues and plaques in a glass-doored case in the recreation room, along with boxes of pucks—all identical in appearance—labeled to indicate that this one won a Stanley Cup playoff game and that one broke a scoring record. The scrapbook situation is almost out of hand and so is the num-

ber of paintings of Maurice that fans have made from photographs and sent to him. Several are hung in the living room, others in the recreation room. One, a real trial, is over six feet high and leans against a basement wall.

Many gifts have been of great value, among them a color television set, a freezer, a stove, a marble-statue floor lamp and four refrigerators. Lucille dispersed the abundance of refrigerators by putting the biggest one in the kitchen, another in the bar in the recreation room and two others in the back entrance vestibule. One of these is packed to the doors with beer, a reflection of an affiliation Maurice has with Dow Breweries, rather than of his drinking habits, which are only a notch above teetotaling.

Lucille Richard is a small, animated, pretty woman of thirty-five with mildly red hair and blue eyes. Guilelessly gay and friendly, she is also a severely clean housekeeper who keeps even the plastic flowers on the coffee table dust-free. She possesses a kind of scented femininity that seems faintly other world, having a cigarette or drink only rarely and wearing slacks not at all.

Only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Lucien Norchet, the former a butcher of comfortable means, Lucille was raised in a warm, hearty household that was a gathering place for her friends and any number of people her two older brothers might happen to bring home. She emerged with the nature of a happy, gregarious child, open and unaffected and not given to introspection or doubts.

The afternoon of the first interview was vicious-

ly cold in Montreal,

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continued from page 23

“Wretchedly lonely, he developed a protective veneer of cold hostility”

twenty below zero with a wild wind. The Richard home was warm, sparkling clean and bright with sunlight. Lucille, greatly pregnant but untired-looking, explained that Maurice was away on an errand to the Forum, taking five-year-old André with him.

“He often does that, when he must make a few calls,” she added, leading the way into the living room. “He is so fond of the children that he hates to be away from them. When he telephones home while the team is away on a road trip he starts by saying, 'How are the kids?’ I say, 'What about me?’ He tells people that he loves his children and hockey, sometimes he remembers to put me in there. I come before hockey, but after the kids.”

She settled in a chair that caught the thin winter sunshine. As we talked, two-year-old Suzanne wandered in and out of the room, greatly amused at the unaccustomed English. Lucille’s parents arrived and were introduced, her father shyly removing himself to the recreation room and her mother joining us with the same air of uncritical interest that marks her daughter’s attitudes. The maid, a timid, awed young girl, was working silently in the kitchen; Lucille, on return trips from the insistent telephone, spoke gently to her in French.

“I met Maurice when 1 was thirteen,” Lucille said, in answer to my question. “My older brother was playing hockey and he used to rave about Maurice Richard. Maurice was scoring four or five goals every game. Then he brought him home to meet us. Maurice was seventeen then, so shy, so quiet. Remember, mama?”

Mrs. Norchet chuckled. “I remember. His clothes were so, I shouldn't say, but not right. Not poor, but just . . . you know. My heart went out to him. He used to comb his hair straight back, very long. One day I took a comb and parted it on the side and combed it for him. 'There,' 1 told him. 'That’s better.’ He still parts it that way.”

“Maurice had no girl,” continued Lucille, “but he always came to our house after the hockey games with all the rest. We would roll up the rugs and dance and eat peanuts and potato chips and drink soft drinks. Teen-agers don’t have a good time like that any more, do they?

I wonder why. I was very young, but I taught Maurice to dance. After a while, he was very good at the rumba. He liked it."

“Was Maurice popular?” Lucille was asked.

“Oh sure.” she responded, “he was such a wonderful hockey player, everyone was talking about him and wanting to meet him.”

“1 mean, except for hockey.”

Lucille looked questioningly at her mother. The word popular was outside Mrs. Norchet’s command of English. Lucille explained in French and the women considered it.

“No, 1 guess not,” Lucille decided slowly. “Except for hockey, he didn't have friends. He was so shy, so quiet. He just watched people.”

Mrs. Norchet agreed, her expressive face sad.

Despite the image most people have of all French-Canadian families being close and jolly—like the N'orchets—this is no more true than most generaliza-

tions. The Richard family, for instance, is a cool one and its members, with the exception of Maurice and his hockeyplaying brother Henri, rarely see one another. Lucille says, “Maurice had it tough when he was young, really tough.”

His father was a CPR machinist, out of work for a two-year period during the depression. Maurice was the oldest of eight children.

When Lucille first met Maurice he was attending technical school, taking training as a machinist. Hockey was a hobby; he never considered it as a career. When she was seventeen and he was well into his twentieth year, Maurice proposed and Lucille accepted. Neither had ever dated anyone else. The Norchets approved of young Richard but were appalled at the couple’s youth. Despite the objections, Lucille and Maurice were married the following year.

“You should have seen her leave for the church,” Mrs. Norchet recalled, grinning wryly. “Most brides are nervous

but she was as gay as a bird, turned and waved like she was going to a movie. Me, / was crying.”

It was 1942 and Maurice was earning forty dollars a week as a machinist in the CPR shops, making extra money in the winter playing for the Canadien Seniors. Neither spoke a word of English and when Maurice began to play for the NHL. Canadiens the following winter, Lucille drank coffee with the players’ wives before the games and was taught English. “1 was the youngest wife and Mrs. Toe Blake and Mrs. Kenny Mosdeil were so kind to me.” Maurice was learning from the players and from watching movies in the strange cities where the team traveled to play. He was wretched with loneliness, developing the protective veneer of cold hostility that he outgrew only recently.

The astonishing rookie broke his leg after sixteen games that first season. The following year he was named to an allstar team and was the idol of Montreal fans. The Richards’ eldest daughter, Hugctte, now fifteen, had been born shortly after their first anniversary and a son, Maurice, Jr., followed. “Here is another Rocket,” the nurse told Lucille, displaying the new baby. Young Maurice has never known any other name since then but Rocket; in the Richard house, that name is his alone.

"Maurice waits at the hospital when Lucille is having a baby,” observed Mrs. Norchet. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes, he won’t leave. Would you believe it. he cries. My sons never shed a tear when their wives are having babies, but Maurice weeps every time.”

“He’s supposed to be so hard,” added Lucille, “but wait till you see him at

home. He’s so gentle and kind, so good to the kids. Too good, 1 tell him.”

“Remember Hugette’s ski pants?” supplied Mrs. Norchet.

Lucille laughed. “She wanted the stretchy kind, they cost forty dollars. Maurice got mad and said it was crazy for a girl to have ski pants that cost forty dollars. The next day, he went and bought them himself.”

“And when they’re sick he almost drives Lucille crazy. He keeps asking her if they have had their medicine, if it is the right kind, does the doctor know about it. Same when she isn’t well. If she forgets to take her medicine, he is wild!”

“We used to fight a lot when we were first married,” smiled Lucille comfortably, “but not any more. He is much happier now, much more contented. He is living a good life and it makes him feel, well, proud. He is wonderful to me. Last Christmas he gave me this diamond ring ...”

“And a mink coat,” prompted Mrs. Norchet.

“No, it was a stole. Christmas before it was a lamb coat. And in the spring he will get me a Pontiac convertible. Nice, eh?”

It’s not all diamonds and cars. Lucille’s nails are bitten to the quick from the nervousness she suffers before and during every hockey game. “The worst is when he is playing on the road and I am listening on the radio and the announcer says, 'Richard is hurt, he’s leaving the ice.’ I almost die. He phones as soon as he can to tell me how bad it is, but it’s awful waiting.

“It’s not so bad when you can see it at the Forum. When they fight with their fists, I know he’s all right because he can handle himself. But when the sticks go up, I get so frightened. That Howe is a dirty player, like Lach used to be.”

Lucille Richard and young Rocket sit directly behind the visiting team’s bench in the Forum. Since league president Clarence Campbell often sits nearby, it’s a position that strangles her natural exuberance. “I can't say what 1 think about the referees, everyone knows me.” She’s become a connoisseur of managers. “Pilous is nice, that’s why the team plays better, and I like Schmidt. Phil Watson always speaks to me before the game but afterwards, if the Rangers lose, he doesn’t look up. He’s terrible to his players, swears at them right in front of everyone. I don’t think much of that Imlach either.”

The day of a game, Lucille tries to keep the children in the recreation room so the house will be quieter. Maurice goes to a players’ meeting in the morning, returns and at three o’clock has a filet mignon, medium, one potato, a vegetable, some tomato juice, maybe fruit or ice cream. “For sixteen years, I have been fixing the same food, sixteen years.” Lucille murmured in gathering astonishment. ‘‘Sixteen years! Then Maurice lies down to sleep, but he doesn’t sleep—just lies there. He comes out of the room around five or six. I say, ‘Did you sleep?’ and he says, ‘No.’ We don't talk much, just get ready and drive down to the Forum. All the wives go with their husbands and we drink coffee until the game starts and talk.”

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She was reflective. “I don’t know what we will do when there is no more hockey. The first year is going to be terrible, just terrible for him.”

Then she was gayer again. “I have a feeling this is going to be another boy,” she grinned, adding fervently, “I hope it’s soon.”

The next day, Mrs. Norchet opened the door beaming. “You’ve heard the news? Lucille had a son last night, ten pounds! It’s been on the radio all day. Maurice is still at the hospital, he stayed all night with her. Come in, come in.”

The telephone rang; although the number is unlisted, it was to ring all day almost as soon as the receiver was replaced. In the living room, merry-eyed André was sprawled on his stomach staring at the French - network television offerings for the day and Suzanne, a glossy teddy bear under her arm, strolled around. Occasionally she stood on her brother to capture his attention, but he ignored her.

After a time, Maurice arrived. A thickbodied, not tall, man, Richard normally has an expression of remote sadness and his black eyes are fathomless. His face softened as André and Suzanne jumped around him and the tiredness of a sleepless night showed suddenly. He spoke a few words to Mrs. Norchet in French, greeted me in English, admired Suzanne’s toy in French and limped away in answer to the telephone’s summons.

“Lucille says you are too good to your children,” 1 commented, when he had settled on the chesterfield and Suzanne was comfortable on my lap.

“They can have anything they want, anything at all.” he agreed.

“Your childhood was very different.”

A closed look came over his face. “I don’t want to think about the differences. If I do, it will be hard for me.”

“What kind of rules do you have, raising your family?”

“Rides? I don't know. I want them home or else I want to know where they are and who they are with. That’s the only rule. Rocket was going to a school where he hung around afterwards with the rest of the boys. I took him out and put him in another school. Now he comes home. And Hugette, she goes skiing on the weekends and the priest is always with them. If the children are at home, or with good people, they are not getting into trouble, that’s for sure.” Suzanne wriggled free, Maurice limped to answer the telephone. When he came back, Mrs. Norchet discussed with him dressing Suzanne in her best for the photographer who was expected. Maurice agreed.

“Why are the Canadiens so good?” Lucille, in answer to this question, had said promptly that it was because everyone on the team liked everyone else and there was a spirit of family. She cited the annual Christmas party in the Forum for all the hockey players and their wives and children. “You should have seen the babies this year! It was really funny how many babies.”

Maurice had the same answer. “We get along good,” he : aid. “On road trips we all eat together, go to movies together. There’s never an argument among our players. Some other teams have players who argue with one another even during a game. Not us, we are friends.”

He paused. “It’s been tougher for me to keep going the last two or three years. The younger guys on the Canadiens help me.” His accent thickened. “It will be very hard on me when I quit hockey." “Why do you love it?”

He gave himself time to consider. “It's because of the big thrill, before and

after every game. Before, you keep wanting the game to start, but you’re afraid, too. You're afraid of a bad injury, or not playing a good game. That’s what I think about all day of a game. Then, when you start to play and begin to sweat, it all goes away and you feel good.”

“Have you ever been satisfied with yourself?”

“Never,” replied Richard immediately. “I’ve never played well enough to be pleased with myself. If I get three, fontgoals, I know some of them have been lucky ones. You can't be proud of yourself for that. It's impossible to be perfect. You try, maybe come close, but the next day it’s over. It was just another game.”

Gaby, the photographer who was to take the pictures for this article, arrived with his six-year-old son Ronnie. Maurice noticed the boy hanging back and crossed the room to shake hands with him. “1 wanted to take his picture with Richard,” Gaby confided. “It won't mean so much to him now, but afterwards it will be so wonderful for him to have.”

Hugettc arrived home from school, wrapped in a fur coat, and changed into a skating costume. She is a figure skater of some skill. Rocket, a lanky fourteenyear-old with his father's gloomy cast of face, entered the room and took Suzanne, now dainty in pink, and hugged her. Rocket had scored five goals in a hockey game a few days before but his father doesn't regard his hockey skill with much approval. Normand, almost nine, came into the living room in his overshoes, furious at being asked to pose. He and his father argued hotly; Maurice suspects that Normand’s temperament is closer to his ideal for a hockey player. Finally Normand stretched out next to André, who was still watching television. They began to wrestle, an occupation apparently innate in their relationship. Maurice paid little attention.

Lucille had commented. “1 tell him. ‘Maurice, make the children be quiet!' but he won't speak to them.” Maurice had observed, while explaining that he was still nervous of meeting strangers, that what he liked best to do was stay home and play with his children.

Gaby took a picture, the telephone rang and Maurice excused himself. He returned. Gaby took another picture, the telephone rang again.

The next morning. Maurice had a half hour to spare before attending the funeral of a former Canadiens trainer. We began by discussing the consequences of

being famous. Lucille had mourned, “We can't go anywhere, can't eat in a restaurant, can’t walk down the street but somebody comes over to talk to Maurice. And he must smile and be pleasant, while his dinner gets cold.” She too is recognized everywhere in Montreal. She had sighed, “I am looking over a table of bargains when I notice heads begin to turn and people whisper. I have to drop the bargain and buy something more expensive. I don't want people to say that the wife of Maurice Richard is cheap."

Maurice was embarrassed by my question about fame. “Sometimes I get fed up, but I can't let it show,” he said uncomfortably. “It’s not nice for kids to hear about me being sore at people. 1 really get mad when reporters ask crazy questions, like the one in New York who didn't know a thing about hockey and kept asking me how I score goals. How do I answer that one?”

“What’s the angriest you’ve ever been?”

“The time in Toronto, three or four years ago, when I was fighting with Bob Bailey and he put his fingers in my eyes. When I first felt my eyes, I thought they were gone. I was yelling at the referee, so I got a match penalty . . . Funny thing about Toronto, I used to hate playing there. The rink was like a morgue. Now, you know what—the fans cheer me, cheer all the visiting teams. It’s a good place to play now.” “They say you get very depressed when you aren't scoring too well.” “That’s true, I feel terrible. I keep away from people and when the Forum is empty I go there by myself and skate. I practice shooting at the net, shooting, shooting, trying to loosen up.”

“You make the sign oc the Cross just before every game. Does that help you. d’you think?”

Maurice was startled. “I always do that, ever since I started to play hockey. It’s a habit.”

“Do you think much about religion?" “I'm a Catholic, that’s all I’m a fair Catholic, not a real good one.”

“And French Canadians?”

“They are no different than anyone else. I don't think that they are separate, as people, from other Canadians.”

“Then why do your children speak only French? And why do you live in a French neighborhood?"

Maurice’s expression was earnest. “It’s the truth. I wanted to live in an Englishspeaking district. We happened to buy this house because it is near the water and it would be good in the summer, but

I want all the children to speak English.” Time was running out. We discussed the Richard marriage and its obvious closeness. For the first time, Maurice had trouble finding English words. “A husband and wife should not have . . . ” he faltered.

“They must have different . . . characters.” He wasn't happy with the word, but it would have to do. “Also,” he added, “the woman should not be the boss. That’s the worst thing.”

We came back to his surpassing fame again and here the words he chose

were simple and strong. ,

“I don’t believe it when people make a fuss over me. When it is all over, I’ll be a guy like anyone else.”

“They say you are the greatest in the world.”

“I’m not.” Richard said quietly. “Howe is better than me, Schmidt was better, Elmer Lach, lots of guys are better than me. Beliveau. Gcoffrion, lots of guys on the Canadiens today arc better hockey players than me.”

“What is it then that you have got, if it isn’t ability?”

Said Richard, “Desire.”

The last meeting with Maurice Richard took place in an odd setting a few hours later. He agreed to meet at the Montreal Forum for a last question or two and suggested, when we met in the lobby, that we go into the rink. “There's no one there,” he explained.

The rink was dark, with only a single light hanging over centre ice. Workmen had started to set up the ring at centre ice for the night’s wrestling bouts: they had departed for their lunch. The empty tiers of seats stretched into darkness and

our voices were hollow in the vast emptiness. We sat in box seats and Richard stared at the cluttered ice, where his hunched figure, skating raggedly with wounded-animal fury, has scored hundreds of goals and brought the entire arena-full of people to their feet, screaming his name in ecstasy. A sense of old ghosts made Richard speak heavily, slowly and sadly.

“I worry about my kids, because wc give them so much. I’d like to change, but I don’t know how.

“Fve thought about nothing but hockey. all my life. There’s a lot I've missed. I don't read books, only magazines on the train. Lots of times I am ashamed because people are talking about things I never heard about.

“Every year I think I ought to get interested in another business, start a restaurant or something. But when the hockey starts, I forget about everything else. Maybe if I had other interests, 1 wouldn’t have lasted so long in hockey.” “Are you afraid of anything?” Richard was quiet a long time. “Yes, I am afraid of the future. I am afraid to grow older. I never used to think of it, now it's on my mind every day. I will be so lonely when hockey is over for me.”

“Can you coach, maybe?”

“No, I can’t change the way a man plays hockey. Either he can play it or he can't. I can't help him.”

He looked at the ice, his eyes moving up and down its length. “I give myself another day, that’s all. 1 just count one day ahead to be able to play. For the last four or five years, I’ve been the oldest in the league. That's terrible for a man to think about.”

We were both quiet again. “Your nerves give you a lot of trouble, I hear.” He nodded. “My stomach nerves were very bad for a while. I still don’t sleep, maybe four or five hours a night. The rest of the time 1 lie awake. I don't know why.”

The workmen returned and the lights came on with splintering brightness. They looked at the man in the dark overcoat, looked away, looked again. Richard didn’t see them.

“I’ve heard other hockey players sa\ that this is their last season, that they think they will retire at the end of tfu year. I don’t know how they can say it. I couldn’t make myself say that. I love hockey so much. I couldn't say such a thing.”

"Are you still playing as hard as you used to?”

”1 pace myself. When I was young. 1 used to skate for nothing. Now I save it for. a burst when I think 1 can score. I have to do it that way.”

The brightness of the rink and the curiosity of the workmen suddenly embarrassed him. He rose and we left. In the lobby again, people lined up before ticket windows saw him and nudged one another in excitement.

“I've got a little put by,” Richard was saying, “but not enough to live on for the rest of my life. I'll have to work. But what can I do? I don’t know anything but hockey.” He shrugged, turned and limped away,

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