Articles

HOCKEY'S GREATEST SCORING MACHINE

TRENT FRAYNE November 1 1951
Articles

HOCKEY'S GREATEST SCORING MACHINE

TRENT FRAYNE November 1 1951

HOCKEY'S GREATEST SCORING MACHINE

Articles

TRENT FRAYNE

ANY MOMENT now Maurice Richard will score the three hundredth goal of his National Hockey League career and sometime early next spring he will break Nels Stewart’s all-time record of three hundred and twenty-three goals and thus become the greatest goal scorer in professional hockey history. There is a reasonable likelihood that Richard, who plays for the Montreal Canadiens, will score one or both of these goals while he is lying flat on his back, with at least one non-Canadien hockey player clutching his stick, another hacking at his ankles with a pair of skates and a third plucking thoughtfully at his sweater.

No hockey player living has been so much put upon as Richard by the recent revolution in hockey’s cultural standards a liberalizing process which encourages the referees to ignore all but the most flagrant violations of the written rules and, in turn, encourages poor or indifferent players to cut good or great players down to size by slamming them bodily into the sides of the rinks, massaging their ribs with fibre-padded elbows, inserting the crooked blades of hockey sticks between their legs or under their armpits and generally impeding what used to be considered their lawful progress.

In consequence modern hockey has produced many teams which stand out above their rivals but few individual players who stand out above the other individuals. For almost a decade Richard has towered over them all, both as a goal scorer and as a piece of property. His annual earnings from the game are in excess of twenty thousand dollars, approximately twenty percent more than any other professional hockey player has earned either before his time or during it. For the right to his services the Canadiens management was once offered-and refused—a lump payment of one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars, the highest value ever placed on a single player.

Considering the completeness of his triumph over adverse working conditions, Richard’s attitude toward his work is remarkably restrained. If he

revels in his position as the most esteemed and highly rewarded Canadian athlete of his generation he gives no sign of it. On the ice his darkly Gallic features seldom depart from their melancholy cast except on the occasion of another Richard goal, when they sometimes dissolve into an expression halfway between a glower and a grin. Off the ice he is monosyllabic and uncommunicative even among the players he considers his closest friends.

But behind this impassive façade lie deep wells of sentiment, of sensitivity and of temperament. On an exhibition tour to the west coast he once cried openly when told he would have to accompany the team to California before returning to his family in Montreal. A much better publicized display of feeling occurred last winter when he brooded all one night over a referee’s adverse decision and tried to punch the official in the nose when they

Maurice (the Rocket) Richard, already hockey’s highest-paid, best-loved and most-hated star, seems certain this season to bust his way through the toughest checking and heckling in history to add the HHL all-time scoring record to his trophies

met next day in a hotel lobby. And although he is commonly believed to be indifferent to the hostility or sympathy of spectators, his employers attribute his almost chronic inability to play his best hockey in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens to the profane and persistent heckling of a rather small and elderly lady fan.

But neither psychoanalysts nor hockey experts have ever been able to explain ^precisely why Richard—who in action frequently looks uninspired and almost awkward keeps on scoring so many goals. During the war a number of coaches, notably Frank Boucher of the New York Rangers, insisted it was because of inferior opposition but in the last two years, when competition again had reached a peak, Richard scored eighty-five goals and Boucher now says that black-haired sallowcheeked Richard is the most spectacular hockey player he has ever seen. “That includes,” adds Boucher with some reverence, “the greatest I’d ever seen before him, Howie Morenz.”

An Assist From La Chance

Tommy Ivan, the coach of the Detroit Red Wings, says that because of his unorthodoxy there is no way to play Richard legally that will render him harmless. Even his own mistakes sometimes work out to his benefit, according to Ivan, who finds illustration for his point in last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs when Richard’s team scored an upset victory over the league champion Red Wings. In each of the first two games on Detroit ice Richard scored overtime goals to win the first for the Canadiens after 61.09 minutes of extra play and the second after 42.20 minutes of overtime.

“In that second game.” recalls Ivan painfully, “our Red Kelly got the puck in our end and was endeavoring to clear it ahead to Leo Reise. Richard was caught far out of position and the player he was supposed to be checking was breaking for the

other blueline. On our club we try to teach our men never to let that happen. Anyway, as Kelly cleared the puck it hit Richard on the leg, bounced back into our zone past Kelly where Richard scurried in to pick it up and score the winning goal.” By a similar freak during the 1944-45 season Richard, whose name is pronounced Ree-shar, established a record for goals in a single season. By late February he had counted forty-three goals and needed one more to tie the record of Joe Malone who scored forty-four goals in twenty-two games for the Montreal Canadiens in 1918. The tying goal eluded him for several games until one Saturday night when the Canadiens moved into Toronto for a game with the Maple Leafs. Late in the game Richard was checked heavily as he carried the puck near the Leaf net. He was knocked down and was sliding along on his stomach, the puck out of control, when a Leaf defenseman endeavoring to clear the rolling rubber deflected it into the Toronto goal. There was nothing the official scorer could do but credit the goal to Richard since he was the last Canadien player to touch the puck. That ended Richard’s brief slump. The next night in Montreal he broke Malone’s record and went on to score five more goals before the season expired for a total of fifty, still a record.

Half the Day on the Pillow

Richard has a distant taciturn manner when he is with strangers. Glen Harmon, a team mate, says this has stemmed from Richard’s early inability to cope with the English language. Unable to understand what most hockey writers were saying to him Richard would grunt some incomprehensible reply and turn away. In recent years he has acquired a good working knowledge of English but until he becomes fairly familiar with people in cit ies other than Montreal he is still uncommunicative. Even with those he knows there is little probability of the conversation progressing beyond his acquaintance’s supply of questions or observations. With close friends and their wives among his English team mates, such as the Elmer Lachs, Glen Harmons and Kenny Mosdells, he is generally quiet though he will argue a point vehemently if he feels he’s right. He smokes an occasional cigar and drinks an occasional bottle of beer.

Richard is a slender-looking one-hundred-andseventy-five-pounder, slightly less than six feet tall. He has sleek black hair, black eyes and a small thin-lipped mouth which gives him a surly expression. Elmer Lach, his room mate on road trips, says it is not unusual for Richard to sleep more t han twelve hours a day and perhaps it is the energy derived from sleep, plus the strength of his big hands and wrists, that enables him to play hockey with such nerve and tirelessness. He is a devout Roman Catholic, although he goes through no religious ceremony before a game (Paul Gauthier, former Winnipeg goalkeeper who played for several minor professional teams, always knelt and said prayers before taking the ice). Richard says that before he goes out “I always think about it.”

In the summertime he plays better-than-average golf —in the middle eighties—and every fall he moves to the tennis courts because he feels the game sharpens his eyes and tones his leg muscles. He likes fishing and working around his home in Cartierville, a Montreal suburb. He owns a so-called triplex in which the Richards occupy the basement and rent out the two upstairs floors. He paints the house, looks after the carpentry in an owner-putterer sort of way. And at the table he consumes anything his quiet brunette wife Lucille puts in front of him, calls her a good cook and especially appreciates her spaghetti and mediumwell sirloin steak. The Richards’ three children are Huguette, seven and a half, Maurice, six, and Norman, eighteen months. The ace scorer doesn’t read much and when he does it’s mostly detective story magazines. He doesn’t give the sports pages his time because, he says, he’s not interested in what the hockey writers have to say.

Richard has tried a couple of business ventures, the first a Continued on page 57

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partnership in a bowling alley called the Bowlorium. He got out of this two years ago claiming there were too many partners. Now he has money in a skate-manufacturing business and when the Maurice Richard skate is attached to the Bobby Bauer boot (Bauer is a former right wing for the Boston Bruins) the result is a fortyfive-dollar professional set, which Richard wears. There are other models at $19.25 and $21.25. Possibly this venture will not be permanent because Richard says he’d like to acquire “a little business—maybe a tavern” when his hockey days are over.

Obviously, any player who scores two hundred and ninety-two goals in less than nine full seasons of play (Richard, who is now thirty, scored only five in his first season, 1942-43, because a broken, ankle confined his activity to sixteen games) will collect his share of fluke goals and it is equally apparent that nobody can average thirty-five goals a season armed with nothing more destructive than a horseshoe. Frank Selke. general manager of the Canadiens, puts down Richard’s success to his explosive quality of play and calls him “just enough of a Frenchman to be an artist.” The Rangers’ Frank Boucher says he has never seen a player so determined to put the puck in the net. “You can see it in his eyes,” broods Boucher, the eyeballs of whose Rangers have been pure as the driven snow for, lo, these many years.

Curiously, the determined Richard has seldom exploded in Toronto and it has taken many a long year to convince that city’s devoted hockey populace—and, with it, the national audience that views the Maple Leafs and their opponents through Foster Hewitt’s Saturday night nuances—that Richard is anything more than an obscure No. 9 patrolling right wing for the Canadiens. The year Richard scored fifty goals he collected only four of them in seven games in Toronto and there have been scores of games over the years when he has had not even four shots on the net.

Richard is unable to explain this localized kink. At various times he has blamed the heat in Maple Leaf Gardens, the vastness of the place (there are no posts, no balconies and the seats bank seemingly endlessly up from the ice surface) and the fact that he grows over-anxious and tense in his desire to succeed in a city for which he bears absolutely no devotion. Frank Selke, his boss, says Richard hates Toronto because for him it is typified by a woman as abusive as she is well groomed,*who sits in an expensive seat near the visiting teams’ bench. “She is one of the most foul mouthed women I have ever heard,” says Selke, “and she saves most of her more vitriolic outbursts for Maurice.”

It definitely cannot be said that Toronto has devised a defense for Richard of which other teams are incapable, because in Montreal “the Rocket,” as sportswriter Baz O’Meara of the Montreal Daily Star labeled Richard, finds the Leaf net quite as accessible as any other. In fact it was against Toronto that he established a play-off record of five goals in a single game. His check that night was Bob Davidson, one of the most tenacious of checkers, but Davidson’s clutching best was not enough to prevent Richard from converting five passes from Toe Blake into play-off records for both of them. That was in 1944 when Richard

scored twelve goals in nine play-off games, still another record, against the Leafs and the Chicago Black Hawks as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.

Richard is at his best at home. When he gets wound up on Montreal ice, with the Forum crowds shrieking wildly each time he gets the puck, he becomes a whirling dashing man possessed. One night he arrived at the dressing room an hour before game time and informed coach Dick Irvin he was pooped.

“Pooped?” enquired silver - haired Irvin, “how do you mean pooped?”

“Moved today,” replied Richard, whose English is tinged with JeanBaptiste. “Carried furniture up and down stairs all afternoon. Feel pooped.”

This came about three days after Christmas in 1944 and Richard had bought a new home for his family. The Canadiens were playing Detroit that night, always a rugged opponent at the Forum and the pooped Richard moved lethargically onto the ice. First time he got the puck the crowd started to shout his name and since he’d been set up in the clear by Elmer Lach, his centreman, he didn’t have too much difficulty scoring. That set him off. Before the night was out the fizzled Rocket was sizzling; he scored five goals, got three assists as Canadiens won 9-1. That’s another Richard entry in the record book.

Melee In the Lobby

Richard seldom makes headlines off the ice, but his attack on referee Hugh McLean in the lobby of New York’s Piccadilly Hotel one Sunday morning last season was one of the season’s most wildly debated episodes. He did this twelve hours after a game in Montreal in which he’d swung on Detroit’s Leo Reise who had jeered at him for getting a penalty. Richard explains: “A man can take just so much. I was skating close to the Detroit net when Sid Abel grabbed me by the chin, nearly twisted my head off and spun me right around. I drew the referee’s attention to this. All I said was: ‘You must have seen

that,’ but he laughed in my face. As I skated away I said: ‘This is the damnedest thing yet,’ and then McLean rushed up and put me off.” As he skated toward the penalty box Reise snickered at him and Richard swung at the Detroit defenseman and drew an additional misconduct penalty from McLean. The following morning, as the Canadiens arrived in New York from Montreal for a Sunday night game with the Rangers, Richard encountered McLean and linesman Jim Primeau in the hotel lobby. He grabbed McLean by the collar and tried to punch him but was restrained by Primeau, who began throwing punches at Richard.

Out of all this, a week after the incident, the Rocket was fined five hundred dollars by NHL president Clarence Campbell, who declined to suspend the player (as he had done in earlier and similar cases involving other players) on the fairly implausible grounds that “the suspension of a great hockey star is not justified if it reflects in the gate receipts,” to quote Bob Hesketch of the Toronto Telegram who interviewed Campbell after the fine was announced. “We’re trying to conduct a business,” Campbell continued. “If I suspended Richard, a great drawing card wherever he goes, it would affect the. attendance of the league.”

There is no denying that Richard is a vital cog in the successful financial operation of the Montreal club. General manager Selke says he “might as well give up half the Forum as contemplate a trade involving Richard”

in reply to reports that fabulous sums have been offered for the Rocket.

Two years ago, while the Toronto Maple Leafs were having trouble holding fourth place, their president, Conn Smythe, sent instructions to his coach, Hap Day (now assistant general manager), that he was to present a blank cheque to Selke to be filled in with any amount up to one hundred and thirty-five thousand dollars in exchange for Richard. Smythe, holidaying in F’lorida at the time, was “grandstanding,” according to Selke, who refused even to consider the proposition. Selke says Richard is the sort of competitor that money cannot buy. Richard’s salary has never been made public but Selke claims he is getting “at least five thousand dollars more than any other hookey player, past or present.” An acquaintance asked him one time if the figure would approach twenty thousand dollars a year and Selke replied that it is in excess of that amount. This includes bonuses for play-off cuts and returns for being selected on the league’s annual all-star team (Richard was picked as the right winger on the first team six years in a row, was second to Detroit’s Gordie Howe last season; this brings a cash award of one thousand dollars from the league for the first team, five hundred dollars for the second team. Generally teams match the league’s award). Richard had a unique arrangement last season. He was promised a bonus of one thousand dollars if he scored thirty-five goals and one hundred dollars per goal for each one thereafter. On his fortytwo-goal season he thereby picked up seventeen hundred dollars as a goals bonus.

He’s a Penalty Killer-Offer

Though Richard is not a big man physically, Wally Stanowski, defenseman for the New York Rangers, says he is the hardest man in the league to stop because of his strength. “I’ve had him completely covered,” Stanowski claims, “and he’ll make a pass at the blue line. Somehow he’ll still manage to cut in on the net, often carrying me on his back, and get his shot away.” Turk Broda, Toronto goalkeeper for fifteen seasons, says Richard’s shot is the most difficult to stop, not because of its velocity but because of its uncanny accuracy from any angle. “He’ll be standing in front of the net, maybe twenty feet out, waiting for a pass out,” says Broda. “He’ll have his back to the goal and he’ll be surrounded by our players. But if the puck comes out he somehow can whirl and swipe at it, backhand or the other way, and drive it dead for a corner. I think half the time he doesn’t know where it’s going himself, yet invariably it will just skim the post and deflect into the net.”

Richard, like other great scorers before him such as Charlie Conacher and Neis Stewart, has frequently been charged with being a one-way hockey player; that is, that he is an artist driving toward the enemy goal but no craftsman defending his own. His boss, Dick Irvin, refutes these charges. "He’s not the best backchecker in the world by any means,” says Irvin, “but if you’ve watched many of our games you’ll have noticed that I frequently use him to kill off penalties. When we’re playing five men against six, I’ve found that Richard has the speed and the stamina to hound the opposition as well as any player in the league.”

There is no question that he is the league’s most abused forward. Players charged with keeping Richard in check employ all sorts of clutching, grabbing and holding tactics in an effort to shackle him. Being of explosive temperament, Richard draws his share of

penalties for his retaliatory swipes at his molesters. Frank Boucher says the Rangers have had some success in harnessing the Rocket by sticking tough little forward Tony Leswick on him. Leswick, traded to Detroit for Gaye Stewart last summer, found that by verbally needling Richard he was sufficiently able to infuriate him as to render him comparatively ineffective. But Boucher is quick to point out that the Rangers have never cowed Richard.

“We had a pretty tough kid named Bob Dill playing defense a few years ago,” Boucher smiles, “and he decided one night to take on Richard. The two of them had drawn penalties and were sitting in the penalty box when Dill took him on. To his complete sorrow, I might add, Richard knocked him stiff.”

But the most celebrated of all Richard’s ice escapades involved Bill Ezinicki and Vic Lynn, forwards for the Maple Leafs in 1947 and now with Boston. In a torrid play-off in Montreal in which the Canadiens were heavily favored after winning the first game 6-0, the Leafs put on a heavy checking display in the second game and had a 3-0 lead in the second period when Richard slashed Lynn with his stick, opening a four-stitch cut over the . Leaf winger’s left eye. Then he swung his stick axe-fashion over referee BillChadwick’s shoulder and onto Ezinicki’s head, causing a seven-inch cut clear across the player’s scalp. Richard was given a major penalty of five minutes in the first instance, a match misconduct in the second, and league president Campbell suspended hirm from the third playoff game and appended a two-hundred-and-fiftydollar fine.

Strong and durable, the Rocket almôst didn’t get to the starting gate. Born in Montreal, Aug. 4, 1921, he very nearly didn’t become an NHL player at all because he showed signs in his youth of being brittle, meaning that bumps and spills frequently produced fractures.

He first attracted attention as a scoring star with the Verdun Juniors in the 1939-40 season and when, as a nineteen - year - old *Vightwinger (he shoots lefthanded) he joined the Montreal Canadiens of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, it was like an expectant mother booking space in the hospital. In the first game of the season, against the Quebec Aces, he was tripped and sent crashing into the boards. He broke his left ankle.

“I play aroun’ twenty games the next year,” he recalls, “still with the Canadiens seniors and then I fall against the net. This time the left arm is broke.”

He got back in time for the play-offs and scored six goals while his team was being eliminated by Ottawa in a fourgame semifinal. The NHL Canadiens signed him on the strength of his play-off performance. Teamed as a rookie with Gordie Drillon and Buddy O’Connor he scored five goals and got six assists in sixteen games; then he broke his right ankle and once again was out for the season.

Early the following year, the 1943-44 season, it looked like the same story. After a couple of games he twisted his shoulder and was lost for two weeks. But then he started to roll. He was placed beside Elmer Lach and Toe Black on what became known as the Punch Line and scored thirty-two goals in collecting fifty-four scoring points. The next year he produced fifty goals and became the most colorful player in professional hockey. As Ted Reeve of the Toronto Telegram once observed: “If I had to pay to get in,

it’d be worth the price of admission to see him.” ★