How the “Pocket Rocket” beat his kid-brother jinx

Young Henri Richard fought his way into the NHL past two big hurdles: his size and his name. Now the Canadiens’ rivals are looking fearfully at the rest of Onésime Richard’s hockey-mad brood

TRENT FRAYNE March 29 1958

How the “Pocket Rocket” beat his kid-brother jinx

Young Henri Richard fought his way into the NHL past two big hurdles: his size and his name. Now the Canadiens’ rivals are looking fearfully at the rest of Onésime Richard’s hockey-mad brood

TRENT FRAYNE March 29 1958

In some respects, the fact that he is Maurice Richard’s brother was a burden for young Henri Richard in his determined climb to the National Hockey League, a lightly populated pinnacle he surmounted in the fall of 1955. Out of the tens of thousands of Canadians who play hockey every year, only a hundred-odd play it in the NHL, and these are long odds for anyone.

In some respects, the fact that he is Maurice Richard’s brother was a burden for young Henri Richard in his determined climb to the National Hockey League, a lightly populated pinnacle he surmounted in the fall of 1955. Out of the tens of thousands of Canadians who play hockey every year, only a hundred-odd play it in the NHL, and these are long odds for anyone. For Henri Richard, who now in his third season with the Montreal Canadiens is emerging as one of the brightest of stars, they were infinitely longer—physically, for he is a small man in a violent game. and. more particularly, psychologically, for he has lived for fifteen years in the shadow of his richly endowed brother.

When Henri was six years old his parents began taking him to the Montreal Forum to sec his brother play for the worshiped Canadiens from two seats obtained for them by the twentyone-year-old Maurice. Henri used to sit squeezed between his parents or on one of their laps to marvel at the flashing figures on the ice below. When Henri was seven his brother scored thirty-two goals and became an established star, and the people sitting near the Richards in the Forum began pointing to Henri and saying that he was Maurice Richard's brother. And when Henri turned eight, his brother became the mighty Rocket Richard, an indomitable figure who scored fifty goals in fifty games to set a season's scoring record that still stands.

In succeeding years, as the Rocket broke one scoring record after another to become the greatest scoring machine of all time. Henri was rarely allowed to forget that he was Maurice Richard's brother. Maurice was never his brother; he was always Maurice's brother. When he skated on le ruisseau (the stream), a nameless little brook that winds gently through the parish of Bordeaux on Montreal's northern outskirts where the eight Richard children were born, he was the Rocket's brother. When he played hockey on the outdoor rinks of Bordeaux for the François-de-Laval school, he was the Rocket's brother and the kids from rival teams in other parishes taunted him for it. When he played for the junior Canadiens, he was the Rocket's brother again, and some forgotten phrasemakcr labeled him the Pocket Rocket. He helped draw more than twelve thousand people into Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto one Sunday afternoon early in 1954 for a meaningless junior game with the Toronto Marlboros and the fans were generous in their applause, not for Henri Richard but for Rocket Richard's brother, the Pocket Rocket.

Even in the National Hockey League, after he'd made the grade. Henri was the target for jibes from the players' benches of rival teams. As he'd skate by. he'd hear a high-pitched whine. ''I'm gonna tell my brother on you!" Then someone else would shout, "Hey, Rocket, come and help me!” It went on and on.

These were psychological burdens but there were physical obstacles, too. Except that Henri bears a certain facial resemblance to his brother —a long jawbone, an angular chin and a small, rather pinched mouth—they have little in common. The weight charts pinned to a wall of the Canadiens’ dressing room in the Forum over a set of scales reveal that Maurice weighed 193 when a partially severed Achilles tendon sidelined him last November. Henri’s weight was 153!/2. Strapping Maurice, with sleek black hair and piercing coal-black eyes, stands fivefeet-eleven. Henri, whose hair is dark brown and has a tendency to curl, and whose eyes are a warm brown, is four inches shorter, at fivefeet-seven. He has a tough compact body, along the lines of a middleweight fighter, but he is still one of the smallest men in the NHL. When he goes against, say, Elmer Vasko, the big young rough defenseman of the Chicago Black Hawks, he is giving away eight inches and fifty-five pounds.

Still, young Henri has made the grade, a point that could scarcely be more graphically illustrated than in the games following the injury to his brother in Toronto on November 13. At the time the Rocket was leading the league in scoring and Henri, who centres a line on which Maurice is the right-winger and Dickie Moore the left-winger, was in second place. There was a certain disposition around the league to credit Henri’s lofty position to the fact that he vas passing the puck to the game’s greatest scorer, and every time the Rocket put the puck in the net the chances were that Henri had been able to pick up an assist.

Instead of skidding when Maurice was hurt, however, Henri continued to blossom on a makeshift line assembled by coach Toe Blake, who switched Dickie Moore to Maurice’s right-wing spot and inserted Marcel Bonin at left wing. The seldom-used Bonin had had NHI. experience at Boston and Detroit but had spent the 1956-57 season with the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Hockey League. Though the line should have lacked the cohesion of familiarity, young Richard continued to pile up the scoring points and by midFebruary he and linemate Moore were engaged in a tight dual for the league’s scoring championship.

One of his more remarkable performances came after he himself had been forced to the sidelines with an injury to his left knee. He stayed home and took physiotherapy while the Canadiens played a scoreless tie in Toronto on December 4 and then insisted on playing the following night when the same two teams played in the Forum.

Early in the game he had a chance at the Toronto net but was forced wide by a defenseman. Instead of shooting from a bad angle he took the puck toward the backboards, evaded the thrust of a Leaf trying to pin him against the boards and stickhandled long enough for his wingman Marcel Bonin to get into position for a pass in front of the Toronto net. Henri’s quick flip to Bonin resulted in the first goal.

In the third period the Leafs came back to take a 3-to-2 lead with four minutes to play. The versatile Henri got the puck inside the Toronto blueline. When a forward came to check him he whirled in a complete circle with the puck, cutting past the defender and drawing a defenseman to check him. He stickhandled past him and flipped the puck to the uncovered Bonin standing at the side of the net for the tying goal. When Dickie Moore scored the winning goal with only twenty seconds to play, his second of the night, the Henri Richard line had scored all the goals in a 4-to-3 Canadien victory.

Richard’s attributes on the ice, in addition to such dexterity, include a quick, hard wrist shot, which had given him twenty-four goals by mid-February, and skating speed that his coach foe Blake says is the league’s fastest.

"In fact,” says Blake, a former great scorer for the Canadiens, “he's the fastest skater I’ve ever seen in hockey.”

"Faster than Morenz?” his interviewer enquired with the surprise of one who had always heard that the late Howie Morenz of the Canadiens was hockey’s fastest.

"I didn't see too much of Morenz,” parried Blake, who broke into the NHL with the old Montreal Maroons in 1934, three years before a broken leg ended Morenz’ career, “but from what I saw of him, yes, I’d have to say that young Richard is faster. Certainly there’s not a player in the league today he can’t pull away from — carrying the puck, too.”

Possibly the most significant sign that Henri is now a recognized big-leaguer in his own right came recently when Billy Reay, coach of the Maple Leafs, was asked what he thought of Richard’s ability.

“Which Richard?” asked Reay.

Similarly, rival players no longer think of Maurice when the flashing form of Henri manipulates the puck past the players’ bench. The younger frère has proven he belongs, and he is nothing more or less now than an elusive, crouching. mercurial skater wearing number 16, difficult to hit because of his low-slung style, and one more of a seemingly endless number of Habitant forwards who can put the puck in the net with depressing ardor and consistency — such men as Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore and the Rocket. Henri did it the same way he bypassed the physical and psychological roadblocks — with relentless persistence and determination.

Henri, a serious quiet young man at most times, says he cannot remember a time when his ambition was to do anything else but play for the Canadiens. He has an occasional warm try at humor. “If I did not play hockey," he smiles in his accented English, “then I’d have to work. I wouldn’ like dat.”

And so as a youngster he skated and skated and skated. When he was six his brother Maurice bought him his first pair of skates, and he went to le ruisseau, the little stream in Bordeaux, every day after school and every evening after supper. As he grew older and made a place on the school team, he played hockey on the outdoor rinks of the quiet little parish after school and all day Saturdays and Sundays. In the evenings when hockey gave way to general skating, he skated without a stop from seven until the lights went out at 10.30, with a red-haired, brown-eyed girl named Lise Villiard. Henri’s and Lise’s older sisters were classmates who got the youngsters skating together when Henri was ten.

“She didn’ skate with any other fellow,” smiles Henri, “an’ I didn’ skate with another girl.”

Two years ago Henri married Lise and bought a home in their native Bordeaux where they now have a year-old baby girl, Michèle.

As a youngster Henri rarely saw his famous big brother except on the ice. He was six when Maurice moved from the family home to marry black-haired Lucille Nochet. That left seven Richard children at home—four sons and three daughters, Henri being the second youngest child. They lived in a three-story, redbrick house on the edge of Bordeaux, which their father Onésime built thirty-eight years ago. Onésime is a lean reserved man of fifty-eight w'ho has been building freight cars in the CPR’s Angus shops near Montreal for forty-two years. Old friends such as Hector Dubois, the CPR station master in the parish, say that the fierce resolution for which Maurice is renowned and with which Henri made his way to the NHL is the heritage of Onésime.

“He is a determined w'orker of humble character,” says Dubois. “One year after he married Alice Laramée of the parish of St. Sacrement he built his own house in partnership with his father, and became its sole proprietor writhout any government help or subsidies. It was remarkable at that time.”

Every morning Onésime catches a commuter train at Bordeaux to ride to the Angus shops, a small impassive man pacing the wooden platform in front of Bordeaux’s dull-red frame station. One morning, the day after young Henri had returned to the Canadiens’ lineup to help beat Toronto, Guy Huot, a family friend also waiting for the train, engaged Onésime in w'hat Huot says was a conversation typical of all those of the last fifteen years.

"Que pensez-vous de la partie d’hier?” asked Huot. ("What do you think of the game last night?”)

“Une bonne partie,” said Richard père noncommittally.

Henri a fait plus que sa part.” ventured Huot. (“Henri did more than his share.”)

"Il a bien joué,” agreed Richard shortly.

At this point, says Huot, the train arrives to end the conversation, or the train does not arrive and the conversation ends.

During Canadien games at the Forum, Richard père is similarly unmoved. He stares solemnly at the game and the only time he show's emotion is if one of the boys scores a goal. Then, with a quick movement of his clenched right fist, like a fighter delivering a sharp hook, lie’ll cry out, “Maurice!” if it’s the Rocket who has scored, or “Henri!” and then return to his stolid vigilance.

Family friends say all eight of the Richard children have this reserve, and Madame Richard, too, is a quiet woman, built along the comfortable lines of television’s Madame PloufTc. Toe Blake, the Canadien coach, tells of a time when an American reporter, desirous of interviewing Henri, asked Blake if the young player spoke English.

“Em not sure that he even speaks French,” Blake smiled. “He just doesn't speak.”

Maurice and Henri rarely exchange a word in the Canadien dressing room and if they do it’s perfunctory. Maurice never gives Henri advice, and never has. And Henri is so constituted that he never asks for it, and never has. Guy Huot, the family friend in Bordeaux, explains it.

"You know', those guy, they won't give—how you say it?—conseil?" he says.

“Counsel?” it was suggested.

"Oui, counsel — ah — instruction,” he adds emphatically. “Those guy in that family never give it. And Henri doesn't want it. He w'ants to make his own way. He is relentless.”

Henri is unstinting in his praise of his brother—“No one ever will do as well

as he has done"—yet theirs is not the usual brotherly relationship. “When he left home 1 was so young,” says Henri. “I’d hardly ever see him. He was like any other guy.” It may be significant that when Henri's parents took him to the Forum to w'atch the Canadiens he did not have eyes for the Rocket. When he was asked w'hat seemed to be a ridiculous question. “Who was your favorite player?” Henri replied, “Ted Kennedy and Elmer Lach, and Red Kellv. too."


“Well, Kennedy and Lach would al-

ways get the face-offs. And they would work like hell, too.”

“And Kelly?”

“He would skate so well, and play defense and forward both.”

“What about Gordie Howe?"

"He seemed kind of lazy,” said Henri. And then he added quickly. “But of course he is very good.”

“And what about Maurice?”

"Oh. Maurice.” he said, savoring the name. “Nobody else could score a goal like him.”

Henri, then, in striving to make the NHL, patterned himself after such dogged players as Kennedy of Toronto and Lach ot the Canadiens, and such smooth effortless skaters as Kelly. And that is his game today—great skating ability and tireless persistence. He does not have Maurice’s sudden explosive burst, and even though he is now accepted in his own right he still betrays a certain apprehensiveness of the day that the Rocket retires.

“When he is gone, if I don’t do so well as he did—well. 1 won't do so well as that —but if I don’t do real well, the people they will remember him and for sure they’re gonna say something.” He says this with real concern, his soft brown eyes wistful.

Unwanted, the shadow of the Rocket was on young Henri even when he’d visit the homes of his school friends. He thinks lie was about eight when a hoy introduced him to his father.

"So you’re Rocket Richard’s little brother?” said the man, smiling.

"Oui,” said Henri shortly, and turned away.

When he was fourteen his brother Maurice told Pete Morin, coach of the junior Montreal Nationales, that he was going to send his young brother around to see him. Henri showed up in the dressing room, a tiny fellow weighing a hundred and live pounds.

“Who are you?” asked Morin when he noticed the boy.

“Henri Richard.”

“Are you the Rocket’s brother?” asked Morin, surprised at his youth and size.

“I am Henri Richard,” replied the youngster.

Recently he was asked if he had ever introduced himself to anyone as Maurice Richard’s brother.

"No, no,” he said quickly. “1 hate that.”

He played against older and bigger players all through his junior days with the Nationales and the Canadiens. Sam Pollock, the Canadien coach, says Henri never went out of his way to find trouble —“He was never chippy”—but he never backed down from it.

He took his beating.

This, apparently, is an innate quality. From the dregs of his memory Henri can recall that when he was ten a school bully of fifteen blackened his eye in an altercation the cause of which escapes him. “Everybody was afraid of that guy,” he remembers, “but I didn’t want to run away. I was afraid of that guy but I wasn’t going to show him.” Henri stood his ground and took a beating.

He still was eligible for a year of junior hockey when he attended the training camp of the professional Canadiens in the fall of 1955. Again he demonstrated this determination. He met his friend Guy Huot outside the Forum after a practice one day and Guy asked him if he thought he'd make the grade.

"The general manager and the coach don’t want me,” Henri told Huot, “but I am going to make them obliged to get me.”

Toe Blake, the coach, recalls that he had no alternative but to sign Henri.

“When he was on the ice, nobody else had the puck,” says Blake. “No matter who 1 lined him up with, that line always had the best scoring record in a given practice.”

It is typical of the relationship of the Richard brothers that Maurice made no effort to influence the management’s decision on Henri. Once after a practice Dick Bacon of the British United Press asked him how Henri was doing.

“He's ready now,” the Rocket told him.

“Did you tell anybody that?” asked Bacon.

"No,” Richard said, “it’s up to the club to decide.”

When the season opened, the Canadiens decided to keep Henri on a threegame trial basis, meaning that he could play three games in the NHL without jeopardizing his “amateur” standing; he could be returned to the junior Habitants where he’d be paid, all right, but he’d still be recognized by the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association under its unfathomable definition of an amateur.

When Boom Boom Geoffrion was injured, coach Blake installed Henri at right wing beside Jean Beliveau and Bert Olmstead and he scored his first NHL goal against the New York Rangers on Oct. 15, 1955, in a game in which the Rocket scored twice as the Canadiens won 4 to 1.

Blake moved Henri around from game to game but resisted all impulse to team him with his brother.

“I figured they might be jumpy together,” the coach recalls. “Also, 1 thought Rock might pass up a lot of scoring chances to feed the puck to Henri.”

But then in a game against Chicago in the Forum the Canadiens ran into a couple of minor injuries and Blake had no alternative but to team the brothers. They had never before played on a line, even in practice sessions, hut in the third period Henri flipped a pass to Maurice for a goal and, as Blake says, “that was it.” He teamed them with Dickie Moore. He says now that far from Maurice helping Henri, he feels Henri may have helped prolong the Rocket’s career.

“Henri puts a lot of speed into the line and the Rocket has to skate faster than he ever did before,” Blake notes. “And, oddly enough, it's turned Rock into a better playmakcr than he ever was, possibly because he’s trying to give the puck to Henri.”

At first Maurice had a low boiling point when Henri became involved in exchanges with bigger players, and he’d speed to his rescue. But then once, with Maurice in the penalty box, Henri and Bill Gadsby of the Rangers began jostling in a corner.

“He came driving at me with his stick up high,” says Henri. “1 hit him and he fell to the ice. That was just lucky—if he’d hit me first maybe I’d go down. The first punch is important.”

The brief fight was a revelation to Maurice. “1 know now he can take care of himself,” the Rocket says. “The first year 1 was worried, 1 feel funny. I like to get hold of that fellow who hit Henri. But now I hold back.”

But on the ice or in the dressing room he has few words for his brother. If Henri scores, he skates past him, says, “C’est bon, Henri,” and lets it go at that.

All question of the Rocket “carrying” Henri has long since passed. As defenseman Tom Johnson of the Canadiens says pointedly, “1 don’t think you’ll find too many hockey players in this league who get carried by anybody.”

Muzz Patrick, general manager of the New York Rangers, recently provided graphic, if indirect, proof of Henri’s complete acceptance by rival NHI.ers when he encountered Dink Carroll of the Montreal Gazette in a hotel lobby.

"I hear there’s another Richard called Claude, playing for the junior Canadiens,” said Patrick. “What kind of a hockey player is he?”

“Well,” said Carroll, “his name is Richard so you’ve got to consider him.”

“My gawd,” said Patrick in dismay, “didn’t Madame Richard have any daughters?”


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