A new collection features the inside story of a night to remember in Montreal

November 9 1998


A new collection features the inside story of a night to remember in Montreal

November 9 1998




Over the years, Maclean’s has assigned the country’s best writers, from the legendary Bruce Hutchison to Trent Frayne and Allan Fotheringham, to tell the behind-the-scenes as well as the rink-side stories of Canada’s national game. Some of their work has been collected in the just-published Canada on Ice, 50 Years of Great Hockey, which features a foreword by Peter Gzowski. (The book was edited by Michael Benedict, the magazine’s editorial director of new ventures, and Senior Writer D’Arcy Jenish.)

Included in the collection is the inside story of one of the most dramatic moments in Canadian sports. It happened in the Montreal Forum on St. Patrick’s Day, 1955, an incident now known as the Richard Hockey Riot. Maclean’s Staff Writer Sidney Katz dissected the riot, which soon became a chapter in the ongoing saga of Quebec’s English-French relations. An excerpt from that piece:

A new collection features the inside story of a night to remember in Montreal

On March 17, 1955, at exactly 9:11 p.m., a tear-gas bomb exploded in the Montreal Forum where 16,000 people had gathered to watch a hockey match between the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings. The acrid yellowish fumes that filled the stadium sent the crowd rushing to the exits, crying, shrieking, coughing and retching. But it did more. It touched off the most destructive and frenzied riot in the history of Canadian sport Many of the hockey fans had come to the game in an ugly mood. The day before, Clarence Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, had banished Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, the 34-year-old star of the Canadiens and the idol of the Montreal fans, from hockey for the remainder of the season.

The newspapers and radio were blamed for whipping up public opinion against Campbell before the riot. Frank Hanley of the Montreal city council said that Mayor Jean Drapeau must accept at least some of the responsibility. Had he not publicly criticized Campbell’s decision to suspend Richard instead of appealing to the public to accept it? Drapeau, in turn, blamed the riot on Campbell who “provoked it” by his presence at the game. Later, Frank D. Corbett, a citizen of Westmount, expressed an opinion about the riot that many people thought about but few discussed publicly. In a letter to the editor of a local paper, he said bluntly that the outbreak was symptomatic of racial ill feeling. “French and English relationships have deteriorated badly over the past 10 years

and they have never been worse,” he wrote. “The basic unrest is nationalism, which is ever present in Quebec. Lef s face it... the FrenchCanadians want the English expelled from the province.”

All of these observations contained some germ of truth, but no single one of them explains satisfactorily what happened that St. Patrick’s night. In the case history of the Richard riot, the night of March 13, four nights before the Montreal outburst, is important. The Canadiens were playing against the Boston Bruins in the Boston Gardens. An incident occurred six minutes before the end of the game that set the stage for the debacle in Montreal. Boston was leading 4-2, playing one man short because of a penalty. In a desperate effort to score, the Canadiens removed their goalie and sent six men up the ice. Richard was skating across the Boston blue-line past Boston defenceman Hal Laycoe when the latter put his stick up high and caught Richard on the left side of his head. It made a nasty gash, which later required five stitches. Frank Udvari, the referee, signalled a penalty to Laycoe for high-sticking, but allowed the game to go on because Canadiens had the puck.

Richard skated behind the Boston net and had returned to the blueline when the whistle blew. He rubbed his head, then suddenly skated over to Laycoe. Lifting his stick high over his head with both hands, Richard pounded Laycoe over the face and shoulders with all his strength. Laycoe dropped his gloves and stick and motioned to Richard to come and fight with his fists. An official, linesman Cliff Thompson, grabbed Richard and took his stick away from him. Richard broke away, picked up a loose stick on the ice and again slashed away at Laycoe, this time breaking the stick on him. Again Thompson got hold of Richard, but again Richard escaped and with

Reprinted with permission from Canada on Ice, 50 Years of Great Hockey, Penguin Books Canada, Toronto.

another stick slashed at the man who had injured him. Thompson subdued Richard for the third time by forcing him down to the ice. With the help of a teammate, Richard regained his feet and sprang at Thompson, bruising his face and blackening his eye. Thompson finally got Richard under control and sent him to the first-aid room for medical attention.

It’s possible that Richard is the greatest hockey player who ever lived. Canadiens were once offered $135,000 for him—the highest value ever placed on a hockey player. Frank Selke, Canadien managing director, refused, saying: “I’d sooner sell half the Forum.” Opposing teams fully recognize Richard’s talent and use rugged methods to stop him. One—and sometimes two—players are specifically detailed to nettle him. They regularly hang on to him, put hockey sticks between his legs, bodycheck him and board him harder than necessary. Once he skated 20 feet with two men on his shoulders to score a goal.

His opponents also employ psychological warfare to unnerve him. Insp.

William Minogue, who, as police officer in charge of the Forum, is regularly at rink side during games, frequently hears opposing players calling Richard “French pea soup” or “dirty French bastard” as they skate past. If these taunts result in a fight, both Richard and his provoker are sent to the penalty bench. Opposing teams consider this a good bargain.

Richard’s supporters contended that because of lax refereeing their hero had been badgered beyond his endurance.

On the other hand, The Toronto Star described Richard as “a chronic blow-top and a habitual offender.” Campbell was advised by many out-of-town newspapers to ground the Rocket long enough to teach him a lesson.

The hearing to consider the situation was private. It lasted for three hours. In defence of Richard, Montreal coach Dick Irvin said that he had been temporarily stunned by the blow on his head and was unaware of what he was doing.

Richard remained silent until asked if he had anything to say. “I don’t remember what happened,” he replied. Later, Richard told me: ‘When I’m hit, I get mad and I don’t know what I do. Before each game, I think about my temper and how I should control it, but as soon as I get on the ice I forget all that.”

Left alone, Campbell ordered a ham sandwich on brown bread and a cup of coffee and began studying his notes. “I had a hard time making up my mind,” he told me later. By 3 p.m., Campbell had written out the first page of his decision. He had made thousands of unpopular decisions—but none nearly so unpopular as the one he made public to the assembled newspapermen in his presidential office at 4 p.m. that March afternoon.

The attacks on Laycoe and Thompson were deliberate and persistent, he found. “Whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or wilful defiance doesn’t matter. It’s a type of conduct that cannot be tolerated.” The room was completely silent as Campbell then pronounced the punishment. “Richard is suspended from playing in the remaining league and playoff games.”

No sports decision ever hit the Montreal public with such impact. It seemed to strike at the very heart and soul of the city. A Frenchspeaking employee in The Gazette composing room broke down and cried. The French station CKAC invited listeners to phone in their opinions: 97 per cent said that although some punishment for Richard was justified the suspension for the playoffs was too severe. The sports

departments of the newspapers were so besieged by the phone calls and visitors that some of the writers had to go home to get their work done.

There’s abundant evidence that Richard holds a special place in the heart of French Canada. Perhaps ancient nationalist feelings would not have been as important a factor in causing the riot had people in positions of authority urged acceptance of Campbell’s decision in the interest of law and order. The Montreal press, both English and French, reinforced the fans’ feeling that Campbell had victimized them. Le Devoir called the punishment “unjust and too severe.” One French weekly published a crude cartoon of Campbell’s head on a platter, dripping blood, with the caption: “This is how we would like to see him.” The English press followed a similar line, although somewhat more temperate in tone. Dink Carroll said “it was a harsh judgment” in The Gazette, while Baz O’Meara in the Star found the decision “tough and unexpectedly severe.” The crucial question now was: would Campbell dare show himself in public at the game that night? When Campbell announced that he would definitely attend, excitement reached a fever pitch. At 4 pun., station CKVL dispatched a mobile sound unit to the Forum and set up a direct line to its transmitter. ‘We were almost certain that there was going to be trouble,” says Marcel Beauregard, feature editor of CKVL. “It was in the air.” “I never seriously considered not going to the game,” Campbell later said. “I’m a season ticketholder and a regular attendant and I have a right to go. I felt that the police could protect me. I didn’t consult them and they didn’t advise me not to attend.” Richard, the other central figure, was undecided about going until the last minute. His wife finally made up his mind for him. “She told me that she was going so I decided to go along, too,” he says.

A few minutes after the game started, Richard slipped into the Forum unnoticed and took a seat near the goal judges cage at the south end of the rink. He gazed intently at the ice, a look of distress on his face: the Canadiens were playing sloppy hockey. At the eleventh minute of the first period, Detroit scored a second goal and the Canadiens saw their hopes of a league championship go up in smoke. It was at this minute that Clarence Campbell entered the arena. He couldn’t have chosen a worse time.

As soon as Campbell sat down the crowd recognized him and pandemonium broke loose. They shifted their attention from the game to Campbell and setup a deafening roar: “Shoo Campbell, Shoo Campbell”

... “Va-t’en, Va-t’en.” In the remaining nine minutes of the first period, Detroit was able to score another two goals, making the score 4-1. The next 40 minutes were to be sheer torture for Campbell. Vegetables, eggs, tomatoes, rubbers, bottles and programs rained down on him. At one point, Campbell’s hat was knocked off by a heavy flying object and an orange hit him square in the back. From his rink-side seat, Richard occasionally turned to see what was happening. “This is a disgrace,” he said to physiotherapist Bill Head who was sitting beside him.

Ordinarily, Campbell spends the intermissions in the referees’ room. Tonight, he decided to remain in his seat, believing that this would cause less excitement. About a minute later, one André Robinson, a young man of 26 who resembles Marlon Brando, confronted Campbell. Without uttering a word, he squashed two large tomatoes against Campbell’s chest and rubbed them in.

The police usually have 25 men outside the Forum; on this night they had double that number to start with. But at 9:11 p.m., when

Campbell was being surrounded by a hostile mob, none of them were there to protect him. At that critical moment, he was delivered by the explosion of a tear-gas bomb 25 feet away. As the thick fumes fanned upward and outward, the crowd immediately forgot Campbell and began fighting their way to the fresh air outside. Chief of Detectives George Allain later observed: “The bomb-thrower protected Campbell’s life by releasing it at precisely the right moment.”

Campbell made his way to the first-aid centre under the stands. Richard had also made his way there, but never came face-to-face with Campbell because he was in a different room. He was aghast at what had happened. “This is terrible, awful,” he said. “People might have been killed.”

Armand Paré, head of the Montreal fire department, was unwilling to have the game continue. He felt there was real danger of panic and fire. Campbell sent the following note to Jack Adams, the Detroit general manager, after conferring with Selke: “The game has been forfeited to Detroit. Selke agrees as the fire department has ordered this building closed.”

Until the bomb exploded, a growing demonstration outside the Forum was neither destructive nor out of control.

The explosion, however, signalled a change of mood. When thousands of excited, frightened fans poured outside and joined the demonstrators, it seemed to unleash an ugly mob spirit that ended in a shameful episode of physical violence, vandalism and looting.

In a mob riot, only a small core of people are required to initiate violence. They act as a catalyst on the crowd. Other people are carried away by the excitement and drawn into their activities. In the Richard riot, the core of violence was made up of bands of teenagers and young adults. There were probably about 500 or 600 of them. like packs of wolves, they moved up and down in front of the Forum, shrieking wildly and inflaming the crowd. They attacked a side door of the building and tore it off its hinges. They hurled chunks of ice and empty bottles, smashing windows. Dissatisfied with this ammunition, they marched off to where a new hospital was being built half a block away and returned with chunks of brick and concrete.

It is doubtful whether most of the troublemakers were hockey fans. Insp. Minogue arrested a husky man in a black-and-red mackinaw. He identified himself as a lumberjack from Chalk River, Ont “You must love Richard,” said Minogue. A blank expression came over his face: “Richard? Who’s he?”

Across the street, CKVL broadcasters were giving the Montreal public a dramatic blow-by-blow description of the riot: “The bomb has gone off!. .. There goes another window!... The police are rushing the crowd!...” This marathon broadcast and others attracted thousands more people to the Forum. By 11 p.m., the crowd numbered at least 10,000. It was too big for the police and the Forum was now virtually in a state of siege.

By about 11:15 p.m., the back entrance of the Forum was fairly quiet. Gaston Bettez, the Canadien trainer, drove Richard’s car up to the door and hastily loaded Richard and his wife into it. ‘When I got home, I listened to the riot on the radio,” says Richard. “I felt badly. Once I felt like going downtown and telling the people over a loudspeaker to stop their nonsense. But it wouldn’t have done any good. They would have carried me around on their shoulders. If s nice to have people behind you, but not the way they did on the night of the Detroit game.”

At 11.30 p.m., Jim Hunter, the Forum building superintendent, en-

tered the first-aid centre and announced: “I think it’s safe to go home now, Mr. Campbell.” As soon as he got home, he phoned his father in Edmonton to say that he was safe. Although his phone is unlisted, it started to ring incessantly. Most of the callers were abusive and spoke in broken English. He lifted the phone off the hook and went to bed about 1 a.m. “I had a fine night’s sleep,” he said. He got up at his usual hour of 7:30 a.m. Later, Campbell said: “I was never seriously afraid of being lynched. As a referee, I learned something about mobs. They’re cowards.”

By midnight, the frenzy of the rioters outside the Forum became almost demoniacal and they turned their attention to the firms that rented space on the ground floor of the Forum. They heaved rocks through the plate-glass windows of the Royal Bank of Canada. Debris

came flying through the windows of the York Tavern. Each constable was armed with a stick and a revolver; a police car stood by with a supply of teargas bombs; the firemen had a highpressure water hose ready. But police Chief Thomas Leggett withheld the order to use any of these strong-arm methods. “It might have led to panic and hysteria—and that’s when people get killed,” he said. As it was, not a single person was seriously injured.

By 3 a.m., the last rock had been hurled, the last window had been smashed and the last blood-curdling shriek of “Kill Campbell!” had been uttered. The fury of the mob had spent itself. By the end of the riot, the police had picked up 70 people and delivered them to No. 10 police station.

The mood of most Montrealers following the riot was a mixture of shame and regret. It was well summed up by the terse opening sentence in Dink Carroll’s column in The Gazette on March 18: “I am ashamed of my city.” Others, like Mayor Drapeau, were less remorseful. The riot came about, he said, because of “provocation caused by Campbell’s presence.”

Campbell showed up at his office the next morning at the usual hour of 8.30 a.m. Richard was still asleep when reporters knocked on the door of his home at 8 a.m. It was answered by his six-year-old son who said: “I hope you didn’t come to talk to him about hockey.” When the reporters returned later, Richard was attired in a white T-shirt and a pair of slacks. His face was lined with fatigue. “This certainly isn’t the time for me to say anything,” he said. “It might start something again.” By 3 p.m., he changed his mind. He showed up in Frank Selke’s office and said that he wanted to make a public statement. At 7 p.m., seated in front of a battery of microphones, he made the following short speech in French: “Because I always try so hard to win and had my troubles in Boston, I was suspended. At playoff time, it hurts not to be in the game with the boys. However, I want to do what is good for the people of Montreal and the team. So that no further harm will be done, I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and to help the boys win from the Rangers and Detroit. I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and younger players to win the Cup.”

As he repeated the speech in English, Richard appeared restless and upset. He rubbed his eyes, tugged at his tie and scratched his left ear. His words seemed to have a settling effect on the city. The question of his suspension was laid aside, at least for the time being. Mayor Drapeau and other leaders followed Richard with strong pleas for law and order. There was to be no further violence for the remainder of the season, despite the fact that the Canadiens lost the championship. □