Maclean’s Excerpt

SCORING MACHINE

Rocket Richard once enjoyed the game’s highest annual salary—$20,000

November 10 2003
Maclean’s Excerpt

SCORING MACHINE

Rocket Richard once enjoyed the game’s highest annual salary—$20,000

November 10 2003

SCORING MACHINE

Maclean’s Excerpt

Rocket Richard once enjoyed the game’s highest annual salary—$20,000

Maurice Richard was one of the greatest hockey players ever. As a goal scorer, he set records that stood for decades. A fierce competitor, Richard was also a Quebec icon, and in 2000 his death at 78 from stomach cancer deeply moved the province and the nation. His early heroics were recorded by legendary writer Trent Frayne in “Hockey’s Greatest Scoring Machine,” excerpted below, which appeared in the Nov. 1,1951 issue o/Maclean’s. Frayne’s article is one of47 sports-related articles from the Maclean’s archives collected in The Thrill ofVictory, just released by Penguin Canada.

ANY MOMENT now Maurice Richard will score the 300th goal of his National Hockey League career and sometime early next spring he will break Neis Stewart’s all-time record of 324 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 that 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 that 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 $20,000, approximately 20 per cent 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 $135,000, 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 facade 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 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. 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. 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.

Richard is a slender-looking 175-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 roommate on road trips, says it is not unusual for Richard to sleep more than 12 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.

In the summertime he plays better-thanaverage golf—in the middle 80s—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 medium-well sirloin steak. 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.

WITH the Forum crowds shrieking wildly, Richard on the ice becomes a whirling, dashing man possessed

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 silverhaired Irvin, “how do you mean pooped?”

“Moved today,” replied Richard, whose English is tinged with Jean-Baptiste. “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. The 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 the Canadiens won 9-1. That’s another Richard entry in the record book.

Turk Broda, Toronto goalkeeper for 15 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 20 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.”

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.” liil