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On This Date in Sports March 17, 1955: The Richard Riots

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A fan protest at the Montreal Forum turns into a full-blown riot, causing $100,000 in damages, with 37 injuries and 60 arrests after an appearance by NHL President Clarence Campbell. The fans who watched the Habs lose by forfeit to the Detroit Red Wings were upset that Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens was suspended for the rest of the season and playoffs for an on-ice incident against the Boston Bruins, in which Richard punched an NHL linesman.

For a population in Quebec predominantly French-speaking, there was a growing sense of alienation from an Anglo Minority that seemed to control most of the industry in Canada’s French-Speaking province. Maurice “Rocket” Richard, born and raised in Montreal, had long been the favorite player of fans of the Canadiens as he was unapologetic about his French Canadian ethnicity. Richard would often fight with Anglo-Canadians on other teams, calling them “Damn English.”

For his battles with the Anglo players, Maurice Richard became the embodiment of the Francophone community even more than his fast skating and goal-scoring. The battles were exasperated as opposing players hurled ethnic slurs and took whatever means were needed to slow the Rocket down, even if it meant hooking, slashing, or holding him.

During a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on March 13th, things turned ugly for the Montreal Canadiens and Maurice Richard. It started when Hal Laycoe, a former member of the Canadiens, hit Richard in the head with a high stick during a power play. After the play was over, the Rocket exploded in a fit of rage, going after Laycoe and striking him in the face with his stick. After being momentarily restrained, Richard continued his attack on breaking his stick over the Bruins defenseman’s body. During the melee, Maurice Richard punched linesman Cliff Thompson, a former Bruin, twice, knocking him unconscious. Richard was given a match penalty and ejected from the game.

After the game, Boston Police attempted to arrest Maurice Richard, but the team did not allow them into the locker room, promising that the NHL would handle it internally. It was the second incident during the season in which Richard struck a referee. He had previously been fired $250 for slapping a linesman. After a hearing at league offices, NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended Maurice Richard for the rest of the season, including the playoffs. Though it was the longest suspension of Campbell’s 31 years in office, many across the league felt he was too light and that Richard should have been suspended at least until January of the following season.

The same sentiments were not felt in Montreal, where fans felt Maurice Richard was being persecuted for his French ancestry. A year earlier, Bernie Geoffrion had been suspended by Campbell, leading Richard to call him a dictator. The NHL forced Richard to retract his statement and give up a weekly column in a local French newspaper. This only seemed to anger the Montreal fan base even more. When Maurice Richard received his suspension, the fuse was set as they felt it was another example of the English Canadians subjugating the French to second-class citizenship.

Despite receiving death threats, Clarence Campbell attended the Canadiens' late-season game against the Detroit Red Wings at the Montreal Forum just a day after announcing the suspension. Arriving midway through the first period, with the Red Wings leading 2-0, fans booed Campbell and pelted him with eggs, vegetables, and other debris. With the Canadiens down 4-1 during the first intermission, the fans continued to attack Campbell, with one breaking through security and slapping him. This led to tearing gas being set off as the Forum was evacuated. After the fans were out on the streets, they overturned cars, burned newsstands, and smashed windows. More than 50 stores were damaged within a 15-block radius of the Montreal Forum, as 25 citizens and 12 police officers were injured. The riot caused $100,000 of damage, as 60 people were arrested. The game would be suspended, with the Red Wings later declared 4-1 winners.

A day after the riots, Maurice Richard reluctantly issued a statement in French and English accepting his punishment and asking for calm in Montreal. Meanwhile, Mayor Jean Drapeau was less than diplomatic as he blamed Clarence Campbell for the riot, as the city council called for his arrest for inciting a riot. Campbell meanwhile expressed no regret claiming it was his duty to attend the game. The Canadiens would lose a hard-fought seven-game series to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final without Richard. The game was played in Detroit, as the loss on the night of the riots had decided the regular-season champion in the NHL.

The following season, the Canadiens began a record five-year Stanley Cup dynasty. The riots would serve greater significance in the history of Quebec, as it was the spark that started the Quebec Separatist movement, with many in the province later voting on a referendum to break away from Canada and become a spate country.