It could be a day of mixed feelings for older Montreal Canadiens fans. On one hand, the 2009-10 edition of the team is on a hot streak right now, winning six in a row to land them comfortably ahead of the playoff bubble. Still, those probably gray-haired fans may also think back 55 years, to a time when one hockey player ended up becoming a lot more than “just a hockey player.”
That’s because on March 17, 1955, a riot erupted due to then-NHL president Clarence Campbell’s decision to suspend French-Canadian icon and hockey legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard throughout the remainder of the league’s regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs. Habs Eyes on the Prize shares an article that captured the politically charged fervor.
The people of the city of Montreal and the province of Quebec itself were thunderstruck. The Canadiens and Detroit were tied for first place in the league and were to meet that night in the Montreal Forum. The fan reaction was so immediate and furious in the city that the police commissioner warned Campbell, whose office and that of the league were located in Montreal, that it would be inadvisable for him to attend the game as was his usual custom. Public attitudes were so poisonous that his staff begged him not to even think about entering the Forum.
Hours before the opening face-off, crowds, most of whom did not have tickets, gathered on St. Catharines St. and adjoining streets around the Forum, and they were in a surly mood. At the Montreal Gazette, the editor, sensing that the usual number of reporters staffing a Canadiens game would not be sufficient to cover what might happen, assigned a young sports writer named Red Fisher (Fisher worked for the Montreal Star in 1955, not the Gazette.) to rush to the Forum, not to cover any aspect of the game, but to handle whatever other newsworthy event might occur.
Fisher, who was to become a journalistic legend in Montreal, had never before covered anything at the Forum, but as soon as he arrived he sensed that what was growing among the crowds, both inside and outside the building, was a possible riot. He was correct.
Considering the near-fatal missteps of the elder Clarence, modern NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell doesn’t seem quite as clueless, does he? (Though it is funny that, once again, a man named Campbell suspended a fiery and unforgettable goal scorer. Heck, Ovechkin’s number is 8 and Richard’s was 9.)
Hockey has a rich and fascinating history, with equipment, stick and rules changes sometimes camouflaging profound cultural and political events. Few sports teams – let alone hockey teams – can match the history of the Montreal Canadiens (you should absolutely read Ken Dryden’s excellent book “The Game” for instance).
The Habs Eyes on the Prize article is huge, but it’s well worth a read. The blog also has more great suggestions for extended reading, including a collection of newspaper clips on the riots as well as archived articles from the New York Times and Detroit News.
(H/T to the Montreal Gazette blog Habs Inside/Out.)