Sunday, March 17, 2013

March 17, 1955: The Richard Riot

On March 17, 1955, following the suspension of Canadiens star Maurice "The Rocket" Richard a riot erupted in City of Montreal. Just one day earlier Clarence Campbell  suspended Richard for the rest of the season including the playoffs over an incident during a game on the thirteenth of March. When Campbell showed up to watch the Habs take on the Red Wings at the Montreal Forum, the crowd became enraged. With things escalating quickly a fan threw a homemade tear gas bomb inside the arena and the riot poured onto the streets. It was 3 a.m before order was restored, more than $100,000 in damage had taken place which would be nearly $850,000 by today's standards.

It all started with Richard and his former teammate Hal Laycoe getting into a confrontation in Boston. Laycoe was called for a high stick on Richard, the stick ended up opening up a cut above Richard's eye that took five stitches to repair. Since the Canadiens had the puck the penalty was delayed, as soon as the whistle blew Richard went after Laycoe with revenge in mind. Laycoe dropped his gloves expecting a fight then Richard came flying in and used his stick to pummel Laycoe. A referee by the name of Cliff Thompson tried to break it up, before Richard turned his aggression towards him. Richard hit Thomspon twice and the ref ended up knocked out cold on the ice. Richard was ejected from the game which carried an automatic $100 fine, his opponent Hal Laycoe got a 10 minute game misconduct plus a 5 minute major for fighting.  This wasn't the first incident for Richard and the referees, earlier in the season he had slapped a ref in the face and received a $250 fine for his actions.

When NHL Commissioner, Clarence Campbell heard about the incident in Boston he held a hearing on the 16th  he chose the season ending suspension for Richard and it enraged each and every Canadiens fan. The President of the league received death threats from the fans of Montreal.  The following day the fans showed up at the Forum well before the game even started holding signs that protested the suspension. The game that was scheduled for that night was an important matchup with the Red Wings, first place was on the line. Before the puck even dropped it seemed like the game was far less important than making it known that Campbell's decision was not going to be accepted in the City of Montreal. It was a serious distraction for the Canadiens squad as well and without their leader they fell behind by the score of 2-0 early.

With the team down, Campbell shows up with his girlfriend casually late. The fans in the Forum were disgusted to see his face and they let him know it by throwing anything they could find at him. Things escalated quickly with Campbell being pelted by the flying debris before the tear gas bomb went off. All the mayhem inside the arena flooded into the streets of Montreal. The mayhem went on for hours before order was restored. More than 50 people were arrested and damage had been done to shops, cars and other property all around The Forum. Although Campbell clearly incited the riot he condemned the rioters for their actions, it would have been pretty simple for him to not show up for this game. The play of the Canadiens squad didn't help, while the fans were focused on letting Campbell know that he was Montreal's most hated man, the Habs had fell behind 4-1, it would later be the final score after the Canadiens were forced to forfeit.

This riot was about much more than a fan favorite being suspended. There was a lot of tension between the francophone's (French Speaking Canadians) and the anglophone's (English Speaking Canadians) the francophone's felt they had been walked on for a number of years by their English speaking counterparts. The predominately francophone Canadiens team and their fans had one outlet to prove they were not inferior to anyone and that came on the ice. Campbell was looked at as an anglophone villain who handed out the harsh penalty to spite the francophone's. They were simply fed up with the way the entire system had treated them and this was a breaking point. It doesn't make their actions right but it does help explain what fueled the fire.

A lot of people outside of Montreal thought that the suspension to Richard was exactly what he deserved, after all he did knock out a referee and it wasn't his first run in with the men in stripes. It seems to me that Campbell's decision to attend this game was such a  misguided decision, he was trying to show he wouldn't back down from anyone, instead he added fuel to a fire that was already an enraging inferno. Even after the fire was out Campbell didn't apologize, instead he put all the blame on the rioters and even the City of Montreal. Some of the city officials including the Mayor made it clear that they believed Campbell was to blame.  Campbell infuriated the fans in Montreal even more with his lack of an apology and they way he shouldered none of the blame. Richard was urged by city officials to try and help bring things to a close, he did as they asked, it wasn't easy for him but he was looking out for the greater good of the city that adored him.

Even with Richard suspended the Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup Finals but they were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in a hard fought 7 games. The suspension had cost Richard the scoring title when his own teammate Bernie Geoffrin took the lead in points on the last day of the season, it was the closest Richard ever came to being the league leader in points for a season. It was something he had sought before and after the suspension. Richard and the Canadiens were able to put the suspension to bed with the return of The Rocket at the start of the '55-'56 season, he helped lead the team to 5 consecutive Stanley Cup titles before he retired following the 1960 Stanley Cup Championship. The same commissioner who suspended him years before would stand right next to him while presenting him hockey's top prize, it seems that it was water under the bridge as time moved on.

Rocket Richard is one of the greatest players to ever put on a pair of skates. The suspension he was handed might have been exactly what he deserved considering his actions. With that said, the way Campbell acted was holier than thou, him showing up to the game was not only stupid, it started something that he didn't even have to clean up. Property owners all around The Forum had to deal with damage and had to put the pieces back together all becasue he thought it was a good idea to show up as an in your face act of defiance to the fans in Montreal. Campbell is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, he was instrumental in the 1967 expansion of the league and held the post as NHL commissioner from 1946 to 1977, unfortunately  what became known as "The Richard Riot" would tarnish the legacy of Campbell forever.

Here is a short news report about the incident:

While I was looking up info for this fact, I ran across a 4 part documentary about the riot. It will give you great insight on what those in the francophone community felt and why it all happened. Each video is anywhere between 7-9 minutes long, if you have the time they are definitely worth watching.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

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