A Tribute to Maurice Richard
by Brian McKenna
I played hockey as a kid in Montreal, one of the boys of winter. On Saturday nights, we hurried home from the rink for Hockey Night in Canada. For Montrealers, those were days of certainties. As certain as snow and ice, every Saturday night represented the promise of sweet triumph. Oh the Canadiens did not win every game, but we knew in our hearts they would always win the big ones. We had reason for our certainty. Looking back, I now understand how the kids of ancient Greece must have regarded their gods. For we had a God. He wore scarlet and blue and white and the powerful nine on his back. He was thunder and lightning, with incandescent eyes, his name not Zeus, but Rocket. When the enemy called him names, like frog, he knocked them out. In Montreal, in English and French, we liked that. And we knew that no matter how desperate the situation became for our Canadiens, the Rocket would save the day, often scoring the winning goal, in sudden death overtime - sudden death for the Wings, the Leafs, never for the Canadiens ... And so it was, five Stanley Cups in a row, one record that became unreachable even for Gretsky.
When I grew up and became a fimmaker, I learned that Maurice Richard was mortal. One of my first films for the Fifth Estate in the 1970's was on the Rocket. I discovered a fifty-year-old man, painfully shy, refereeing an industrial league hockey hame between two of his sons. This was at the time Gordie Howe was making a million dollars with his two sons playing in the WHA.
In his prime the biggest salary Richard ever made was $25,000. Now he was making less that doing publicity for an oil company, selling fishing tackle, and doing ads for a hair tonic. To tell the truth he was a little bitter about how things had turned out. But mostly, he got on with his life.
He always refused to take a stand on politics, but one sensed he was a Quebecker like most, voting for Réné Levesque, and Pierre Trudeau. He had become a nationalist icon, but this was the man who sent his 500th goal as a gift to the Queen of England, who always said he had as many fans in English as he had in French, and who said perhaps the proudest moment of his life was when he was made a companion of the Order of Canada. Never was the snowflake more appropriate. The famous Rocket Richard riot was not about English or French, he told me, but about righting a wrong. At the Fifth Estate our job was to look for the dark side. About Maurice the Rocket Richard, there was never a murmur, never a breath of scandal.
So now I am more than fifty. I have discovered that as much as Maurice Richard was my boyhood hero as a hockey god, he is as much my hero as a man - for what he bore, and how he bore it, right up to a courageous death. Farewell, Maurice Richard.