Sunday, August 9, 2009

Hockey Player of the Week: Maurice Richard

Yet another new feature. I've definitely decided I'm going to write one per workday. Because I have fun doing them. This is Hockey Player of the Week, where I will pick one hockey player and extol his virtues (and possibly her virtues, I do have a thing for Hayley Wickenheiser). This is the third of five "of the Week" series.

Up first is possibly the greatest goal scorer to ever play hockey. A Quebecois legend. Numero neuf.

Maurice "The Rocket" Richard!

Richard is the epitome of what being a hockey player is. While he wasn't always the head in the points category, he was always first when it came to toughness, to grit, to heart. Rocket Richard was born and raised in Montreal, and his toughness came from his aptitude in a machinist's shop. During World War II, Richard tried to join the Canadian Army several times, but was rejected due to his lingering knee injury. He tried to become a machinist to help out, but by the time he got his certificate the war was over.

During the war, Richard tried out for le Club de Hockey Canadien - as you can imagine, the NHL was devastated by loss of players to the war effort. Richard made the team, but nobody was very impressed with the young Quebecois. His knee could barely hold up, and he was underpowered. Famous GM Frank Selke tried to trade the "lemon", but was unable to find any biters, and good thing too.

In 1944-45, the Rocket scored 50 goals in 50 games - one per game of the season, a feat unheard of back then, and only matched by two players since. It was a jaw-dropping offensive performance that came from a master in the game. After scoring five goals and three assists, the Rocket was named all three stars in a game. He was unmatched by anyone in ferocity and skill; only Gordie Howe seemed to rival his ability to play hockey.

Richard was tough. He famously stood up to New York Rangers tough guy Hal Dill in a one-on-one fight, KO'ing the much larger American (comically, Dill was played by Sean Avery in the movie The Rocket). During a brawl in Boston, Richard punched out a referee some said was restraining him while a Boston player was able to attack freely, and was suspended. Montreal later broke out into riot for three days (!) when NHL boss Clarence Campbell showed up for the last, Richard-less game of the season. It took a personal plea from the Rocket to calm things.

Seriously, a three day riot about a hockey suspension! Richard was so awesome that all of Quebec was ready to go up in fucking arms because of it. Amazing that he would capture that sort of imagination. Absolutely wonderful to ponder, that much is for sure.

By the end of his career, the Rocket amassed 544 goals and 421 assists for 965 points in 978 games. He had won the Stanley Cup eight times, was captain of the famous team for five years, and captured the imagination of Quebec. In 1995 when the old Forum was closed, all the former captains of Montreal participated in a "Passing of the Torch" ceremony. When it got to the Rocket, the crowd went nuts, for like 15 minutes, cheering and screaming his name. "Rocket! Rocket! Rocket!" Maurice, humble as he was, waved them off for a bit, but in the end simply wept. He was loved for who he was, not just what he had done. He later said that listening to the crowd chant was a trip back to the old days.

The Rocket was a true hero, and the NHL has since named the Rocket Richard Trophy after him for most goals scored in the run of a season. There's no real way to describe him, other than the greatest hockey player of his generation, and one of the best, and classiest, hockey heroes of all time.

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