Riding the rocket

How the Montreal Canadiens’ Maurice Richard helped transform politics in Quebec
Riding the rocket

In death, he has become a nationalist icon. But Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s influence on Quebec’s political transformation is, well, complicated, says Charles Foran in his biography of the hockey legend, the latest in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series. Without argument, the fabled Montreal Canadien was the avatar of a downtrodden people—his titanic battles with NHL president Clarence Campbell standing in for the animus between frustrated francophones and the privileged Anglos of mid-century Quebec.

But modern notions of Richard as a sovereignist precursor, or even as a catalyst of the Quiet Revolution, overlook his early career when, in Foran’s words, he served “to hold back, not launch social change.” Off the ice, he epitomized the piety and stoicism of a so-called “small people” adrift in liberal, English-speaking North America: in the early 1950s, he actually campaigned for Maurice Duplessis, the ultra-conservative premier who clung to a parochial, insular vision of Quebec. And he suffered humiliation. In 1954, having publicly challenged Campbell about the NHL’s discriminatory treatment of French-Canadian players, he was forced to make a grovelling apology, and to post a $1,000 bond against future bouts of pique.

The turning point, of course, came in March 1955, when anger over Campbell’s suspension of Richard for the remainder of the season and playoffs spilled onto the streets of Montreal. To Foran, the significance of the Richard Riot lies not in the broken glass, or the anti-Anglo slurs, but how easily Richard cut short the mayhem. With a few words spoken over the radio, the author notes in an interview, “he becalmed his people,” and in doing so demonstrated his reach. “He goes from being this accidental agent of social non-change to an accidental leader,” explains Foran. “And by the end of his life, I think there was an acknowledgement that this man, who dealt with his own limitations, had willingly carried the weight of a people. He’d accepted all these responsibilities and burdens, and he’d done so with enormous grace.”

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Riding the rocket
Bruce Bennett/GETTY IMAGES

Maurice Richard wasn’t only inarticulate and inward. He was earnest and deeply anxious, ill-suited, on one level, to the growing pressures and expectations he was facing as a professional athlete and a high-profile member of a restless majority. At the same time, it was his intensity, even his anxiety—to perform well, to remain deserving of those accolades and, soon, idolatries—along with phenomenal reserves of physical skill and courage, that made him the only man likely to withstand the pressures and live up to the expectations. Similarly, his stay-at-home nature, an instinctive sense that he could only truly be himself in Montreal, ensured that he would never retreat, never hide, and certainly never flee. People knew where to find him, either at the Forum or in the city; people knew who he was. He was the Montreal-born child of Gaspé émigrés and the machinist-trained son of an Angus Yards worker. He was the blue-collar Bordeaux boy with the Bordeaux wife, herself the daughter of a butcher, who were now raising their growing family in neighbouring Ahuntsic. Maurice Richard, in short, wasn’t going anywhere.

Regardless, Conn Smythe tried buying him for the Maple Leafs in 1949, and again in 1951. Both times the Habs declined the ever-larger sums; to have sold Maurice Richard now would have been like retailing the working-class French-Canadian identity, stripped down for parts. By the late 1940s, he was being dubbed “Saint Maurice,” and though he made the sign of the cross before he stepped onto the ice before each period—au nom du Père et du Fils et du Saint-Esprit, Amen—it was French Canadians who were praying to him.

If Richard went to a restaurant, always a family dining establishment, he would attend patiently to everyone who approached their table, standing for the women, shaking hands with the men, signing autographs, wincing his shy, sincere smile. The fancy restaurants patronized by red season ticket holders did not suit him at all; his only appearances in such places were when management threw the players a party, usually after a championship, at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel or in a private club.

Richard’s failed 1947 campaign to gain a salary increase echoed larger patterns at play in the Quebec of Maurice Duplessis. In February 1949, asbestos workers, poorly paid and suffering dangerous conditions, walked off their jobs at four mines around the province. For six weeks the strikers held out. Duplessis, viewing the action as evidence of creeping socialism, backed the owners, sending in squads of police to protect the mines and later encouraging the hiring of scabs and the use of brutality to end the walkout. The Catholic Church, normally his staunch ally in maintaining the status quo, split on the asbestos strike, with a key figure, the archbishop of Montreal, Joseph Carbonneau, encouraging the faithful to donate to the strikers and their families. The strike ended badly in the short term—a minimal pay hike, jobs lost, men blacklisted for life—but augured real change. One young intellectual who had worked with the strikers, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, portrayed the labour action as “a violent announcement that a new era had begun.” He and some friends went to work agitating for a new Quebec in the pages of the journal Cité Libre.

Riding the rocket
Montreal Gazette/CP

Behind the asbestos strike loomed a larger conflict. The now-suppressed secular values of Adélard Godbout’s Quebec—itself a manifestation of the liberalism of everyone from prime minister Louis St. Laurent to the then secretary of the Catholic Workers Confederation of Canada, Jean Marchard, along with that of younger intellectuals like Pierre Trudeau and Gérard Pelletier—were at odds with Maurice Duplessis’s heavy-handed governance of the province. In 1950, however, the emerging thoughts of Trudeau or journalist René Lévesque about social change were yet a small noise, and one unheard by the vast majority of French Canadians still living in the shade, if not outright darkness, of the Union Nationale era. In the name of the small people he claimed to champion, Duplessis suppressed civil liberties and starved social services, kept the education system backward and stamped out workers’ rights. He made a mockery of elections by the frank, cynical employment of patronage and coercion. He did kiss the rings of priests and, more often than not, the Church returned the favour, grateful to have its vision of the province’s Catholic flock—rural or small town, unilingual, busy having babies and playing hockey—held up as the “real” Quebec by le chef himself.

In 1951, the Canadiens feted Maurice Richard before a game against the Red Wings. Regular tributes, off-season banquets with “gifts” from fans, continued to substitute for proper salary increases, ensuring that men like him would indeed claim it a privilege just to play for the bleu, blanc et rouge. When Richard was given a new car by his admirers, he made a brief, awkward speech to the crowd in French. He also shook the hand of his nemesis, Gordie Howe, with whom he could now at least converse in his improved English. In the stands that night were the three dominant politicians of the time in Montreal: prime minister St. Laurent, premier Duplessis, and mayor Camillien Houde. Each was keen to claim Richard as his own. If any should have won his support, it might have been St. Laurent and the Liberal party, federal and provincial, for whom those Montrealers who filled the Forum, whether francophone or anglophone, working class or elite, tended to vote. Instead, believing the narrative that the Union Nationale stood up for French Canadians and kept the province strong inside Canada, the Rocket ended up campaigning for Duplessis in the 1952 general election. The other famous Maurice, as the media dubbed him, helped get the politician and his party re-elected, albeit with a smaller majority than they had in 1948. Duplessis, in turn, never passed up a chance to get his photo taken with Maurice Richard. Why wouldn’t he? Rocket Richard, le chef, the two Maurices, both Catholics, both proud Quebecers, both fighters, tenacious and unstoppable, for their people.

If Quebec languished in historic and political gloom during these years, so did Maurice Richard. He was a warrior, but one fighting in darkness, certain there was a battle yet unable to truly see the field or distinguish enemies from allies. Of what exactly was he even a symbol? Of quiet defiance and steady resistance, of an incremental awakening of an entire people? Or, less happily, of the ultimate “small” French Canadian being played for a sucker by church and state, the accidental company man shilling for interests that weren’t really his own and that didn’t deserve the imprimatur of his dignity and ferocity?