There are moments when life gets in the way, when sports and the real world collide at some intersection—which, almost 45 years ago, happened to be the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine streets in Montreal. This was the site of the Forum, hockey's temple, which now lives only in the soft-focus haze of fond memory. On the night of Thursday, March 17, 1955, the haze was a ghostly yellowish white. Smoke from a tear-gas canister had driven thousands of hockey fans into the streets, sparking a four-hour rampage that yielded the requisite fires, shattered windows, looted stores, overturned cars and 137 arrests. Sports riots have become commonplace, but the one in '55 was like no other because one of its central figures, Maurice Richard, was like no other hockey player.
No athlete has embodied the soul of a city and the spirit of its people as Richard did in the 1940s and '50s in Montreal, my home for the past 21 years. The Rocket was the preeminent presence, if not player, of his era. Whenever he stormed a goaltender, Richard's glare could be seen from the top row of the Forum—and in taverns for hundreds of miles around, where the predominantly French-speaking Quebecois listening to the game on the radio had a clear picture of the man whom newspapermen covering the Canadiens had raised to mythical status. The Rocket's triumphs were the people's triumphs. His rare defeats were their defeats. And no defeat was as personal, as galling, as the suspension that NHL president Clarence Campbell had handed Richard the day before all hell broke loose.
In a match the previous Sunday, Richard had twice viciously slashed his nemesis, Hal Laycoe of the Boston Bruins, and then assaulted a linesman. Three days later Campbell suspended Richard for the Canadiens' three remaining regular-season games and the entire playoffs. Montreal was aghast. Campbell's ruling was considered an act not of justice but of vindictiveness, the English-speaking boss thwarting the aspirations of the French-speaking populist hero. Richard had led the Canadiens to three Stanley Cups and had scored 50 goals in 50 games, but he had never won a scoring title and was on the brink of his first. With teammate Bernie Geoffrion three points behind him, it was apparent that Richard wouldn't win it this year, either.
The gray weather on that St. Patrick's Day mirrored Montreal's mood. Mayor Jean Drapeau telephoned Campbell at the NHL office in town and begged him not to attend the game that night. The imperious Campbell not only ignored the mayor's advice but also made a diva's entrance at the Forum, taking his customary aisle seat in a corner of the arena a few minutes into the first period. The Detroit Red Wings would take a 4-1 lead over the Rocketless Canadiens, driving a combustible crowd closer to the edge. During the first-period intermission a fan marched up the steps and extended his hand for what Campbell assumed would be a handshake. Campbell stuck out his hand. He got a slap in the face. Retired Red Wings tough guy Jimmy Orlando had spotted the fan heading toward Campbell and bounded from his seat in pursuit. An instant after the slap, Orlando spun the fan around and socked him in the jaw, scattering teeth like jujubes. There were shouts, invective, a rumbling in the Forum. The tear gas came 30 seconds later.
The melee, which forced the game to be suspended, ushered in a revolution. The Richard Riot is generally considered the first explosion of French-Canadian nationalism, the beginning of a social and political dynamic that shapes Canada to this day. The riot was a harbinger of the 1960 election of Quebec premier Jean Lesage, which gave Francophiles a greater sense of empowerment, and the so-called Quiet Revolution, in which French Quebecois began asserting greater control over their lives. Montreal Gazette writer Red Fisher, covering his first NHL game that night, now says, "If that was the start of the Quiet Revolution, it wasn't very quiet."