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The fact that the president of the National Hockey League is still alive in this year of coast-to-coast expansion is a tribute to an unknown fan who tossed a tear-gas bomb at the Montreal Forum on the night of St. Patrick's Day 1955. On that night Clarence Campbell, who is now completing his 22nd year as NHL president, came within half a minute of becoming the first hockey executive ever to be beaten to death by a crazed mob of hockey fans.
The scholarly Campbell was one of two protagonists in the melodrama that historians have since labeled "L'affaire Richard ." The other was the great Montreal star, Maurice (Rocket) Richard. As choleric, artistic and Gallic as Campbell was stoic, stiff and Scots, Richard symbolized the oppressed French-Canadian spirit north of the border, and throughout his career he had been in trouble with NHL officialdom.
The Rocket was the supreme idol of every Quebecois who ever watched a hockey game, but somehow, despite his enormous accomplishments as a goalmaker, he had never managed to win a scoring championship. In 1955, with only a week remaining before the end of the regular schedule, he was leading the league in scoring, two points ahead of his teammate, Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion. The Montreal Canadiens themselves were in first place, two points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, and Montrealers were preparing for a grand celebration.
The brooding Rocket was primed for an explosion on the night of March 13, as he prepared for a game with the Bruins at Boston Garden. His frustration increased during the game as Boston built up a 4-2 lead. The hands on the overhead clock moved on to within six minutes of the game's end, but the Canadiens still had a chance.
As Richard swooped over the Boston blue line for a play on the goal, he felt Bruin Defenseman Hal Laycoe's stick graze the left side of his head. Referee Frank Udvari immediately signaled a penalty and whistled Laycoe off the ice. Before Laycoe could enter the penalty box Richard rubbed his head and saw a smear of blood on his hand. He rushed Laycoe and belabored him about the face and shoulders with his stick. Laycoe survived the blows, dropped his gloves and stick and beckoned Richard to fight him barehanded.
At that point the fight likely would have simmered down but for the intervention of Linesman Cliff Thompson. A former Bruin defenseman, Thompson attempted to cool it entirely by grabbing Richard's stick away from him. Instead he precipitated an even worse outburst. Orbiting into another tantrum, the Rocket picked up a loose stick lying on the ice and hacked away at Laycoe until the stick splintered.
Referee Udvari tossed Richard out of the game, and although an automatic $100 fine was levied against him, everyone in the hockey world knew that an additional, much stiffer, penalty would follow. The question was: Would Campbell punish Richard with a heavy fine or would he finally take an extreme position and suspend him during the final week of the season?
Campbell ordered a special hearing in his Montreal office on March 16. It lasted 3� hours. Campbell heard accounts from Boston Coach Lynn Patrick, Referee-in-chief Carl Voss, Linesman Sammy Babcock, Udvari, Thompson, Richard and Laycoe. The Montreal defense rested on a claim that Richard had been too stunned by the head blow to comprehend what he was doing.
A lawyer, Rhodes scholar and former referee, Campbell mulled over his notes for more than an hour and then began writing his decision. "I had a hard time making up my mind," he said, but by 4 o'clock he had summoned reporters and announced his sentence: " Richard is suspended from playing in the remaining league and playoff games."
Within minutes of the announcement Montreal's hockey fans—which is just another way of saying Montreal's citizens—were reacting in anger, bitterness and disbelief. One man phoned the NHL office and told the president's secretary, Miss Phyllis King, that he was an undertaker. "Tell Campbell," he said, "that he'll be needing me in a few days."