As befits the Babe Ruth of hockey, Richard is the highest-paid player in the history of the game. While Les Canadiens' front office prefers not to divulge his exact salary, it amounts to a very healthy chunk of his estimated annual income of $50,000, which is filled out by his commissions for endorsing such products as a hair tonic and the Maurice Richard-model wind-breaker, his cut from the sale of Le Rocket du Hockey and other publications about him, and his occasional appearances during the off season as a wrestling referee. "Maurice could earn much more than he does but he has been careful not to connect himself with anything cheap," Camil Des Roches, the Canadiens' publicity director, says. "If he wanted to, he could referee a wrestling bout every night of next summer. His appearance is enough to insure the success of any affair in the province, from wrestling to a church outing." A few years ago, Richard and his teammate Kenny Reardon dropped in for lunch at the Canadian Club, a restaurant in Montreal. "When the other diners spotted Rocket," Reardon relates, "they began to pass the hat for him. It was a spontaneous gesture of appreciation. They collected $50, just like that. People can't do enough for him." Richard, in consequence, is the perfect companion to travel with should you journey anywhere in the province of Quebec. No one will let him pay for a meal, for lodgings, for transportation, for anything.
And what about Le Rocket? How does he react to this fantastic adulation? Perhaps the surest key is the way he conducts himself after he scores one of his roof-raising goals. Down on the ice, below the tumult of tribute, Richard, while the referee is waiting for the clamor to subside before dropping the puck for the next face-off, cruises solemnly in slow circles, somewhat embarrassed by the strength of the ovation, his normally expressive dark eyes fixed expressionless on the ice. In his actions there is never the suspicion of the idol recognizing the plaudits of his fans. The slow circles which Richard transcribes after he has scored serve a distinct purpose for him. They add up to a brief moment of uncoiling, one of the few he is able to allow himself during the six-months-long season. "Maurice," Toe Blake once remarked, "lives to score goals." It is not that Richard puts himself above his team or the game. Quite the contrary, in fact. But here?and he has never been any other way?is a terribly intense man who, like so many of the champions who have endured as champions, is forever driving himself to come up to the almost impossible high standard of performance he sets, whose pride in himself will not let him relax until he has almost the entire season again, returning only for the final game.
A recurrent mystery in sports is how a player who has never shown any signs of greatness will suddenly and inexplicably "arrive" as a full-fledged star. When Richard reported to the Canadiens training camp in Verdun prior to the 1943-44 campaign, everyone recognized that he was an altogether different and better hockey player. On the strength of his showing in these practice sessions, Coach Irvin, looking for someone to take Joe Benoit's place, gave Richard a crack at right wing on the first line with Elmer Lach, the superb center, and the veteran Toe Blake, "The Old Lamp Lighter," at left wing. Due to the scoring punch the new line supplied, Les Canadiens, who had finished a floundering fourth the year before, won the League championship and went on to capture the team's first Stanley Cup play-off victory in a full 12 years. Richard eclipsed all play-off records by scoring 12 goals in nine games, and in one game against Toronto, went completely berserk and scored all five of the Canadiens' goals.
The Punch Line, as Blake, Lach, and Richard came to be called, played together through the 1946-47 season, a stretch in which they led the Canadiens to three more league championships and one other Stanley Cup victory. They were a marvelous line to watch. Fast skating, spirited, and quick to take advantage of all opportunities offered them, they mapped out no set plays, but each of them, knowing his linemates' style perfectly and sharing an instinctive understanding of how a play should be developed (and the necessary alternative moves depending on how the defense reacted), always seemed to know, without looking, where the others should be, and together they could set up good shots on goal like few lines in the history of hockey. Blake's retirement in 1947, after he had suffered a fractured leg, broke up the Punch Line. Lach and Richard, working with a variety of left-wingers, continued to team up until this season when Lach retired.
A LEFT-HANDED RIGHT WING
If there was anything unorthodox about the Punch Line it was that Richard, a left-handed shot, played right wing. "I know he'd played some right wing as an amateur," Dick Irvin has said in explaining this move, "and there have always been a few left wingers who do well on right wing. It doesn't work the other way so often. Most hockey players, you see, skate counter-clockwise. Right wing was good for Rocket because it gave him a bit more leverage on his shot and a bit more of the net to shoot at. Besides, his backhand shot was as powerful as his forehand:" Another aspect of Richard's sudden maturity was, oddly enough, the fact that he had fractured his right ankle the year before joining the Punch Line. After he had fractured his left ankle two years earlier, he had been inclined to overuse his right leg. After his right ankle was fractured he could no longer do this, and he began to skate with a far better distribution of leg drive. A long strider with amazingly quick acceleration, he rocks from side to side when he skates, a style that would be awkward in anyone else and which, if anything, has added to his deceptiveness. As for Richard himself, he considers that the great break of his entire career was that he was able to come back after three fractures in three consecutive years.
"DON'T DEPEN' ON ME"
The first time he saw Richard play, Conn Smythe, the head man of the Toronto Maple Leafs, offered Les Canadiens the (for hockey) fabulous sum of $50,000 for him. In making this offer to the Hon. Donat Raymond, the owner of Les Canadiens, Smythe declared in a characteristic Smythian comment, that he was willing to go this high even though Richard was a "one-way man"?a player not remarkably conspicuous on defense. Raymond was not at all interested in selling his new star but suggested to Smythe that if they made Richard a two-way man, it would be only proper for him to double his figure. (Only a short time ago, Smythe was offering $135,000 for Richard.) Jack Adams, the Detroit boss, after seeing Richard set a new league scoring record for a single game of five goals and three assists on the evening of December 28, 1944, declared him to be "the greatest hockey player I've seen in 20 years." This eight-point spree astonished Richard more than anyone. Before the game he had stretched out limply on a rubbing table in the dressing room. "I'm all tired oud," he had yawned wearily to teammates who had gathered around him.
"Dis afternoon I move my 'partment 'bout tree block and can't get no truck. My brudder and me, we move everyt'ing. Tonight, don't depen' too much on me." After he had tallied his eighth point, to be sure, Richard's vitality perked up noticeably (Richard, by the way, spoke no English at the time he joined Les Canadiens. He resented the fact that opponents made his broken English a target for wisecracks and it is typical of the pride he takes in everything he does, the way he dresses, the way he handles his hobbies, that today he speaks just about perfect English).
Richard's eight-point night was the high point of his second complete season, 1944-45, in which he set the league record of 50 goals. By this time he was the toast of the famous Millionaires Club, a group of exuberant Montreal rooters who attended the games wearing bright wool toques and Les Canadiens jerseys. The Millionaires Club was disbanded after the war?it was a financial necessity for the management, since the members were paying only $1.25 or $1.50 for $2.00 seats?but Richard has not lost his standing in the affection of their heirs and all Montreal fans as the team's premier hero. New stars have come up, stalwarts like Bill Durnan (the six-time winner of the Vezina trophy for goalies), Emile (Butch) Bouchard (the four-time All-Star defenseman), Boom Boom Geoffrion, (the colorful, carefree youngster with the big shot who is married to Howie Morenz' daughter), Jean Beliveau (Le Gros Bill)?who made so much money as the star of Quebec's amateur team that it was a financial hardship for him to turn professional. There is room for them all in the Canadiens fan's heart, but Le Rocket?he has always been something special and apart. He is their oriflamme. They urge him on with a hundred different cries, but in a tight spot the Forum seems to rise up with one shout in particular. "Envoye, Maurice!" This is a Canadian slang form of the imperative of the verb envoyer, to send or to expedite. "Envoye, Maurice!"?"Let's expedite this game, Maurice!" "Envoye, Maurice!"?"Let's go, Maurice!" "Envoye, Maurice!"
TEMPESTUOUS AND INCIDENT-PRONE