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For all that has been said and written about the heights of fanatic devotion achieved by the fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Notre Dame football teams and the Australian Davis Cup defenders, it is doubtful if there is any group of sports addicts anywhere which year in and year out supports its team with quite the supercharged emotion and lavish pride expended so prodigally by the citizens of bilingual Montreal on their hockey team, Les Canadiens?the Canadians. In June each year, four months before the next season begins, every seat in the Montreal Forum, save 800 or so that the management holds for sale on the day of the game, has been sold out for the entire 70-game schedule. On play-off nights it is not uncommon for crowds seeking standing room to run into several thousands and to swarm over Ste. Catherine's Street and beyond onto Atwater Park.
Hockey is deep in the Montrealer's blood. After a fine play by a member of the home team or, for that matter, of the visiting team, the Forum reverberates from the rinkside to the rafters with sharp enthusiastic applause. But many volts above this in feeling and many decibels above in volume is the singular and sudden pandemonium that shatters the Forum, like thunder and lightning, whenever the incomparable star of Les Canadiens, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, fights his way through the enemy defense and blasts the puck past the goalie. There is no sound quite like it in the whole world of sport.
A powerfully built athlete of 33 who stands five-ten and now weighs 180, having put on about a pound a year since breaking in with Les Canadiens in 1942, Joseph Henri Maurice (pronounced Mohr-riz, with the accent about equally divided) Richard (Reeshar'), Gallicly handsome and eternally intense, is generally regarded by most aficionados, be they Montrealers or etrangers, as the greatest player in the history of hockey. Whether he is or not, of course, is one of those sports arguments that boil down in the final analysis to a matter of personal opinion. However, as Richard's supporters invariably point out, hockey is in essence a game of scoring, and here there can be no argument: the Rocket stands in a class by himself, the outstanding scorer of all time. Flip through the pages of the record book: Most Goals?384, set by Maurice Richard in 12 seasons (with the next man, Nels Stewart, a full 60 goals away); Most Goals in One Season?50, set by Maurice Richard in a 50-game schedule in 1944-45; Most Goals in a Play-off Series?12, Maurice Richard; Most Goals in a Play-off Game?5, Maurice Richard; Longest Consecutive Scoring Streak?at least one goal in 9 consecutive games, Maurice Richard; and so on and on. The record book supplies no entry for Most Winning Goals, but several Montreal fans who lovingly compile all Richardiana can document that, by the beginning of the season, their man had scored the goal that won no less than 59 regular season games and 8 play-off games.
It is not simply the multiplicity of Richard's goals nor their timeliness but, rather, the chronically spectacular manner in which he scores them that has made the fiery right-winger the acknowledged Babe Ruth of hockey. "There are goals and there are Richard goals," Dick Irvin, the old "Silver Fox" who has coached the Canadiens the length of Richard's career remarked not long ago. "He doesn't get lucky goals. Let's see, he's scored over 390 now. Of these, 370 have had a flair. He can get to a puck and do things to it quicker than any man I've ever seen?even if he has to lug two defense men with him, and he frequently has to. And his shots! They go in with such velocity that the net and all bulges."
THE SEIBERT GOAL
One of the popular indoor pastimes year-round in Montreal is talking over old Richard goals?which one you thought was the most neatly set up, which one stirred you the most, etc., much in the way Americans used to hot-stove about Ruth's home runs and do today about Willie Mays's various catches. In Irvin's opinion?and Hector (Toe) Blake and Elmer Lach, Richard's teammates on the famous Punch Line also feel this way?the Rocket's most sensational goal was "the Seibert goal," in the 1945-46 season. Earl Seibert, a strapping 225-pound defense man who was playing for Detroit that season, hurled himself at Richard as he swept on a solo into the Detroit zone. Richard occasionally will bend his head and neck very low when he is trying to outmaneuver a defense man. He did on this play. The two collided with a thud, and as they straightened up, there was Richard, still on his feet, still controlling the puck, and, sitting on top of his shoulders, the burly Seibert. Richard not only carried Seibert with him on the way to the net, a tour de force in itself, but with that tremendous extra effort of which he is capable, faked the goalie out of position and with his one free hand somehow managed to hoist the puck into the far corner of the cage.
There are two interesting epilogues to this story. The first concerns Seibert and serves well to illustrate the enormous respect in which Richard is held by opposing players. When Seibert clambered into the dressing room after the game, Jack Adams, the voluble Detroit coach, eyed him scornfully. "Why, you dumb Dutchman," he began, "you go let that Richard?" "Listen, Mr. Adams," Seibert cut in, interrupting Adams for the first time in his career, "any guy who can carry me 60 feet and then put the puck into the net?well, more power to him!" And that ended that. The second rider to the story is that Richard is perhaps the only hockey player who, to increase his ability to operate with a burden, has frequently spent an extra half hour after the regular practice sessions careening full steam around the rink with his young son, Maurice Jr., "The Petit Rocket," perched on his shoulders.
There is no question that Richard's most heroic winning goal was "the Boston goal"?the one he scored against the Bruins three years ago to lift Montreal into the finals of the Stanley Cup play-offs. It came late in the third period of a 1-1 game in which the Canadiens were playing badly, Richard in particular. Early in that period Maurice received a deep gash over his left eye. He was taken to the clinic inside the Forum, and the cut was hastily patched up. Blood was still trickling down from the dressing over his cheek when he returned to the bench and took his next turn on the ice. "I can see that goal now," Frank Selke Jr., the son of the Canadiens' managing director reminisced recently. "Hundreds of us can. Richard sets off a chain reaction whenever he gets the puck, even if it is just a routine pass. It's strange and wonderful, the way he communicates with the crowd. Now, this time he got the puck at our own blue line and you knew?everybody knew?that the game was over right then. Here's what he did. He slipped around Woody Dumart, who was the check, and set sail down the right-hand boards. Quackenbush and Armstrong, the Boston defense men, were ready for him. He swung around Armstrong with a burst of speed, using his right hand to carry the puck and fending off Armstrong with his left, but Quackenbush pinned him into the boards in the corner. And then, somehow, he broke away from Quackenbush, skated across in front of the net, pulled Jim Henry out of the goal, and drove it home."
For 10 years now because of his courage, his skill, and that magical un-cultivatable quality, true magnetism, Maurice Richard has reigned in Montreal and throughout the province of Quebec as a hero whose hold on the public has no parallel in sport today unless it be the country-wide adoration that the people of Spain have from time to time heaped on their rare master matadors. The fact that 75 % of the citizens of Montreal and a similar percentage of the Forum regulars are warm-blooded, excitable French-Canadians?and what is more, a hero-hungry people who think of themselves not as the majority group in their province but as the minority group in Canada?goes quite a distance in explaining their idolatry of Richard. "If Maurice were an English-Canadian or a Scottish-Canadian or a kid from the West he would be lionized, but not as much as he is now," an English-Canadian Richard follower declared last month. "I go to all the games with a French-Canadian friend of mine, a fellow named Roger Oulette. I know exactly what Roger thinks. He accepts the English as as good as anyone. But he would hate to see the French population lose their language and their heritage generally. He doesn't like the fact that the government's pension checks are printed only in English. He feels that they should be printed in both English and French since the constitution of the Dominion provides for a two-language country. For Roger, Maurice Richard personifies French Canada and all that is great about it. Maybe you have to have French blood, really, to worship Richard, but you know, you only have to be a lover of hockey to admire him."
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