Sports

The hockey game that broke out during a riot

The jubilant 1955 Red Wings with the Stanley Cup after they defeated the Montreal Canadiens in a finals made bitter by an earlier riot at the Forum in Montreal.

On March 17, 1955, thousands of crazed hockey fans in the Montreal Forum went on a seven-hour rampage of destruction and looting that ended in many injuries and the arrest of 100 fans. In later years, the free-for-all euphemistically became known as “The Richard Riot.” The other team on the ice  happened to be the Detroit Red Wings.

The fans whipped up a fury of anger against one of the spectators at the game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings — National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell. The crowds demonstrated their displeasure over his decision to suspend Maurice “Rocket” Richard, l’enfant terrible of the Montreal Canadiens.

Richard, one of the most prolific scorers in hockey, had a reputation as the most hot-tempered player on the Flying Frenchmen team. Always a high scorer, the Rocket was a shoe-in to win the scoring title of the NHL that year.

During an earlier game in Boston on March 13, Hal Laycoe high-sticked Richard, giving him a nasty scalp cut which later required eight stitches to close. The Rocket exploded in rage, swinging his stick like a baseball bat, smashing it over Laycoe’s head and shoulders. He yanked another stick from a player and slashed at Laycoe until the stick splintered. Then he turned on Cliff Thompson, one of the officials, and let lose with a right to the face. Player fights are a part of hockey culture, but no one slugs an official and gets away with it, not even a demi-god like Richard. He was tossed out of the game.

Later he would explain his actions to his fans and the officials. “I don’t remember what happened. When I’m hit I get mad and I don’t know what I do.”

ImageMaurice “Rocket” Richard listens as he is suspended for the remainder of the 1955 season for a fight in Boston. Richard suffered a scalp wound that required eight stitches.

      The explanation wasn’t good enough. On March 16, NHL President Campbell, after a three-hour hearing, suspended Richard from playing any remaining games in the regular season and banned him from participating in any playoff games. Montrealers were livid; how dare Campbell remove Richard for the rest of the season? He was a national hero and should be afforded some leeway. Death threats bombarded Campbell’s office. Warned one fan, “I’m an undertaker and you’ll be needing me in a few days.” Campbell refused to be intimidated and stuck to his decision.

On March 17, the day after his decision, the Canadiens were scheduled to play the Detroit Red Wings at the Forum in Montreal. The Wings were a point behind Montreal in the standings, which didn’t help the mood of the home crowd. By game time, the Forum was surrounded by a hostile group of 800 demonstrators, many carrying signs that read “Vive Richard.”

Extra police were called to duty. Despite pleas that he stay away, Clarence Campbell went to the Forum. He slipped quietly into his seat, but nearby fans spotted him. Pelted with peanuts, eggs and programs, Campbell remained calm, but at the end of the first period, with Detroit ahead 4-1, the spectators renewed the barrage. This time overshoes, bottles and tomatoes joined the missiles. Ushers and police tried to keep the fans away, but one broke through the guards and slapped Campbell across the face. As Campbell fell back from the blow, the fan punched him. Instantly the demonstration became a full blown riot. The booing became a roar; debris showered down on the ice.

Someone in the crowd threw a smoke bomb, sending spectators coughing and choking to the exits as the Forum organist struck up the tune “My Heart Cries for You…”

ImageHis shoulder splattered by eggs, National Hockey League President Clarence Campbell leaves the battle-torn Forum after forfeiting the game to Detroit.

      Luckily none of the fleeing fans was crushed in the rush to escape. Richard himself sat only a short distance from where the smoke bomb fell. Campbell forfeited the game to the Red Wings.

Outside, the enraged fans joined with ticketless Montrealers who couldn’t get in to the sold-out game. The surly crowds took to the streets, damaging the fashionable stores on St. Catherine Street, overturning cars and setting fires. Radio station CKVL provided moment-to-moment descriptions of the demonstration, which inspired other Canadians to venture downtown to the Forum. By 11 p.m. more than 10,000 Montrealers and 200 police were involved in the chaos. Maurice Richard went on the radio and pleaded with his fans to calm down and go home.

“I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and help the boys… I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and the young players win the Cup.”

The riot petered out by 3 a.m. The headlines in The Detroit News the next day read “100 Arrested During Riot, Game Forfeited to Detroiters.”

ImageMontreal fans hoist a likeness of Richard during the rioting in Montreal.

      There still remained the Stanley Cup, but without the Rocket, Montreal’s chances were slim. Both clubs hardly paid attention to their respective rivals in the playoffs — Wings vs. Toronto, Canadiens vs. Boston.

Detroit dumped the Leafs, and the Canadiens won the playoffs in game five. Both clubs anxiously awaited the Finals. Detroit took games one and two, with Ted Lindsay scoring four goals in game two.

The Canadiens bounced back by taking games three and four. Gordie Howe slammed in a hat trick in game five, and the Wings made off with a 5-1 win. Montreal took game six, 6-3.

But ultimately, the Rocketless Canadiens could not hold off the Red Wings. The Wings won the 1955 Stanley Cup in the final game of the series at Detroit’s Olympia Stadium with a capacity crowd cheering them on. Howe scored his ninth goal and 20th point of the series; Alex Delvecchio delivered two goals and goalie Terry Sawchuk stifled the Canadiens. The Wings won 3-1. Boom Boom Geoffrion of the Canadiens won the scoring championship that Richard had wanted so badly.

The Rocket promised his beloved city that he would come back strong, and he did, returning to lead the Canadiens to first place and the Stanley Cup the following year. But he never won the national scoring championship.

For the Red Wings that was to be their last Stanley Cup for a long while. As Howe held the Cup aloft that April evening in 1955, he could not know that would be the last time in his incredible career that Detroit would sip champagne from the silver bowl.

ImageDetroit goalie Terry Sawchuck looks back to see the puck (arrow) in the net after a shot by Montreal Canadien Jackie LeClair (behind the net) during the third game of the 1955 Stanley Cup Finals. Montreal won this game 2-1. In front of Sawchuk are Montreal’s Dickie Moore, 12, and Detroit’s Bob Goldham.

By Patricia Zacharias / The Detroit News