There may be only one or two lines in his obituaries today, but Henri Richard was at the center of a controversy that is believed to be probably the most misinterpreted in the long, historic history of Montreal Canadiens.
Primarily, the obituaries mention that Henri Richard – who died today after a long battle against Alzheimer's – was the younger brother of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the Canadian legend, the NHL record for goals and points on his held retirement. Henri literally ran into Maurice’s considerable shadow in the 1950s when Montreal overran the other five teams and became a dynasty in which all future competitors and pretenders were measured. Any fear that Henri Richard would forget his place in the Canadian tradition was removed by his sobriety – the "pocket rocket".
These obituaries mention his standing among the 100 greatest NHLers of all time and his record of 11 Stanley Cups as a player. (However, when asked by fans and the media about his 11 cup rings, he may have jokingly noticed that the teams didn't distribute rings to the champions in the early days – maybe just a few smaller farewell gifts.) That record will never be being broken is an assumption that we can make without thinking about it.
Other notes are made, of course, including his Captain the Canadian – figuratively the torch that Jean Beliveau passed on to him in 1971. Level also cast a considerable shadow. Henri Richard was nominated to the NHL's second all-star team three times, although twice that meant he was the second best center the Canadiens brought out there. Only once, in 1958, did Richard replace Beliveau to form the first All-Star team, although his own GM was his biggest fan: "Henri Richard is the most valuable player I have ever had," said Frank Selke once.
For the Pocket Rocket memorial portraits, some paint is likely to be sprayed onto the canvas. Mentioned are his tiny stature (five feet seven) and his style (the definitive two-way centrist of his time and arguably the best skater in the league).
You could even mention his modesty, which was clear to anyone who has ever spoken to him, a by-product and perspective that set in when he played the second violin for his brother and Le Gros Bill. I've only spoken to Richard a few times, but the first conversation set the tone. In 1986, when the Oilers ran through the league like the Canadiens in the 1950s, I asked him how Montreal's best teams would have played against Wayne Gretzky. Richard let himself out of the equation and called others to Montreal's control line: "I would have Claude Provost on the right wing, Donnie Marshall in the middle and Bert Olmstead on the left," he said.
Finally, the obituaries will mention the 1971 Stanley Cup, and you will come to the part about its role in the controversy that could have unsettled a Canadian team in the final.
Montreal had made a highly unlikely run to the Stanley Cup final: coach Claude Ruel fired in the middle of the season when it looked like Montreal was missing the playoffs; Replaced by Al MacNeil from his AHL subsidiary in Halifax; Promoting a group of young players from the farm team; Installation of a rookie goalkeeper with a handful of NHL games, Ken Dryden, for the playoffs; and then upset the Boston Bruins, the dominant team in the league this season, in the first round. It looked like Canada's Cinderella story had reached midnight when the heavily favored Chicago Black Hawks in Montreal led a series of three to two games in Game 6.
During the game 5 loss in Chicago, MacNeil decided his team needed a move and juggled the lines. He also decided to sit Henri Richard for a long distance. Given the legendary Richard temperament (Maurice Richard was looking for two sticks of dynamite in search of a burning match), Henri spat sparks – and then exploded. After the game, he called MacNeil "the worst coach I've ever played for". This of course triggered a whirlpool in Montreal.
The backlash against MacNeil was so strong that someone fired a death threat and said they would get the coach. The police responded with protection around the clock. Unfortunately for MacNeil, this meant around the clock in his house, on the street, on the ice rink, even on the bench during the 6th game.
“You were traveling with me 24 hours a day for seven days. I had [a police officer] on the bench, ”said MacNeil. "I wanted to ask him if he could help me with the power game."
Just as the rocket had its uprising on St. Patrick's Day, the Pocket Rocket had the storm that brought a trainer into self-exile for his health and well-being.
The Canadiens returned to end the series at three games per game with a win in game 6 in Montreal, and then came from two goals in the second period to beat the Black Hawks 3-2 in game 7 beat.
You can imagine that MacNeil's victory would have brought in a long-term contract, and at a different time and place, he certainly would have. MacNeil seemed to be operating on this assumption – he'd talked about taking French classes to host the Canadians. But his reward for this fame was a job in the organization – back in Halifax with the Voyageurs.
Over the years Richard seemed uncomfortable discussing the storm and stopped before going back on his comments.
"I was kind of embarrassed when it became a big story in the papers," he told Jim Proudfoot of the Toronto Star. "I was just crazy because he didn't use me."
On another occasion Richard was more open.
"The press made a big deal of it … the French-Canadian player and the (Anglophone) coach," he said. "It was all BS. If you win, nobody cares about this stuff. If you lose, you get bad press in Montreal. "
MacNeil had also tried to take a country road, an overpass over harsh feelings.
"[Richard’s insults] never bothered me," MacNeil told the Calgary Herald in 2002. "There was a lot of turmoil. Richard was a decent guy, a good person. [But] Running a hockey club is not a democracy. It is a dictatorship. "
When I wrote about this series years later, Richard had withdrawn from the public and his memory failed. However, I made it through eternity to connect with the other principal in the pastime. MacNeil, who had never had a real shot in a head coaching job in the league, was looking for Calgary at the time. We had a pleasant conversation about contemporary matters, but that ended when I asked about 71.
"I'm not interested in talking about it at all," he told me.
I suggested to MacNeil that his side of the story had never been fully told, but that didn't attract and he ended our conversation here and there. Old resentments may die, but they never go away.
Others, who had been 71 in the Montreal area, were careful about this.
"We haven't talked much about it," said Jacques Lemaire. “We had a job to do. Coaches have to respect players and vice versa. I don't think [complaints about a coach] should be made public. [If you have a problem] it should be private. "
I spoke to a reliable witness in the Canadians' dressing room and to someone who could identify well with skating in the shadow of a legendary brother: Peter Mahovlich, who was not long from the AHL in 1971.
"The story is told that Henri is accused of firing Al, and that's just wrong," said Mahovlich. "Henri was not the only one who was crazy [at MacNeil after the game]. People forget that Fergy [Montreal tough guy John Ferguson] said about the same thing after Game 5. It's just that [the media] Henri played."
On this aforementioned St. Patrick's Day, Maurice Richard was a hockey icon a long time ago, but became a political icon in Quebec when he did not opt for a game Henri Richard was also drawn into the tradition as well as into a political matter: in Montreal, even a Stanley Cup could not save the job of an Anglophone coach or the wrath of its fiercest, proudest competitor, a local hero from Quebec, save.
The narrative was not quite the truth, but it had the ring of truth. It overshadowed the undeniable: the fact that Henri Richard in game 7 in Chicago, in the tense Canadian victory, the game-winning goal in less than two minutes in the second half and the Stanley scoring cup winner a few minutes after the third . And even if he tried to dispel the controversy years later, pride kept him going so far.
"When I scored the winning goal in Game 7, everyone knew I was right," he told the Montreal Gazette in 2004.
Jean Beliveau, who retired at the end of this series, was given a lifelong leadership position in the Canadiens organization. Henri Richard never quite had Beliveau's profile and was far behind when it came to reassuring the public. As it turned out, Beliveau became a friend of the Molsons and Richard became the owner of a tavern.
When I saw Henri Richard at the last game in the forum, he seemed embarrassed to come out to be featured next to the Hall of Famers. He knew the loudest ovation would be reserved for the last two to be in the spotlight: Beliveau and the rocket. Henri Richard looked even more embarrassed at the last ceremony that night when he handed over the torch that made him accept the flame from Beliveau while the missile was ready and applauding.
With the death of the rocket and of Beliveau in 2000 and 2014, both were given the solemnity and spectacle of state funerals, while the pocket rocket will be more easily remembered for its 11 championships, if not 11 Stanley Cup rings .