A tomato sailed by Clarence Campbell's head, narrowly missing the brim of his fedora. More projectiles followed, including peanuts, pennies, programs, and even prophylactics. Patrons at the Forum were certainly doing their part to welcome the NHL president to Montreal's St. Patrick's Day game against Detroit. Not far from his section, a fan was nervously fiddling with a cannister of tear gas. When it eventually went off, it would trigger one of the most infamous episodes in hockey history, the "Richard Riot."
The reaction that Campbell received was exactly what many had anticipated. A day earlier, he had suspended the Canadiens' star player, Maurice "Rocket" Richard, for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs.
On March 13, in a game against the Bruins, Richard got into a fight with Hal Laycoe. During the dust up, the Rocket whacked the Boston defender across the shoulders with his stick. Of course, Richard was well known for his temper and his stickwork. In one memorable incident, in April 1947, he was fined $250 for cracking a couple of Maple Leafs across their heads.
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What set the exchange with Laycoe apart was that, during the altercation, Richard had landed a punch on linesman Cliff Thompson when the latter attempted to intervene. With blood still streaming down his face, Richard was assessed a match penalty, a punishment that carried an indefinite suspension, a $100 fine, and an investigation by the league president.
Richard's fate was in Campbell's hands. It didn't look good. It was only just a few months earlier that Richard had abused another official in a game against Toronto. It was recounted in the Globe and Mail that during a fracas with Maple Leafs forward Bob Bailey, Richard "twice cuffed restraining linesman, George Hayes, on the face." For that incident, he received a $250 fine, which some viewed as too lenient, given the severity of the infraction. Moreover, at this time, Richard had received more supplemental discipline than any other player in league history, for which he had paid thousands of dollars in fines. Now, with a more serious offense confronting him, many believed Campbell was going to send a stern message to the Rocket, once and for all.
Exacerbating the situation was that many Quebecers believed Campbell treated Francophone players more harshly than their English counterparts. Richard had even taken to calling the NHL president a "dictator" in a column he had once penned in a French-language newspaper. For some, Richard's relationship with the league, and Campbell specifically, mirrored what was happening in la belle province. The Rocket, a French-Canadian player, excelling in a league dominated by Anglophones, represented the pushback and resistance that was developing in Quebec.
Against this backdrop, Canadiens fans held their collective breath as they waited for Campbell to rule on the matter. Following a three-hour meeting and a 1,200-word assessment, it was determined that the Rocket would sit out for Montreal's final three contests, and the entire postseason.
Richard was devastated. In the wake of the decision he reportedly contemplated retirement. "I'm sorry my career should end this way," he was quoted in the Ottawa Journal. Although he was quick to say he would not make a snap decision, he said that, "a thing like this doesn't make you feel like carrying on in hockey. That's for sure."
Montreal was equally beside itself. At this point in the 1954-55 campaign, Richard was leading the league in points, and was on his way to winning the scoring title—a distinction that had eluded his grasp since he joined the NHL in 1942. But with the Rocket now watching from the stands, his shot at securing the Art Ross had all but vanished. His absence would also have significant ramifications on the Canadiens' Stanley Cup aspirations. They were still a lethal team, but were now without their fiery, leading scorer.
As a result, tensions were running high heading into the Habs' next game against the Red Wings. The league office had been fielding a slew of telephone calls from angry fans who threatened Campbell's life. A few had even menaced that they would blow up the NHL's headquarters, the historic Sun Life building on Metcalfe Street.
It was for these reasons that Montreal's mayor, Jean Drapeau, requested that Campbell avoid the Forum on St. Patrick's Day. Instead, in a move that defied logic, the NHL president arrived at the game partway through the first period, almost as a challenge to test how the crowd would react. Outside the arena, demonstrators had gathered to protest the league's ruling. According to the broadsheets, they held up signs and chanted "we want Campbell" in both French and English. Inside, he was met with a flurry of jeers and boos, before being subjected to an avalanche of hurled debris.
Then, during the first intermission, things turned ugly. A fan, feigning familiarity and a gesture of friendship, was able to get close enough to Campbell before revealing his true intentions and accosting him. Things escalated from there.
Elsewhere, someone had activated a tear gas bomb, which filled the arena with its noxious cloud. Meanwhile, the officials called the game. With Detroit up 4-1, the Red Wings were awarded the victory by forfeit. As smoke billowed through the Forum, panicked and choking patrons filed toward the exits, while agitated Richard supporters spilled out onto rue Sainte-Catherine. Canadiens' head coach Dick Irvin later told the newspapers, "the Rocket has filled many a rink in his day, but this is the first time I've ever seen him empty one."
Once the mob hit the streets, the frustration that had been percolating all day turned violent and spun out of control. According to the New York Times, "streetcars were caught in the traffic jam outside the Forum. Passengers cowered on the floors as bottles and pieces of ice and other objects crashed through the windows." Eyewitnesses attested to hearing gunfire, and Canadiens general manager Frank Selke reported that a bullet had hit the club's front office.
It was chaos. Storefront windows were smashed and cars were overturned as the rioters vandalized and looted Montreal's downtown. Even innocent bystanders were caught up in the mix. The Ottawa Journal reported one incident where, "five of the demonstrators pounced on a taxi driver for no apparent reason and pummelled him with punches and kicks." For many, the scene was reminiscent of the opposition that the city encountered in response to the invocation of conscription during the Second World War.
By the time police had things under control, the raucous had caused upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage across an area that encompassed 15 blocks. Dozens of people were injured, and more than 100 people were taken into custody. Many of those who were arrested had their pockets jammed with jewelry and other valuables from the stores that were raided.
In the aftermath, Detroit's general manager, Jack Adams, was quoted in the Ottawa Journal as saying, "in my years of hockey I've never seen anything so disgraceful." While it was easy enough to blame the rioters for the mayhem, Campbell was seen by many as the critical instigator by appearing at the Forum. Mayor Drapeau believed that the NHL president's decision to attend the game was "a manifest error of judgment." Red Storey, who refereed the game, later said, "Campbell should not have been at the game, and if he had not been at the game, we would've had no riot." In an effort to dissipate the tension, Richard looked to calm the masses. "I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and the younger players win the Cup," he said.
While the city of Montreal licked its wounds, there was still hockey to be played. When the regular season ended, the Red Wings finished atop the standings to secure home ice throughout the playoffs, which would prove to be a critical advantage. Meanwhile, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion found himself in the most unenviable position. At the time of Richard's suspension, Geoffrion only trailed his teammate by a few points in the scoring race. If the Canadiens were going to secure first place, they'd need him to get on the scoresheet. The only problem was that, much of the Montreal faithful wanted to see the Rocket win the scoring title and they were openly rooting against Geoffrion. Sure enough, "Boom Boom" did win the Art Ross, and many Canadiens fans were slow to forgive him. He later said, "I can assure you that I had more heartbreak in winning the trophy than Richard had in missing it."
As the postseason unfolded, Montreal and Detroit would meet in the Stanley Cup Final. The series went the full seven games, with the Canadiens, sans Richard, falling to their rivals. Would it have made a difference if the Rocket was there? Gordie Howe didn't think so. In his autobiography he wrote that, "I like to think the result would have been the same whether he'd played or not." Of course, we'll never know, and it remains one of hockey's ultimate what ifs.
In the end, Richard would get the last laugh. Although he'd never win the Art Ross, he did make good on his promise. He returned the following season and helped the Canadiens vanquish the Red Wings to win the first of five straight Stanley Cups.