Sticks swung in Boston: that was where it all started, near the end of the NHL’s regular season, when Maurice Richard was the first to strike — unless it was Hal Laycoe. When it comes to the riotous events in Montreal in 1955, it’s Thursday, March 17, fest of St. Patrick, that mostly resonates.
But it was the previous Sunday, March 13, where the violence that convulsed Montreal later in the week got started, 500 hundred kilometres to the south, in Boston’s cavernous Garden.
It was the last week of the NHL regular season. Montreal, battling the Detroit Red Wings for first place, had beaten Boston 2-1 at home on Saturday night. Sunday’s encounter had the Bruins leading 4-1 halfway through the third period when Bruins’ defenceman Warren Godfrey took a holding penalty. On another night Montreal coach Dick Irvin’s desperate gambit might have made more news: with six-and-a-half minutes to go, he pulled goaltender Jacques Plante to give his team a two-man advantage. That’s when the first moments of the Richard Riot began to play out.
The most comprehensive account of the whole affair is the one that Sidney Katz would publish in Maclean’s in September of 1955.
Here’s how he narrated what happened on Boston ice between Richard and Laycoe as the Montreal’s powerplay revved up:
Richard was skating across the Boston blue line past Boston defenseman Hal Laycoe when the latter put his stick up high and caught Richard on the left side of the head. It made a nasty gash which later required five stitches. Frank Udvari, the referee signaled a penalty to Laycoe for high-sticking but allowed the game to go on because Canadiens had the puck.
Richard skated behind the Boston net and had returned to the blue line when the whistle blew. He rubbed his head, then suddenly skated over to Laycoe who was a short distance away. Lifting his stick high over his head with both hands Richard pounded Laycoe over the face and shoulders with all his strength. Laycoe dropped his gloves and stick and motioned to Richard to come and fight with his fists.
An official, linesman Cliff Thompson, grabbed Richard and took his stick away from him. Richard broke away, picked up a loose stick on the ice and again slashed away at Laycoe, this time breaking the stick on him. Again Thompson got hold of Richard, but again Richard escaped and with another stick slashed at the man who had injured him. Thompson subdued Richard for the third time by forcing him down to the ice. With the help of a team mate, Richard regained his feet and sprang at Thompson, bruising his face and blackening his eye. Thompson finally got Richard under control and sent him to the first-aid room for medical attention.
Richard was penalized for the remainder of the game and fined $100. Laycoe, who suffered body bruises and face wounds, was penalized five minutes for high-sticking and was given a further ten-minute penalty for tossing a blood-stained towel at referee Udvari as he entered the penalty box.
Richard’s emotional and physical resistance were at a low ebb on the night of the Boston game. It was near the end of a long exhausting schedule. The Canadiens had played Boston only the previous night in Montreal. Richard had been hurled against a net and had injured his back. The back was so painful he hadn’t been able to sleep on the train trip to Boston in spite of the application of ice packs. On the morning of the game he confided to a reporter, “My back still hurts like the dickens. I feel beat.” He never considered sitting out the Boston game. There was too much at stake. With three scheduled games left, the Canadiens chances of finishing first in the league were bright. Furthermore, Richard was narrowly leading the league for individual high scoring. If he won, he would receive a cup, $1,000 from the league and another $1,000 from his club. He was still brooding over an incident that had threatened his winning the top-scoring award. In Toronto the previous Thursday, he had been in a perfect position to score when he was hooked by Hugh Bolton of the Maple Leafs. Bolton was penalized but it still meant that Richard was deprived of a goal he desperately wanted.
We have Richard’s own account, or at least a version thereof. In 1971, guided if not ghosted by Stan Fischler, he published an eight-chapter memoir of his career that was appended to Fischler’s The Flying Frenchmen: Hockey’s Greatest Dynasty.
Chapter Four is “The Riot.” Richard notes that Laycoe, one of hockey’s few bespectacled players, had once been a teammate of his with Canadiens. He says he wasn’t particularly rough or dirty, but nor was he entirely pacific.
In Richard’s version, he recalls hitting Laycoe, who went down. “As he fell he hit me in the eye with his stick, opening up a bleeding wound over my eye.”
The parties involved would subsequently be summoned for a hearing with NHL president Clarence Campbell at NHL HQ in Montreal — we’ll get to that tomorrow. For the moment we’ll skip ahead to his findings, which he released in a statement that ran to 1,200 words.
Richard, Campbell wrote, skated by and Laycoe high-sticked him on the side of the head.
That doesn’t quite rhyme with what Laycoe told Tom Fitzgerald of The Daily Boston Globe the day after the incident. “Richard and I were both going for the puck,” he said then. “I was hooking the puck away from him, and he brought his stick up over his shoulder hitting me over the bridge of the nose. I was stung and I acted automatically. I admit I brought my stick up then.”
The Canadian Press had sources inside Campbell’s office. Regarding Richard’s initial blow, Laycoe testified, “For an instant I thought that should call for a match penalty. Then I swung my stick and struck Richard.”
Richard skated around the back of the Boston goal and back almost to the blue line when the whistle blew. Richard rubbed his hand on his head and indicated to the referee that he had been injured.
In 2014, at the age of 90, Frank Udvari told a reporter what his response was to Richard’s gesture: “I got it, Rock. I got it.”
That didn’t seem to suffice, for Richard. Campbell has him swinging his stick over his head with both hands, striking Laycoe “a blow on the shoulder and face.”
Tom Fitzgerald saw it differently:
Maurice barely missed with two swipes of the stick in this early attack, and he seemed to retreat when Laycoe struck an inviting stance for some fisticuffing.
Laycoe expanded on this a day later. “I never once thought about using a stick for offense or defense,” he told Fitzgerald. “I guess it’s the way you’re brought up. It was part of my training never to fight that way.”
(Roch Carrier’s heartfelt 2001 ode Our Life With The Rocket has an alternative take on this. Contrary to consensus, he reverses the scene:
Laycoe mounts a fresh attack, his stick in the air. The Rocket invites him to fight like a man, with his fists. Laycoe turns down the invitation.
Then again, Carrier also assigns the wrong referee to the game: instead of Frank Udvari, he has Red Storey presiding.)
Reporting for La Patrie, Phil Seguin noted that Laycoe, cut under both eyes, said that one of these was opened up by Richard’s stick, the other by one of his punches.
Though Fitzgerald placed the stick-cut on Laycoe’s forehead.
Richard didn’t mention any of this in his Fischlerized telling. He remained intent on Cliff Thompson, whom he described as “a linesman who had played defense for the Bruins” and thereafter as “that ‘homer’ linesman.”
Katz (and Campbell) had Thompson grabbing Richard; the Rocket himself said Thompson “jumped on my back and tried to stop me.” No mention that it was aching; what seems to have irked Richard was the novelty: “It was the first time in all my years in the NHL that a referee or linesman had done that. It was a stupid thing to do. I started to shake him off.”
Campbell’s statement aligns, thereafter, more or less, with Katz’s (or, I guess, vice-versa). I don’t know what Richard said at the time, but by 1971, he kept his focus squarely on Cliff Thompson, who insisted on jumping him, from the rear, three times. “After getting him off my back again I turned around and took a good swing at him,” Richard writes. “I felt he deserved it because I had already warned him twice to stop jumping on me. ‘Stop me from the front, if you want,’ I told him, ‘but not from behind.’ But he wouldn’t listen. That’s why I hit him.”
Campbell is more explicit than Richard or Katz: “He punched Linesman Thompson two hard blows in the face.”
The poor linesman. Fitzgerald doesn’t even mention his tenure as a Bruin, which only lasted 13 games — “a former defenseman of the Boston Olympics,” he calls him. Also: “Thompson tried to pop Maurice right back, but landed short …”
Richard departed the ice to (Fitzgerald) “an accompaniment of positively deafening boos.” His match penalty for attempting to injure carried an automatic $100 fine and the promise of a hearing with Clarence Campbell. Laycoe ended up with a five-minute high-sticking major along with a 10-minute misconduct for towel-throwing and a $25 fine.
Boston Police Lieutenant Frank Gannon was prepared to arrest Richard for his troubles. When Montreal coach Dick Irvin intervened, he too was threatened with jail. Bruins president Walter Brown managed to talk the good lieutenant out of both charges. And that was the end of that.