Sunday night, March 13 of 1955, after Boston beat Montreal 4-2, Canadiens caught a night train north.
“The big rhubarb in Boston Garden,” The Gazette’s Dink Carroll called what had gone on, specifically in the third period.
“Richard came off his hinges,” was one view, from a French-language paper.
Neither Maurice Richard nor Canadiens coach Dick Irvin slept on the journey home.
NHL president Clarence Campbell was in New York meeting league governors to discuss play-off dates. With Monday morning came the news that he would be convening a hearing at the league’s Montreal headquarters at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning. Richard and Laycoe were to appear before Campbell and referee-in-chief Carl Voss, along with representatives from the respective clubs, and the three officials involved, referee Frank Udvari, linesmen Cliff Thompson and Sam Babcock.
Boston GM Lynn Patrick believed that Richard had to be suspended for the playoffs. “I don’t see how Campbell can stickhandle around that.”
“This is only the most recent episode in a string of violent incidents that have marked the 13-year career of Richard, the scoring genius who currently leads the league’s individual point standing.” That was Tom Fitzgerald in The Boston Daily Globe.
The Gazette sketched out the defendant’s record to date. Three times now he’d gone after officials. Earlier in the season, end of December, 1954, in Toronto, he’d slapped another linesman, George Hayes, in the face. He paid a $200 fine for that. And in New York in 1951, in a hotel lobby, he’d grabbed referee Hugh McLean by the neck. That cost him $500.
“The most heavily fined player in hockey history,” the United Press called Richard. All told, he’d paid some $2,500 in “automatic and special fines” for his various offences.
I’m not sure whether that tally includes the cheque he’d deposited with the NHL in January of 1954 as vow of good behaviour after he used his weekly column in Montreal’s Samedi-Dimanche to call Campbell “a dictator.”
“Should I fail to keep my promised this $1,000 is to be lost to me,” Richard’s letter of apology said. “If you find me worthy of your indulgence I trust it will be returned when I finish as a player.”
With three games left in the regular season, Montreal sat atop the NHL standings, leading the Detroit Red Wings by two points. The two teams would meet twice in the last week of the schedule. Monday morning also found Richard leading the NHL scoring race, with 74 points, ahead of teammates Bernie Geoffrion (72) and Jean Béliveau (71).
If he were to be suspended and thereby lose the scoring title, Richard would miss out on a pair of $1,000 bonuses, one each from the NHL and Canadiens.
If the team were to finish second to the Red Wings, Bert Souliere of Le Devoir wrote, Dick Irvin’s players would share in a sum $9,000 instead of $18,000. Should they fail to win the Stanley Cup, they would further miss out on the $20,000 bonus that went to the winners. All in all, he concluded, losing Richard could cost Canadiens close to $30,000.
Boston Record columnist Dave Egan advocated mercy. Let Richard be fined, maybe suspended for the first 20 games of the season following, but let him play in the playoffs.
Not that I am advocating the fracturing of skulls and defending the swinging of sticks and applauding attacks on officials, for no man in his right mind would do so. What I am saying is that Hal Laycoe’s first name is not spelled Halo, nor is there anything angelic about him. He plays needling hockey behind his eye-glasses. He hands out plenty of bumps, sometimes skating out of his way to do so. He has been in the league long enough to know that Richard erupts like Vesuvius. He knew what he was playing with, and it wasn’t a marshmallow. So the inevitable inevitably happened, and Hal Laycoe, I suppose, should be considered an accessory before the fact.
No man should be sent to Elba for offering his heart, his soul, his gizzards, and the very fibre of his being to a sport. That is what Laycoe does, and it is what Rocket does far more brilliantly. … Much must be forgiven a man like Rocket Richard, not because he is an immortal hockey star but because he is one of those few men whose value never can be measured by the amount of salary he receives. He is one of the remarkable ones who spends more in genius than he ever can get in money.
In The Toronto Daily Star, Milt Dunnell called Richard “the atom bomb that walks like a man.” His guess? Clarence Campbell (“who carries law books around inside of his head”) would suspend him for the remainder of the regular season.
Following Sunday’s game, Tom Fitzgerald went to ask Richard what happened.
Richard’s answer: “Ask Laycoe.”
Laycoe said that he’d had a brush with the Rocket in the first period. The Rocket was upended and Laycoe was given a penalty for charging. There was nothing further until
Dick Irvin pulled his goalkeeper off with six minutes of the final period left to play. …
Laycoe said he was skating alongside of the Rocket after a faceoff, following the puck, when all of a sudden the Rocket brought up his stick like a pitchfork. He said it was just as if Rocket was pitching hay. The stick hit him on the bridge of the nose. He says it stung him and he reacted by swinging his stick at the Rocket. He says he didn’t think about it and that it was an automatic reaction.
Laycoe dropped his stick, gloves and eye-glasses, and that’s when Cliff Thompson, the linesman grabbed the Rocket. The Rocket threw an uppercut that landed on Thompson’s face. Then he picked up his stick and went after Laycoe with it, though Laycoe hadn’t retrieved his and was making motions to the rocket to fight with his fists. The Rocket lost caste with Boston fans by refusing Laycoe’s challenge to fight with his fists. There was blood all over the Rocket and all over Laycoe and all over the joint. It was an awful mess and a lot of people were disgusted.
Tuesday morning when Richard showed at the Forum for practice, Dick Irvin called in the doctor.
“I noticed that the Rocket was pale and he looked tired,” Irvin said. “He confessed that he had a headache and that he hadn’t slept. He was suffering from headaches on his return from Boston on Monday morning, but he didn’t say a word to anyone.”
Irvin told reporters that Richard had lost at least a pint of blood during Sunday’s fracas.
Along with headache, and he was suffering stomach pains now. Canadiens club physician Dr. Gordon Young took him to Montreal’s Western Hospital for an x-ray and further tests. Reporters who followed him there weren’t allowed to see him. By evening he’d been moved to another room where they couldn’t disturb him.
There was talk that Wednesday’s hearing would be postponed. A Canadiens official: “Chances are Richard won’t be able to attend tomorrow’s hearing.”
Clarence Campbell said proceedings would definitely not be moved to Richard’s hospital room. Richard was not suspended, he said, too, which was why it was important that the hearing take place before Montreal’s Thursday game.
Dr. Young finally gave the okay: Richard would be there Wednesday.
Dick Irvin: “We don’t know the results of the examinations so far, but since Richard is able to be at the hearing we might as well get it over with. We want to know what the decision will be. We have a big game here Thursday night.”
A reporter asked Dr. Young if the cut on Richard’s head had been caused by Laycoe’s stick. He smiled. “The Rocket was certainly not injured in a railway accident,” he said.
Dick Irvin, on Tuesday, complained about the linesman: “Thompson took a flying leap at him and knocked him to the ice,” Irvin said. “These rough tactics from an official are a breach of the league’s rules.”
Also: “How was the Rocket supposed to know whether it was an official or a Boston player?”
Frank Udvari huddled with Carl Voss and Clarence Campbell Tuesday at the NHL’s headquarters on the sixth floor of the Sun Life Building on Dorchester Square. I suppose the linesmen were there, too.
The Gazette noted that Thompson was new to the NHL lines that winter. Off the ice he was an apprentice mortician. Also: “Thompson sported a big ‘mouse’ under the eye where Richard punched him.”
Back in Boston, Hal Laycoe was due to fly north with GM Lynn Patrick. The Bruins had a game Wednesday night, so they’d fly right back. In the meantime, Laycoe was talking to Tom Fitzgerald at The Globe: “I understand Dick Irvin has been quoted as saying that I struck the first blow in this thing. That definitely isn’t so and I would like to set the record straight.”
Lynn Patrick, too: “I certainly don’t think Richard’s display did anything to help hockey. It was nothing fans want to see. Richard is a great player, but he has been involved in too many of these things. Hockey was a great game before him, and it will be a great game after he is gone.”
Sidney Katz’s Maclean’s account of the whole affair really is a remarkable piece of reportage. Wednesday morning at the hospital, Katz writes, Richard didn’t shave. He looked pale and worried. He wore a patch over the cut on his scalp.
As the hearing got underway at the NHL offices, the corridors on the sixth floor began to fill up with (The Gazette) “stenographers, office boys, and middle-aged persons.” They milled about. Some peered through the letter slot in the main door of the NHL suite, number 603. By lunchtime, the traffic was so heavy that the building superintendent had the whole crowd of them shooed away.
Canadiens winger Jackie Leclair was there. Someone said he’d come to speak on Richard’s behalf but Leclair denied that — he just wanted to see what was going to happen.
Richard arrived on the dot of ten accompanied by coach Dick Irvin. Canadiens GM Frank Selke was out of town, so his assistant stood in, Ken Reardon. Hal Laycoe, wearing a plaster over his left eye, arrived with Bruins’ GM Lynn Patrick.
In Campbell’s office, Katz says, the officials went first, reading their accounts of the incident, answering questions. Everyone else was chimed in after that with what they knew. Campbell took notes. “On some points,” Katz writes, “there were sharp differences.”
Richard remained mostly silent. His only comment: “I don’t remember what happened.”
Later he told Katz, “When I’m hit, I get mad and I don’t know what I do. Before each game I think about my temper and ho I should control it, but as soon as I get on the ice I forget all that.”
It was 12.30 when the hearing ended. Richard was “flushed” when he came out, his face “a solemn mask.”
Irvin and Reardon: long-faced, talked in whispers.
Donning overcoats, the three departed. Irvin said something to Richard and both men smiled.
None of the others had any comment, except for linesman Thompson, who said he had “told what happened.”
The Gazette said that Campbell, too, appeared flushed and “overly warm.”
“His face was set and firm: he appeared worried.”
He said he hoped to have a statement by 1.30.
He went right to work, without lunch. That’s The Gazette’s story; I’m partial to Sidney Katz’s version that has him ordering a ham sandwich on brown bread and a cup of coffee.
Alone in his office, he wrote longhand, a page at a time. Carl Voss carried each page to another office where NHL secretary Phyllis King typed them up. Campbell let reporters know he’d release his findings at 4. He checked the typescript over before releasing it finally at 4.25.
“I had a hard time making up my mind,” he told Katz later.
No-one knew, Campbell wrote in his 1,200-word statement, who’d been carrying the puck. “It was either Laycoe or Richard.”
He went through the whole story, as he’d heard it. Richard skated, Laycoe high-sticked, Richard skated, rubbed his hand on his head, skated toward Laycoe, swung his stick, dropped his stick, linesman grabbed, Richard broke away, attacked, struck, punched linesman Thompson two hard blows to the face.
Montreal argued that Richard was out of his head. Campbell:
It was not denied that all of the blows were struck by Richard as reported by the officials but it was contended that he did not know what he was doing because of the blow which he had received on the head.
Montreal’s claim regarding the attack on Thompson: with all the blood and the blows to the head, Richard mistook Thompson for a Bruins player.
Campbell didn’t accept Montreal’s claims. Richard’s attack, he found, had been deliberate. It wasn’t the first time he’d flouted the authority of the officials; he’d promised to be good. And so, Campbell decreed,
The time for probation or leniency is passed. Whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or willful defiance of the authority in the game does not matter. It is a type of conduct which cannot be tolerated by any player — star or otherwise.
In the result Richard will be suspended from all games both league and playoff, for the balance of the current season.
“The incident caused a much bigger uproar than I thought it would,” Richard wrote 16 years later, giving no ground — “especially since I didn’t think I had started it.”
He continued. “It would be foolish for me to go on the record that I wasn’t at fault. There’s no doubt that I hit Laycoe and had also hit Thompson. The point is that there was a great deal of provocation in both instances.” For the severity of his punishment he blamed … Boston coach Lynn Patrick. Laycoe, Richard felt, may have fudged, but Patrick was the true villain.
“To this day I can’t forgive him,” Richard wrote. “Everything Patrick said to Campbell was completely different from the way I remembered it or the way the referee, Frank Udvari, recalled.”
Hal Laycoe’s impressions went to press more immediately, in the next morning’s Boston Globe. “I told my story fairly early,” he said, “after the officials made their reports, because I had to get a plane back to Boston for the game.”
“Frank Udvari’s report generally seemed to be like my own account of the affair. While I was there Rocket didn’t do much besides shake his head repeatedly. At one time he did seem to be making something of the fact that Cliff Thompson pulled him down from behind.”
In The Globe and Mail, columnist Gore Walker said it must have been the easiest decision of Campbell’s career. “The only alternative to suspending the great Montreal forward, as he did, was to pack up his personal belongings and turn over the National Hockey League presidential chair to the office boy.”
“This is the worst I’ve ever heard of,” said a Montreal fan, Gilbert Leduc. “They get more justice in Russia.”
Detroit Red Wings GM Jack Adams: “He got off too lightly. He should have been suspended until next January 1 at the very least.”
Red Wings’ coach Jimmy Skinner: “It wasn’t enough, he should have got more.”
Ted Lindsay said Richard was lucky not to have been banned for life — in baseball or football, that would have been automatic.
Toronto GM Conn Smythe was vacationing in Palm Beach, Florida, but he was happy to talk to reporters by phone. He said he backed Campbell’s decision all the way.
“Our players know what the rules are and they conform to them and so do nearly all the other players in the league and the suspension of Richard will protect the players in the future. It also showed that the NHL and hockey is bigger than the biggest star and that all players, star or run-of-the-mill, must abide by the rules.”
Montreal GM Frank Selke said, “If I made any statement at this time, it would probably be as hypocritical and hysterical as those of certain Boston and Toronto and other newspapermen who are largely responsible for the severity of the decision.”
Boston forward Fleming Mackell: “If they’d thrown the book at Richard in 1947 when he cut Bill Ezinicki and Vic Lynn it might have stopped him and he might have become an even greater hockey player because of it.”
Bruins’ president Walter Brown: “It was the very least they could do.”
Bruins’ coach Milt Schmidt said he had no comment.
the entire province is crying out its disagreement
In Our Life With The Rocket (2001), Roch Carrier channels the commotion that swept Quebec once Campbell’s decision was announced. Vivid, ebullient, the book is as much an emotional history of a people as it is any kind of biography.
The time of contempt is over, Monsieur Clarence Campbell. Ever since your ancestors seized hold of our country two hundred years ago the people, with tremendous patience, have been swallowing their anger. It has grown; now it’s immense. That’s what people are saying.