Maurice Richard at his home on Avenue Péloquin in north-end Montreal circa … the late 1960s, early ’70s? Note, below, his monogrammed front door.
(Images: Antoine Desilets, BAnQ Vieux-Montréal)
Is Rocket restless?
Vern DeGeer of the Montreal Gazette was someone who was wondering that in 1965; Maurice Richard himself seems to have been another.
He was 43 that year; he’d been retired from the glare and the glory of NHL ice for five years by then. He’d been a force to behold as a right winger for the Canadiens, a phenomenon unto himself, and he was working for the team still … as an assistant to president J. Davidson Molson, out and about as a team ambassador and sports-supper speechmaker, in the business now of gladhanding fans rather than goalscoring.
“When I retired five years ago,” Richard told DeGeer, “I was all wound up inside. I wanted to get away from it all. I seemed to be all worn out mentally and physically. The pressure had been great. I’d been going at top speed for 18 seasons. That’s a long time.”
Had the pressure let off since he’d stowed his skates? Not so much.
“Now I seem to be building new tensions,” Richard said. “I’ve found the calls for public appearances, travelling all across the country, even tougher than playing. The same old questions have to be answered, the same routines.
Would he coach? Maybe. “I haven’t given it much thought until now, but I think I might consider trying my hand as a coach,” said Richard. “I’m not sure. I’ve never had any offers. If they did come, I’d feel more like considering them than I did when I quit in 1960.”
I don’t know if the offers were extended in ’65, or in the years that followed; the Rocket never did, we know, end up coaching in the NHL. He took a brief turn behind the bench when the Quebec Nordiques launched with the WHA in 1972 — only to resign after just two games due to what the newspapers called “severe nervous strain.”
It wasn’t long after that exchange with Vern DeGeer that Richard quit his job with the Canadiens. This time, he announced his departure in the column he wrote for Dimanche-Matin, “Maurice Richard Vous Parle.”
It wasn’t, let’s say, a fond farewell.
“The title of vice-president or assistant to the president — take your choice — was never more than honorary,” he wrote. “I never had time to do it justice, though I would so much have liked to contribute constructively to the cause of the Canadiens. But I was never more than a good-will ambassador.”
As vice-president, he said, “I was never invited to a meeting behind closed doors, never asked for an opinion on anything whatsoever. I kept pace with the news the same way you did, by reading the sports pages.”
The image above comes undated. Could be … late ’60s, early ’70s, maybe? It was taken in the basement of the Richard family home, on Péloquin Avenue in north-end Montreal. The spectators in the background are (I’m pretty sure) Richard’s sons Jean and Paul.
I’ve been visiting the house by way of a couple of old magazine features and so can offer some more basement views. First up is June Callwood, writing for Maclean’s in May of 1959, when Richard was still in the NHL. His wife Lucille figures prominently in this piece, as does the couple’s domestic set-up in their “thirteen-room stone house.”
There were six Richard children at this point: Jean was still to come. “Their living-room windows overlook a strip of park,” Callwood wrote, “beyond which is the river where in summer the Richard boat is in constant use. towing the older children or their father on water skis.”
Indoors, Callwood found the house to be “warm, sparkling clean and bright with sunlight” — and teeming with the spoils of superstardom:
Lucille has stored literally dozens of cups, statues and plaques in a glass-doored case in the recreation room, along with boxes of pucks — all identical in appearance — labeled to indicate that this one won a Stanley Cup playoff game and that one broke a scoring record. The scrapbook situation is almost out of hand and so is the number of paintings of Maurice that fans have made from photographs and sent to him. Several are hung in the living room, others in the recreation room. One, a real trial, is over six feet high and leans against a basement wall.
Many gifts have been of great value, among them a colour television set, a freezer, a stove, a marble-statue floor lamp and four refrigerators. Lucille dispersed the abundance of refrigerators by putting the biggest one in the kitchen, another in the bar in the recreation room and two others in the back entrance vestibule. One of these is packed to the doors with beer, a reflection of an affiliation Maurice has with Dow Breweries, rather than of his drinking habits, which are only a notch above teetotaling.
Callwood found Mrs. Richard gracious and charming. Her first impression of the Rocket: “A thickbodied, not tall, man, Richard normally has an expression of remote sadness and his black eyes are fathomless.”
One of her questions, about dealing with fame, made him uncomfortable. “Sometimes I get fed up, but I can’t let it show,” he admitted. “It’s not nice for kids to hear about me being sore at people.”
Twelve years later, it was Alan Walker from The Canadian Magazine who dropped by to size up Richard and his household. He wrote it up in a feature published in May of 1971.
Richard was 49. “His hair is grey now,” Walker wrote, “and slicked down with Vitalis. His face is scarred by the crunch of sticks and pucks. His false top teeth are expensive, and so look real. His eyes, which used to be piercing enough to terrorize opposition goaltenders into helpless rigidity, now look smaller because his face has fattened.”
Richard was a vice-president again, but of S. Albert & Co. Ltd., a fuel company rather than a famous hockey team. He’d started as a salesman; now he oversaw a sales team of 20. He was still making public appearances and giving speeches, on behalf of breweries, Dow, O’Keefe, and Labatts, though there’s no mention in the piece of how refrigerators remained in the house.
Richard was working from home, too, running General Fishing Lines, a business he’d bought four years earlier.
Here’s Walker describing the Rocket’s set-up:
Richard’s cellar is so crowded that it is difficult for a big man to manoeuvre between the crates of fishing line and the billiard table that dominates the room.
In the adjoining laundry room, sharing scant space with Mrs. Richard’s automatic washer and dryer, Richard has a typewriter, a green filing cabinet, and a red telephone on a neat desk. Unpainted plywood cupboards around the walls hold miles of fishing line ready for labelling.
Back in ’59, talking to June Callwood, Richard did briefly talk about his extra-hockey interests.
“Every year I think I ought to get interested in another business,” he said then, “start a restaurant or something. But when the hockey starts, I forget about everything else. Maybe if I had other interests, I wouldn’t have lasted so long in hockey.”
“Are you afraid of anything?” Callwood wondered.
Richard was quiet a long time. “Yes, I am afraid of the future. I am afraid to grow older. I never used to think of it, now it’s on my mind every day. I will be so lonely when hockey is over for me.”
“Can you coach, maybe?”
“No, I can’t change the way a man plays hockey. Either he can play it or he can’t. I can’t help him.”
It was in May of 2000 that Richard died, at the age of 78. As far as I know, he lived in the house on Péloquin Avenue until the end. That October, Richard’s children put the house on the market, asking $649,000. I’m not sure what it sold for, finally, but by the time the deal went through the following May, the asking price had dropped to $399,000.
That same month, on the anniversary of Richard’s death, the strip of riverside greensward across the street from the Rocket’s house was officially renamed Parc Maurice Richard.
Ebbie Goodfellow, who was born in Fallowfield, Ontario, on Ottawa’s edge, on a Monday of this very date in 1906, was a Detroit Olympic and a Falcon and a Cougar early in his career, but he built his Hall-of-Fame name as a Red Wing. He played at both centre and on defence during his 13 NHL seasons, wearing the number 5 on his sweater as he captained the Red Wings in 1934-35 and again from 1938 through 1941. Winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player in 1939-40, Goodfellow was (as The Ottawa Journal testified) “possessed of one of the hardest and truest shots in hockey.” His Red Wings were Stanley Cup champions in 1936 and again in ’37. When a leg injury curtailed his playing career in 1941, he carried on as a coach assisting head Detroit honcho Jack Adams, and it was in that capacity that Goodfellow got his name on another Stanley Cup, in 1943. He gave Old Mother Goose a read-through at least once in his time, as is documented here, in the company of his loyal son, Ebbie, Jr., in February of 1939.
“I can’t imagine that young Detroit players would go for a similar arrangement these days, but back then most of the Red Wing bachelors lived together in rooming houses organized by the team.”
That’s Gordie Howe writing, or at least Paul Haavardsrud, who ghosted Howe’s memories into Mr. Hockey: My Story (2014). In the 1950s, Red Wings’ manager Jack Adams had his Stanley-Cup-winning stars housed with nearby neighbours of Detroit’s old Olympia on Grand River Avenue. Howe’s memoir names some of them — Ma Tannahill and the Michaud brothers — though none was more renowned than Mr. Hockey’s own landlady, who welcomed a succession of Wings to her four-bedroom brick house a block over from the arena. “I was happy at Ma Shaw’s,” Haavardsrud’s Howe recalls.
Minnie Shaw (née Schunk) lived at 5721 Lawton Street which, if you Google over for a visit, looks very calm and green, if entirely houseless. (Where the Olympia stood is bleaker yet: barbed wire tops the fencing that defends the emptiness of the parking lot that used to be a rink.) What would Mr. Shaw, Asa, who was a real estate broker, make of the current view? It was after he died in 1938 that his widow began to take in hockey players. The pride of Pilot Mound, Manitoba, was her first, defenceman Black Jack Stewart.
Gordie Howe got Bill Quackenbush’s room when he was traded to Boston, so 1949. Stewart was still there; Ted Lindsay and goaltender Harry Lumley were the other roommates. When Metro Prystai moved in after arriving from Chicago in 1950, Howe’s memoir says that, with Howe, Lindsay, Red Kelly, and Marty Pavelich already in residence, four became five. Sid Abel was there for a season, ’39-40; Kelly stayed for 11 years. The Metro Prystai Story, a 2015 biography by Frank Block, notes other Ma Shaw alumni: Glen Skov, Alex Delvecchio, and Red Wings’ trainer Lefty Wilson. I’d like to know what Ma Shaw’s arrangements were: none of the literature I’ve reviewed mentions just where in her own house she was sleeping.
Jack Adams had a man spying on the house to make sure the players didn’t violate his nightly 11 o’clock curfew. Sid Abel remembered this; also that Jack Stewart would watch the watchman, and once he departed, around 11.30, the players would scuttle out to the Crystal Bar on Grand River Avenue. The owner would let them in the back door, and they’d drink in the basement — “would rap on the pipes when they wanted a waitress and beer,” as a later account described the players’ routine.
Boarders paid about $10 a week at Ma Shaw’s. A normal day got going around 8.30 with breakfast, after which the players would walk to the Olympia for practice. Lunch was often at the Central Restaurant on Grand River Avenue, Ted Lindsay remembered, followed by pinball, and maybe a nap.
Detroit Free Press reporter Marshall Dann covered the Wings in the 1950s, and he recalled that the players like to bowl, once or twice a week, at the Lucky Strike Alley on Grand River. “Howe instantly became a good bowler,” he said. “I don’t recall Lindsay setting any records.”
If the Wings were playing well, Jack Adams was pro-bowling. When they lost, Dann said, he soured. “I don’t want anybody bowling,” he’d tell his players. “It’s bad for your legs.”
The players got their dry cleaning done at General Cleaners across from the Olympia. Pete Torigan was the owner. The players used to sit in the back, by the presses, play cards. Lindsay and Kelly had the most cleaning — “Kelly probably more than anybody.”
Torigan: “I used to go to Ma Shaw’s and get his clothes right off the hanger. He’d just say, ‘Go in and take it from the closet.’”
Ma Shaw hated mess, Howe said. “I had the big back room with a big double closet.” For a gag, his teammates would empty it, spread his clothes all around. “Ma would get bloody mad.”
What else? Marshall Dann recalled that when Howe was critically injured in 1950, reporters would telephone Ma Shaw for medical updates during the winger’s long recovery.
By Metro Prystai’s account, the neighbourhood had its, quote, scoundrels, but if they came across a parked car bearing Canadian license plates, they’d leave it alone, out of respect for the hockey players. But when Red Kelly got a new Oldsmobile convertible, “pretty fancy,” in Prystai’s telling, his “fancy hubcaps” were gone the first night.
After a game, the Crystal would be jammed with fans and hockey players alike. Sometimes the Wings would drive to Sid Abel’s home on Detroit’s east side for beers — or head home, to Ma Shaw’s, to review, replay, relive the night they’d had on the ice.
Minnie Shaw died in 1968 at the age of 86. A Detroit obituary noted some of her Red Wing tenants, How and Lindsay and Kelly, and ended with this:
She was practically a mother to the entire club.
Handmedown Hab: Danny Geoffrion was three years old in March of 1961; his father, Bernie, had just turned 30. Boom-Boom, as Geoffrion père was better known, was in the midst of his best scoring season, one in which he’d score 50 goals for the Canadiens and lead the NHL with 95 points. Sporting his dad’s number 5 here, Danny would, in time, earn a Habs’ sweater of his own: after GM Sam Pollock drafted him in 1978, he made the team as a 20-year-old right winger the following season, wearing number 20 and an uninspired nickname: Little Boomer. The defending Stanley Cup champions got a new coach that year, too: Bernie Geoffrion.
It didn’t go so well, familywise. In December, though the team was at the top of the Norris Division, Boom-Boom resigned as coach, handing the reins to an assistant, Claude Ruel. It was a few months before Geoffrion talked publicly about the pressure of coaching his son. Frank Brown of the Associated Press was one of the writers who told the story:
“I should have been like the other coaches and give a chance to my son,” said Bernie Geoffrion, “but I was afraid I’d be criticized for putting him in too much.”
So he barely put him in at all. As time passed, things worsened.
“For three weeks, we didn’t talk — not a word. Can you imagine that?” said Bernie Geoffrion. In the Montreal Forum, on the buses, in the airports, in the hotels, they would walk past each other as strangers. “It was unbelievable.”
It got to be too much. One day, Bernie Geoffrion walked into his home and sat with his wife of 29 years, Marlene. “I said, ‘Mom, I’m 50 years old. I don’t need the money. I want my kid back.’”
The two reconciled after Bernie quit. “I’ve got my son back,” the ex-coach said, “and that’s all that matters.” Danny still didn’t play much, however. He went without a goal during his Hab tenure: in 34 games before he left the team at the end of the unhappy season, Boom Minor recorded six assists and 19 minutes in penalties. The following season, playing for Winnipeg, he scored a respectable 20 goals and 46 points. But that was his last turn in the NHL.
Bernie Geoffrion does tell a bit of a different tale in Boom-Boom (1997), the autobiography he published with Stan Fischler’s help. It was Ruel and maybe vice-president Toe Blake — anyway, “the organization” — who didn’t want Danny to play. Bernie would try to put him into the line-up and he’d be told no. “Nobody,” he writes, “could give me a good explanation of why I couldn’t play Danny. I could never find the answer.”
He’d dreamed of winning the Stanley Cup as coach of the Canadiens: the dream, he writes, turned into a nightmare. His Marlene is the one, in this telling, who sees his unhappiness and tells him to quit. He did it, Ruel took over, Montreal ended up losing in the playoffs to lowly Minnesota. Finis.
Back to the photo: that’s Marlene up there on the wall, below the Stanley Cup, off to the right of the big smiling Boom-Boom portrait. She was a very good figure skater when she married Boom-Boom; she was 19 and he was 21. Her father is up there, too, on the end: the late Howie Morenz, Streak of Stratford. Marlene didn’t remember him: she was just two when the legendary Montreal star died in 1937 after a career-ending leg injury complicated (as the tale’s told, at least) by a heart broken by the news that he’d never play another game for his beloved Canadiens.