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.