riot’s eve, 1955: when I’m hit, I get mad, and I don’t know what I do

Entering Into Evidence: Showing the five-stitched wound he’d suffered three days earlier in his Boston encounter with Hal Laycoe, Maurice Richard awaits his hearing with Clarence Campbell at NHL HQ in Montreal on the morning of March 16, 1955. “The Rocket was certainly not injured in a railway accident,” Dr. Gordon Young told reporters.

northbound

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.

court date

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.”

priors

“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.”

net losses

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.

forgiveness

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.

Elba?

Egan continued:

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.

ask laycoe

Following Sunday’s game, Tom Fitzgerald went to ask Richard what happened.

Richard’s answer: “Ask Laycoe.”

Fitzgerald:

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.

practice

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.

richard march 16

Continue reading

prologue to a riot

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.” Continue reading

and a fighter by his trade

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The Boston Bruins’ 32-year-old defenceman Hal Laycoe (above left) hangs out with boxer Jimmy Carter, lightweight champion of the world, at Boston’s Ye Garden Café in May of 1955. Carter, 31, was gearing up to defend his title that spring: in June, he’d meet the challenger, Wallace “Bud” Smith at Boston Garden. He lost that bout in the late rounds — a stiff right in the 10th from the underdog Smith seems to have turned the tide, followed by a sweeping left to Carter’s eye. The two fighters met again that fall, in Cincinnati, but Carter couldn’t reclaim his crown.

And Laycoe? This day that same year (March 16 was a Wednesday in 1955, too), he caught an early plane in Boston and flew north to Montreal. “Shortly after arriving there,” wrote an anticipatory Tom Fitzgerald The Boston Daily Globe’s, “Hal will appear before NHL Pres. Clarence Campbell to tell his version of the hectic happenings in the Garden Sunday night when Laycoe was involved in a brawl with Maurice Richard, the noted wood-chopper.”

The season was almost over; another week and the playoffs would be underway. Montreal was battling with Detroit for first place overall; the Rocket was duelling with teammate Boom-Boom Geoffrion for the league’s scoring lead.

In Boston what had happened was that Canadiens were losing 4-1 with about seven minutes left in the game. With Boston’s Warren Godfrey in the penalty box, Montreal coach Dick Irvin pulled his goaltender, Jacques Plante. What happened next was not, perhaps, what the coach (or anyone) had hoped for.

Richard carried the puck toward the Boston net. Laycoe’s raised stick caught him on the side of the head. Referee Frank Udvari called a high-sticking penalty. Fitzgerald:

Richard raised a hand to his head where Laycoe’s stick landed. When the hand came down crimson-covered, Rocket waved it at referee Udvari, then he went berserk.

“Richard rushed at Laycoe and swung his stick,” was The Associated Press version of it: “Laycoe parried the blow, dropped his stick, eye-glasses and gloves and went after Richard. Richard hit Laycoe on the shoulder with his stick.”

Fleming Mackell retrieved Laycoe’s stick for him. Linesman Sam Babcock tried to separate the belligerents, in vain. They wrestled and fell to the ice. A Richard uppercut cut Laycoe under the eye.

The other linesman, Cliff Thompson eventually pinned Richard to the boards. Richard hit him under the eye; Thompson tried to hit him back, but missed. Richard then got his stick back and, said the AP, “whacked Laycoe a solid blow on the head.”

After the game, Boston Police Lieutenant Frank Gannon was ready to arrest Richard — Dick Irvin, too, when he raised a fuss. Bruins’ president Walter Brown dissuaded him, though, and the policeman had to be satisfied with a stern warning: next time.

So it was up to Clarence Campbell to decide on punishments. The hearing was set for 10.30 a.m. on the Wednesday. Laycoe planned to say his piece and head straight back to the airport to catch a 1:15 flight back to Boston. I guess he wasn’t expecting a suspension: his aim was to get back in time for the Bruins’ game that night with the Red Wings.

(Photo courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.)