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