On St. Patrick’s Day, it’s of course commonplace to celebrate Irishness and Irish heritage. Some of us do it through green beer, others through parades, and some of are perhaps more sedate.
At the RedState Department of History, we have just enough Irish blood to be able to wear green without embarrassment, so on this particular day we felt it might be a bit of cultural appropriation to speak of things Irish, and we certainly can’t have that.
St. Patrick’s Day focuses on the traditional death day of the patron saint of Ireland, who according to the famous Declaration was kidnapped by the Irish at the age of sixteen. Today’s anniversary, though, focuses on a different conflict involving descendants of the English and descendants of another nationality with whom they also had a long quarrel.
It also brings in sports, which is where things get complicated.
The conflict between English and French Canadians has lasted for many years, but perhaps were the differences no more pronounced than they were on this date in 1955 — and it was over hockey.
The NHL’s Montreal Canadiens (note the spelling) are known to their fans as “Les Habitants“, which is believed to have been the same name given to the 17th century settlers of the “New France”, or Quebec. Their fans are intensely proud, and the club’s greatest heroes have been predominantly, though not exclusively, French-Canadian.
Perhaps the greatest of those heroes was Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. Born in 1921, Richard was known for a true gift of scoring goals – and having a temper to match. He was the first NHL player ever to score 50 goals in 50 games and he was revered by the fans in his hometown.
However, Richard’s mean streak often got him into trouble with the league, which was run by Clarence Campbell — an English-Canadian. The two didn’t like each other, and Richard was forced by the league to relinquish a newspaper column in which he referred to the league president as a dictator:
“What did Campbell do when Jean Béliveau was deliberately injured twice by Bill Mosienko of Chicago and Jack Evans of the Rangers? No penalty, no fine, no suspension. Did he suspend Gordie Howe of Detroit when he almost knocked out Dollard St. Laurent’s eye? No! … Strange that only Dick Irvin and I have the courage to risk our livelihood by defending our rights against such a dictator.”
Things came to a head on March 13, 1955 when Richard was high-sticked in a game in Boston by a center named Hal Laycoe. Richard retaliated by breaking his stick over Laycoe’s back and in the ensuing brawl, striking and knocking out linesman Cliff Thompson. Boston police attempted to arrest Richard after the game but were dissuaded.
Campbell, who by his own admission was looking for a reason to suspend Richard, threw the book at the player, suspending him for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. It was also not the first time Richard had struck an official.
Hard-core Canadiens fans took this as an implication that the French-Canadian player was under the heel of the English-Canadian president, which reinforced their belief in the power of the seigneur over the French-Canadian, and when Campbell showed up in person to attend Montreal’s next home game, the stage was set for a major incident.
Naturally, it happened. With the Detroit Red Wings the visitors, Campbell was first pelted with garbage thrown by fans — and then a man pretending to be Campbell’s friend was allowed close to the league president, only to slap him in the face, setting off a melee which resulted in smoke bombs being detonated and the Montreal Forum being evacuated, with the game forfeited to Detroit. The event was actually captured on film.
The resulting violence spilled out into the streets, with Montrealers causing nearly a million dollars in damage in today’s money to their own neighbors’ property.
The night came to be known as the “Richard Riot“, and was quelled only when the player himself took to the airwaves to urge calm among his fans. To make matters worse, Richard’s teammate Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion passed his teammate for the league scoring title while Richard was suspended — and was booed by his own fans for doing so, a slight from fans of his beloved team he never forgot.
Eventually, Richard calmed down as he aged. The arrival the following season of his younger brother Henri — known, naturally as “The Pocket Rocket” — helped guide the team to five straight Stanley Cup wins from 1956-60, a streak still unequaled in the NHL — at which point the elder Richard retired from the game.
Maurice Richard died in 2000 at the age of 78, and became the only non-politician in Quebec’s history to be granted a state funeral.
Hopefully, your St. Patrick’s Day is more peaceful. Have a great day and enjoy today’s open thread!