Strange But True: What a Riot!

Many fans tend to worship star athletes. The Montreal Canadiens’ rooters loved their star wingman, Maurice “Rocket” Richard. In their eyes that hockey player could do no wrong. If he got into a fight, naturally the other person was at fault. At least that was how they felt.

On March 13, 1955, Richard got into a fight that had a direct bearing on the National Hockey League championship. The Canadiens led by four points in the standings with only four games left to play. It seemed certain they would beat out their nearest rivals the Detroit Red Wings.

Playing against Boston, Richard was high-sticked by Hal Laycoe. Richard suffered a scalp cut that later required eight stitches. The enraged Richard went on a rampage. He broke his hockey stick across Laycoe’s back, then turned on Cliff Thompson, one of the officials, and punched him in the jaw.

Had the fight been confined to Richard Laycoe, both would have received penalties and the incident would have been closed. But nobody is permitted to strike an official in any sport. National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the rest of the season, including the playoffs.

The suspension cost Richard the scoring championship. His teammate “Boom Boom” Geoffrion won it. Strangely, the fans booed when Geoffrion won the honors. He couldn’t understand why they felt that way. After all, he was a star with the Canadiens too. But the fans weren’t finished showing their anger yet.

When the Red Wings next came to Montreal to play, the Forum had 200 police on duty to handle the crowd. When Clarence Campbell walked in, one fan came up to him as if in friendship. He stuck out his hand. When Campbell put out his own hand for a handshake, the fan punched him.

Almost immediately a riot broke out. A smoke bomb went off and the ice was showered with debris. When Campbell forfeited the game to Detroit, it was more than the fans would accept. The riot flowed out into the streets. There were looting of stores, fistfights, and overturned automobiles. It was a city-wide reign of terror.

The only person who could stop the riot was Rocket Richard himself. He went to a radio station, took over the microphone, and pleaded with the fans to calm down and go home. He admitted that the fight on March 13 had been mostly his own fault, and he would accept his suspension like a man. Gradually the rioters ceased their destruction and left the streets.

The Canadiens not only lost their lead, they lost in the Stanley Cup finals.

From The Giant Book of More Strange But True Sports Stories by Howard Liss. Illustrations by Joe Mathieu.

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  1. The Wikipedia article goes into a lot of detail concerning the background leading up to the riot and the aftermath.  Liss got most of it right, except that Richard didn’t get on the radio to stop the riot.  The riot had ended early that morning.  Instead, he was interviewed on TV that next day.  One of the more interesting aspects of this whole thing is that it was rooted in ethnic tensions between English and French speaking Canadians and how the Quebecois were treated as 2nd class citizens. 

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