I’ve profiled him before, but I’d like to explain a bit about why Maurice “The Rocket” Richard is so important to Canadians.
He was an unparalleled hockey player. He remains one of only two hockey players to score a goal per game in a season (the other is Wayne Gretzky). He smashed the career record for goals by over two hundred. To this day, he is still in the top 30 in goals scored. He led the Canadians to many Stanley Cups, including five straight in the twilight of his career.
But he was more than that. He reminded Quebec that it had a voice, a reminder that has led to Quebec becoming a strong and robust part of Canada. A Quebec that was long subjugated under first English and then Duplessis rule, that is now rendered a nation, a distinct society. Quebec is a nation within a country that is also a nation. We couldn’t be Canadian without the Quebecois. The Quebecois wouldn’t be who they are without Canada.
The Rocket represents these concepts. When Maurice Richard was born, women couldn’t vote in Quebec. Factories were run by the English bosses speaking down to the Francophones. Government was done either in English or run by thugs belonging to the near-dictatorial government of Maurice Duplessis, who ran a provincial political stranglehold so vicious it would have made Tammany Hall blush.
Richard was a machinist. He wanted to fight in the Second World War, but the Canadian Army refused him twice. He volunteered as a machinist in the RCAF, but was turned down because he hadn’t graduated high school, even though he had several years experience as a machinist. The RCAF took many Anglophones with similar experience, but not Richard. So he went to school to earn a diploma as a machinist.
During this time, while he worked full-time as a machinist, he played hockey, twice a night, under pseudonyms and under false pretenses, until finally he was signed by the Montreal Canadiens. Coach Dick Irvin saw something in the oft-injured tough young man from Montreal. Maurice was a right-winger, and he played alright hockey – until injured 16 games in. They tried to trade him, but nobody would take the “lemon”.
Two years later, the Rocket scored a goal a game. 50 goals in 50 games is now considered the hallmark achievement for an NHL goal scorer, and the Rocket did it first, and nobody did it again for 35 years. He was humble. He was modest. He credited his teammates and his fans.
Except when it came to unfairness. The Rocket called out the English bosses of the hockey world. He reminded the Quebecois that they had a voice when he called out Clarence Campbell, the boss of the NHL, for his biased decisions on suspensions – oft handed out to people who harmed English players, less so to those who harmed the Quebecois players. Conn Smythe of the Maple Leafs wouldn’t hire a single French player, even though Quebec made so many great hockey players.
He was forced to retract these statements, but that made him no less loved. When Campbell suspended Richard for punching out a linesmen, and then had the audacity to go to the next game in Montreal, the city rose for three days. Only desperate pleas from the Rocket calmed them down. However, the city, and Quebec, had realized something – they realized they were strong.
When Duplessis died, Quebec’s electoral politics instantly changed and the Quiet Revolution occurred. One man’s humble nature and refusal to accept the status quo, but his strength in restraint, had taught a province a valuable lesson. You can change who you are without violence; you can alter your destiny with dignity. This is the lesson the Rocket left in Quebec. He was the most beloved man in modern Quebecois history, and possibly the greatest Canadian-born Francophone of all time.