Friday, January 07, 2005

The Goal

It was April 8, 1952.

On this chilled spring evening in the city of Montreal, the storied Montreal Canadiens hockey club was deadlocked in the Stanley Cup semi-finals with the Boston Bruins, tied at three games apiece in the seven-game series. The winner of that night’s game would go on to challenge the Detroit Red Wings for the cherished Cup; the hopes for each team were now dependent on the results of one game.

The city was a powderkeg of expectation over what was at stake. Of course, les Glorieux were the greatest team in the National Hockey League – everyone knew it, and the people in the province of Quebec were sure to remind each other of this fact on a daily basis. Later on, those who remembered the great Canadien teams of their youth could never recall any of their losses. In all their techicolour memories, the Canadiens were forever and gloriously victorious, defeating any contenders for the crown in every single season. Every game had been a win, and each shot had scored a goal. But even to those who watched the Flying Frenchmen of the Fifties back when they were actually playing, a mystique of invincibility surrounded them, appearing in stark, mercurial photographs in all the daily newspapers. So on that evening, it was a nervous but confident crowd of fans that filled the Montreal Forum. They pocketed their bright ticket stubs, took their seats and clapped their hands in anticipation. Spectators were dressed in their Sunday best, because although it was a Tuesday night, attending a hockey game at the Forum in the 1950’s was like going to church. It was something very special, in a time and place when the only thing of any consequence in even the most ordinary of winter days was the Montreal Canadiens – and this game would determine the Cup finalist.

And deep down, inside of all true Canadiens fans, they all believed with absolute conviction that they simply would not lose this game. The reason for their sublime faith was in the lips and hearts of every Quebecer, the image of one man, enshrined and illuminated there like a beacon, warming a loyal soul throughout the coldest winters. Each night before bed, Catholic children would blasphemously pray for him. During the days, men who had never seen him would tell stories about him, and gushing sportswriters had long ago run out of adjectives to shower upon him in their daily columns. He was the iconic phenomenon who was Quebec’s greatest son – The Rocket, Maurice Richard.


To understand the significance of Maurice Richard is to understand the Quebec people of the 1950’s – and more specifically, the French people. In this relatively modern era, this was a society who had never experienced any significant success of any kind, in any walk of life. The poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment rates for French Quebecers were many multiples of the English ones. Few businesses were run by francophones, and the majority of their representation in Canada’s Parliament was by elected English officials. And even in Montreal, the heart of French society in Quebec, the town was divided disproportionately between the wealthy English and impoverished French. Supposing that the French found they had any amount of money in their pockets to spend, the vast majority of the goods to be found in the pretty shops were in English neighbourhoods under English names. A walk to the Forum down storied Saint Catherine Street would take you past a rainbow of glowing neon in storefront windows, all of them writ in the puritanical language of the English elite. It is difficult for some to understand militant modern-day language laws in Quebec, but for those who have experienced a true culture shock, they realize very quickly that the largest component of such an impact is language. It is impossible to be part of a culture if you cannot understand the language. And many sociologists draw no distinction between language and culture – language is culture. By the middle of the twentieth century, the French culture in Quebec was dying, becoming incrementally rubbed away one business and one street sign at a time, the culture of a proud, good-hearted and working-class people too small to withstand the force of the relentless English machine. In the face of this quiet and merciless eradication, the French people craved a symbol for their collective struggle, a hero of their own who could be lifted to their shoulders, a champion who would lift a torch and who could illuminate their darkened spirits.

And he came - Maurice Richard, whose family had emigrated from the chipped, windswept mouth of the St. Lawrence River to settle in Montreal’s poorest neighbourhood. He joined the Montreal Canadiens in 1943, instantly galvanizing the last-place team with an emotional and dramatic brand of play that would immediately become legendary throughout the National Hockey League. With his arrival, the hopes and dreams of the French people who had never legitimately felt like they had the best of anything was placed rightly or wrongly upon his capable shoulders. Through his incredible strength and speed, a generation of people vicariously identified with him, understanding immediately that he was one of their own. He was known as, “The Rocket Richard,” for his reckless, unstoppable speed, who was an incandescent presence on the ice; exquisitely skilled and ferociously determined to apply the iron will he had forged in the dozens of hockey leagues he had once dominated throughout his hardscrabble childhood. The poor Quebec French lived each of his greatest triumphs as though they had done them on their own, finally feeling good enough and strong enough about who they were in the eyes of their harshest critics – themselves. He became the living embodiment of everything they had ever wanted to be and to become. Across the province, his famous number 9 rode the backs of entire teams of village children as they all struggled heroically to stickhandle frozen blots of horse manure between makeshift goalposts. And amazingly, his very existence in the hockey rink is credited today by many experts as being at the very least, a co-initiator for many of the sweeping reforms that have changed the province of Quebec in only a few decades.

For as long as he ever played, Richard always innately understood his tremendous responsibility, and each and every night, he steeled himself to perform and live up to the standards he had made for himself and knew were expected of him. He could not and would not disappoint those who believed in him. Even when offered the opportunity to join the hated Toronto Maple Leafs for many times his annual salary, he was ultimately unable to abandon his people. Richard’s greatest desire above all else was to be the absolute best that he could be in every single game, and to do it for the people who mattered most to him.


The deciding game began with the customary energy that had fuelled the previous six entertaining contests. Both teams fought like caged animals, each attempting rink-length dashes and dramatic plays designed to destroy the heart of the opponent. It had been a long and satisfying series for the fans of the game, and the players of each team lusted to finish it with a well-deserved victory. Although widely perceived as the superior team, Montreal began the second period tied 1-1 with the Bruins despite numerous excellent scoring chances. The crowd murmured on every occasion the Rocket touched the puck – a rippling buzz of energy that flashed through the fans like a brushfire, a sound that had special reservation for him. But would he score? In the neutral zone, Richard snatched a loose puck and instantly kicked his skating into high gear. This was the moment! The clapping of the wooden Forum seats could be heard around the arena, snapping beneath the fans that had leapt to their feet: Oh, go! Go Rocket!

But then, the unthinkable happened. Richard attempted a slick move past Boston’s powerful forward, Leo Labine, and was crushed by a vicious body check, his head bouncing frighteningly as he fell into unconsciousness, with a gaping wound ripped wide and bleeding down the side of the Rocket’s face. Eyes closed, he lay utterly motionless on his back as an astonished crowd immediately hushed, knowing their hopes for the Stanley Cup were draining away along with the Rocket’s blood to the hard Forum ice. All remained standing and watched as Richard was reverentially placed on a stretcher and taken into the darkened tunnels of the arena. In an instant, the fans of Montreal had lost all their confidence. The Rocket had been carried to the dressing room, bleeding and unconscious! How could he ever return? Fortunately, the period ended without another goal against, and the fans filed into concourses in funeral silence with friends and loved ones to visit restrooms and concession stands. The vibrant, celebratory mood that had had invigorated fans since the beginning of the night was utterly gone, and there was no reason at all to be optimistic for its return. The Canadiens were the greatest team in the NHL, but without the Rocket…worried spectators trailed off when they spoke the words. It was too difficult to think about what that meant.

In the Canadien’s dressing room, Richard regained consciousness long enough to refuse hospital treatment, against the vigorous wishes of the team trainer. He lay groggily on the table in the training room with a patch of dripping red gauze hastily taped to his forehead. His teammates quietly considered the possible outcome of the game, looking in on him on occasion to see if the Rocket had recovered from his injuries. As always, the Rocket was their example. With just a glance, he alone on the team had the ability to summon the necessary feelings of confidence and determination from his mates that were essential for victory. Veterans and rookies alike looked up to him, knowing to a man his expectations from all of them, and unfailingly performed when required. For more than any reason, the members of the Montreal Canadiens played for Maurice Richard. Any respect earned in his estimation was for each their own secret and priceless treasure. But now, their ferocious warrior heart was motionless and unable to infuse them with the motivation they needed. They would do their best, but unless Maurice could play, they would simply not be the same, and nothing would make it otherwise.


The third period began. Sensing weakness, the Bruins started ruthlessly, attacking and punishing the demoralized Canadiens with renewed energy and dedication. The Canadiens struggled mightily to compete, but they had begun to tread water; they had stopped trying to win the game and were now playing not to lose. It is a mindset that almost always results in failure. The scoring chances were now coming to Boston more often than they were to Montreal; the balance of power in the game was subtly shifting, slowly but surely, to the Bruins. All who were witnessing the game were sickened by the sight. It was evident that it could only be a matter of time before one of the chances finally resulted in a goal – and in consideration of the expiring minutes of the period, a probable Boston victory.

The Rocket was unable to rouse himself from his stupor. He had joined the team on the bench during the third period, momentarily reawakening hope to see him sitting in his customary spot. But that was the extent of his participation. He remained motionless at the end of the bench, not taking the ice for any of his regular shifts. By all accounts, the Rocket should have been in a hospital. “What’s the score?,” he’d demand of a nearby teammate. He would sway drunkenly, and nod upon learning the tally, staring blankly at the ice for a moment, before asking again, “What’s the score?” His coach tried to ignore these obvious symptoms of injury. Possibly, hopefully, his mere presence on the bench could motivate the team to victory. It appeared to be the only chance the Canadiens had.

It was in one of these dark, ruminating moments of reflection, with only four minutes remaining in the game that the impossible happened. At the end of the bench, the Rocket suddenly recovered his senses and leaped over the boards, to the utter astonishment of the team. At last, seeing his motion, the crowd began to revive along with him: Look, there he is! Maurice is on the ice!

Dickie Moore, the stalwart defenseman of the team, had control of the puck near the Montreal zone when he spotted Maurice’s appearance on the ice. For just an instant, he goggled at the sight of him. But he recovered himself quickly, and reflexively snapped the puck to him just like he had done so many times before, placing it right on the tape of the Richard’s stick. Looking down the ice, he could see that Richard was virtually trapped – three Boston players were between the Rocket and the Boston goaltender.

It had to be the clouds in Richard’s concussed brain, because he began his dash towards the opposition net as though there was nothing at all standing between them. In a flash, he was past the first Boston player, accelerating towards the Boston blue-line with the legendary speed that had earned him his name. Just as quickly, the entire stadium was on its feet for the first time in nearly an hour, an unintelligible roar raining down to the ice, a torrent of sound that even a concussed Rocket could hear.

Either as a result of surprise, the incredible pressure of the situation or maybe just out of sheer ham-handedness, Richard stickhandled a sensational move at the Boston blueline between the legs of the second Bruin’s defender, embarrassing him with a flashing movement that left him floundering for the Rocket’s sweater as he passed. Richard left him behind, and now there was only one left, one last defender between Richard and his goal.

In the Forum, there were no chants now, no cries of the Rocket’s name to speed his advance. The complete focus of fifteen thousand people was now directed through a single, unified bellow, a ripping animal cry to one point on the ice. The players of each team plumbed deeply to their last reserves of energy to reach that place, where Richard carried the puck.

The final Boston player could see the culmination of all these forces, accelerating towards him in the form of a man, a flying scarlet spectre, his bloodsoaked black hair whipping behind behind his head, and the essence of it all - the scorching charcoal intensity of his eyes, which affixed upon him and burned a hole on his heart that he would carry for the rest of his life. With his gaping maw, the Rocket marked him, stretching his body to the absolute limit of his capabilities, suddenly reaching past him with the final increment of blazing lefthanded speed.

Overcome, the defenseman attempted one last check to stall the advance, but the Rocket was a goalscorer before all things. In tune with the Rocket’s movement, the Boston goalie moved to his right, and Richard saw the only opening he would need. Nobody would remember the shot, only the puff of mesh behind the goalposts made by the force of the winning goal.

The sounds in the greatest cathedral of hockey detonated in an outpouring of absolute joy and abandon never before witnessed in the game. Around the arena, overcome with emotion, women fainted at the sight of it all, men threw their fedoras to the rafters, and children wept into their hands. The crowd stood on their feet as one, and saluted Maurice Richard for four long minutes, an unheard-of ovation for their greatest hero that left their hands stinging for days and their hearts tender for years to come.

And in this, in what would be the signature moment of a career that would anoint him forever in the pantheon of hockey’s finest players, Richard flew past the goal crease, completely expired from the effort that had delivered his team to the Stanley Cup final, skating in the wide half-circle he always executed after scoring a goal. Doubling over at the waist, his legs were failing him; already threatening to tumble him again into unconsciousness. In this gathering twilight, Maurice knew only the unconditional love from the people he loved the most. He skated into history, with rough, brotherly arms catching him before he could fall.


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