On October 19, 1957, Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens becomes the first N.H.L. player to score 500 goals in his career when he slaps a 20-foot shot past Chicago Blackhawks goalie Glenn Hall. Richard was one of the most consistent and intimidating goal-scorers in pro hockey history: In all, he scored 544 regular-season and 82 post-season goals. “When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick,” Hall remembered, “his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying.”
Many people say that Richard was one of the greatest hockey players who ever lived. He played 18 seasons with the Canadiens and helped them win eight Stanley Cups. In 1944-1945, he became the first player to score 50 goals in a season, and he did it in just 50 games. (His 50-goal season record stood for 20 years, until Blackhawk Bobby Hull scored 54 times in 1965-66, but Hull was playing a 70-game season. In 1981, New York Islander Mike Bossy tied his 50-goals-in-50-games record. The next year, Wayne Gretzky scored 50 goals in just 39 games.) Richard was an N.H.L. All-Star almost every season that he played and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame just one year after he retired. “When God created the perfect goal scorer,” referee Red Storey once said, “it came in the form of the Rocket.”
But Richard wasn’t just an outstanding player—he was also an icon to French-speaking Quebecois who felt alienated and ignored in an increasingly Anglophilic Canada. To them, one reporter noted, Richard was Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson rolled into one. Their loyalty led to one of the most remarkable events in hockey history. In 1955, N.H.L. president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the last three regular-season games plus the entire postseason because he’d punched a linesman during a fight on the ice on Boston. When Campbell arrived in Montreal for the next game, the city erupted in a riot—complete with tear-gas bombs, broken shop windows and looting. Enterprising Montrealers even sold cans of Rocket Richard tomato soup to hockey fans whose devotion to Richard wouldn’t permit them to eat Campbell’s (even though the N.H.L. Campbells and the soup Campbells weren’t related). Only a plea from Richard, broadcast on French-language radio, restored calm. “I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and the younger players to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. And he did—five times in a row, an unprecedented streak.
After he retired in 1960, Richard dabbled in coaching and ran a fishing-supply business out of his home. When he died in 2000, he lay in state at the Montreal hockey arena; thousands and thousands of fans came to pay their respects.