Sunday 18 March 2012

Rocket Richard Riot

"Vive Richard!" and "A bas, Campbell" shouted the crowd, 6000 strong, along Ste Catherine Street in Montreal as they smashed windows, toppled vehicles and threw ice at streetcars.  By the wee hours of March 18, fifty Montreal businesses had sustained $100,000 in damages, 37 people had sustained injuries, 100 people were arrested and Ste. Catherine Street was in shambles.

"Rocket Richard", a Montreal Canadiens player who was on his way to winning the scoring title for the year 1954-1955, had had an altercation with Boston Bruins player Hal Laycoe on March 13 in which Richard had hit a linesman.  As a result, NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended him for the duration of the season (3 games) as well as any playoff games to be played.  With that ruling, Richard lost the scoring title and coach Dick Irvin lost his job.  Richard wrote in a local newspaper column that Campbell was a "dictator", considering that the suspension was the longest one issued in Campbell's 31 years as NHL President.  While Canadiens fans were outraged by the harsh decision to ban their "hero", others thought that the penalty might be too light, given Richard's record as a violent player.

Tensions built over the next few days, coming to a head on March 17 at the Montreal Forum where the Canadiens hosted the Detroit Red Wings.  The crowd, 15,000 strong, was not focussed on the game, but rather on a spectator who arrived 10 minutes into the came with his fiancee, Clarence Campbell.  Booed by the fans, he was pelted with eggs, vegetables and debris.  However, the NHL President refused to budge from his seat -- that is, until someone threw a tear gas bomb and the entire Montreal Forum was evacuated.  The game was called and the Detroit Red Wings team, who was leading at the time, was declared the winner. 

The fury spilled on to Ste. Catherine Street where a mob 6,000 strong pelted streetcars with ice, smashed windows and toppled vehicles.  Some held signs saying "No Richard, No Cup".  Police tried to quell the riot, but it took them seven hours to bring it to a close, in which time twelve officers were injured. 

Some saw the disagreement between Richard and Campbell to be a microcosm of the tensions between Francophones and Anglophones in Quebec.  The Richard Riot was a small sample of what was to come with Quebec's Quiet Revolution in the 1960's at which point chants of "Vive Richard!" were replaced with "Vive le Quebec libre!"

Cartoon courtesy

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