Canada 1973: The Pocket Rocket

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No, the gentleman pictured above doesn’t own hockey’s greatest prize, the Stanley Cup. But given that Henri Richard had won eleven of them – all with the Montreal Canadiens – before I had reached my first birthday, many hockey fans at the time could be forgiven for thinking the NHL’s Holy Grail was Richard’s to do with as he pleased.

Despite joining the Habs a full decade after his better-known brother, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, and never quite earning the respect (and in some corners of francophone Quebec, near-reverence) given his older sibling, Richard – unceremoniously dubbed “The Pocket Rocket,” a nickname that has stuck to this day – has actually eclipsed his brother on a number of fronts, most notably Stanley Cup rings. (Maurice “only” has eight, three fewer than Henri.)

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However, if there was any jealousy between the two, they hid it well. When I was growing up, my Dad enjoyed poking fun at Maurice’s pride in “my brother Henri” whenever The Rocket was interviewed. It’s quite possible that Dad even saw The Rocket, early in his retirement from hockey, picking the three stars for a game between the Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings. Here’s how the elder Richard explained his selections to a likely-amused TV audience:

“Well, I chose Henri Richard not because he’s my brother, but because he’s always driving. He was always trying tonight and so he’s my Number One star. Then I picked Jean Belliveau as the second star, because he’s an inspiration to Montreal. Without him, they wouldn’t have been in the game at all. I know some people will think I chose those two because they play for my old team. Well, it isn’t true. Because as the third star I pick Gordie Howe. If it wasn’t for his three goals, the Red Wings wouldn’t have won 3-0.”

Henri and Maurice Richard Lacing Boots

Henri Richard also helped my Dad win a hockey bet with his in-laws the year before I was born. Playing Game Two of their 1971 Stanley Cup playoff series against the longtime rival Boston Bruins, the Habs opened the scoring but soon fell behind 5-1. Dad declared that Montreal would come back to win the game and tie up the series, and my Mom’s side of the family promised him a case of beer (likely Schooner, Dad’s beer of choice in the ’70s and ’80s) if the Canadiens pulled it off. The Pocket Rocket scored the first of six straight Canadiens goals, and the Habs won 7-5, stunning my Mombourquette uncles in L’Ardoise and making Dad a happy man.

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While the Habs won that series and the 1971 Stanley Cup, it was a bittersweet victory for Maritime hockey fans. Montreal’s coach, Sydney-born Al MacNeil, had a frosty relationship with the Canadiens’ francophone players, including Richard, who was benched for portions of the Cup Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks. Richard, the Habs’ captain at the time, called MacNeil “incompetent” but went on to play a key role in the Cup victory, scoring the tying and winning goals in Game 7 at the legendary Chicago Stadium. MacNeil and Richard hugged during the post-game celebrations but the die was cast, and MacNeil was replaced by the fluently-bilingual Scotty Bowman, who would be behind the bench for Richard’s last Cup in 1973 and guide the Habs to four more Cups after Richard’s 1975 retirement.

I was reminded of all of this during my Grade 11 year, when the Calgary Flames became the only team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup by beating the Canadiens at the Montreal Forum. Al MacNeil was Calgary’s assistant GM at that point; several local hockey fans (including my Dad) suggested it was sweet revenge for MacNeil’s poor treatment by the likes of Henri Richard and the Montreal management.

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If I meet Henri Richard today, though, I won’t be bringing any of that up. Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s two years ago, the 81-year-old likely struggles on a daily basis, so old feuds are best left to the past, where they belong.

Instead, I’ll simply remember Richard as the man who accomplished something truly remarkable during his two decades in the NHL – a record that, in professional sport, is matched only by 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell of the Boston Celtics, and is unlikely to ever be broken.

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(Footnote: To further put The Pocket Rocket’s 11 Stanley Cups in perspective, consider that Mark Messier has six Cup rings, while Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy each have four, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby each have two, and Raymond Bourque has one.)

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