Hockey fights are nothing new. The rivalry between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins dates back to 1924. It seems that riots by displeased hockey fans also harken back quite a ways. In March 1955, all three were in full force. After a stick fight between Montreal’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Boston’s Hal Laycoe resulted in Richard’s suspension, Canadiens fans rioted at the Forum on St. Patrick’s Day, later known as the Richard Riot.
The trouble began at Boston Garden before a crowd of 12,023 on March 14. With about six minutes remaining in the third period, the Canadiens had pulled their goalie for a sixth man during a penalty on the Bruins. According to Laycoe, he had the puck, and “I checked the Rocket on the play. He slapped me across the face with his stick. Sure I let him have it good right over the head with my stick. Then I dropped my stick as he came after me. But he didn’t want to fight. I yanked off my glasses and instead of fighting he grabbed his stick and swung at me. I put up my hand and blocked it. Got it on the arm. Then he swung at me again. This time I turned away and got the stick on the back. I was plenty mad and went after him. I fell down and he hit me a good punch when I was down.” The Boston Globe reported that Richard first used a two-handed swing that hit Laycoe on the side of the face and then swung again. Linesman Cliff Thompson threw Richard to the ice or boards to break up the fight, but Richard hit him with a “wicked right-hand punch” that caught Thompson under the eye “raising a large swelling.” Richard needed five stitches on the left side of his head, Laycoe had two or three stitches over his left eye, and Thompson wound up with a gash over his eye.
Referee Udvari called a match penalty for Richard, which meant that he was ejected from the game and faced a $100 fine and NHL board review. Fans yelled, “Lock him up.” Laycoe received a major for a high stick that caused injury and a 10-minute misconduct for throwing his bloody towel at the referee (which came with a $25 fine). The police (led by Lt. Frank Gannon and Detective John Hommel from Station 1) wanted to arrest Richard for assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, but Bruins President Walter A. Brown and GM Lynn Patrick convinced them the NHL would handle the incident. After the game, the police escorted the Canadiens to the railroad station for their train home. They had lost 4-2, breaking their unbeaten streak at 11 games.
Two days later, on March 16, a 3.5-hour meeting/hearing was held at the Montreal office of NHL President Clarence Campbell. The referee and linesmen from the game, along with the two fighters, and their club leaders all spoke with Campbell. He then, in a 1,200-word decision, passed down the heaviest punishment of his career (since becoming president in December 1946). Richard was suspended for the rest of the regular season and all of playoffs “for punching linesman Cliff Thompson and repeatedly attacking Boston player Hal Laycoe with his stick.” He did not buy the Canadiens excuses that Richard did not recognize Thompson as a linesman instead of a player or that the hits to Laycoe were only defensive. Richard had recently (in December) had a similar fight with Toronto’s Bob Bailey in which his punched linesman George Hayes. At the time, he was only charged $250, and he was the “most heavily-fined player in hockey history.” Campbell stated that with this incident, the “time for probation or leniency (for Richard) is past. Whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or willful defiance of the authority in the games does not matter. It is a type of conduct which can not be tolerated by any player, star or otherwise.”
Although the Canadiens would be able to appeal the case, Montreal supporters were naturally upset that Richard was definitely out for the remainder of the regular season. At the time, they were fighting for first place against the Detroit Red Wings, and Richard’s suspension could result in his teammates making $500 instead of $1,000 if they dropped to second place. In addition, Richard was in the lead for the scoring title for the first time in his career. Richard refused to comment much but did say, “I can’t blame Dick Irvin or Kenny Reardon for anything that happens. They did everything they could to help me.” Montreal general manager Frank Selke blamed the harsh punishment on “hysterical” Boston and Toronto news and later said, “But how can anyone say that I am not on Richard’s side. I have done everything I could to for this boy and I think I’ve helped to steer and guide him to become the greatest player in hockey.”
Montreal fans inundated NHL office phones and radio stations to relay their displeasure and issue threats against Campbell. Assistant Police Director Pacifique Plante said, “We will probably have to have an extra squad at the Forum tomorrow night.” The Canadiens were playing the Red Wings, their rivals for first place, on March 17. The police spread out around the Forum about two hours before the start time. At 6:45, many had already arrived and packed the lobby, some even trying to break in before the police turned them back. Students, carrying signs, paraded down St. Catharine Street chanting, “We want Richard, down with Campbell.” As 8 pm approached, the youths tossed firecrackers into the crowd. As the police pushed people back, some threw stones breaking windows at the front of the Forum. Demonstrators also threw “frozen snow and bottles at the police, street cars and automobiles” and pulled down “some overhead wires of the trolley lines.”
Inside, before the game began, spectators threw coins, peanuts, and programs on the ice until an announcement that the Canadiens would have to forfeit to Detroit if they littered the ice again. When Campbell arrived about 11 minutes into the first period (through the exit behind the nets on the south side), he was “greeted by catcalls and assorted epithets” and a “barrage of programs, peanuts and eggs,” He reportedly kept his composure, only once standing to brush himself off. However, the crowd worsened, and Campbell was “assaulted and pelted with fruit and overshoes.” A man “slipped through police lines on the pretext of being a friend,” “walked up to Campbell and offered his hand before punching him.” Another tried but was “brought down by ushers and police.” Not many even noticed Richard sitting along the rails at the back of the nets the whole time.
As the second period ended, Detroit led 4-1. After both teams retreated for the intermission, “there was a hollow boom and a heavy grey vapor started to rise from near the ice in the south end.” A spectator had thrown a tear-gas bomb, causing a rush as people fled. Then another bomb was thrown so that the smoke rose into the higher seats. Campbell made his escape from the rink along with most of the south end. Fire chief Armand Pare ordered the game be halted and building cleared for the “protection of the people.” He even ordered his men to leave so as not to further panic the 14,000 spectators. An aerial ladder truck, smaller fire truck, and several emergency vehicles were sent to the scene. About an hour after the game was halted, Campbell had a note sent to the Red Wings’ locker room stating, “The game has been forfeited to Detroit. You are entitled to take your team on your way any time now. Mr. Selke agrees with this decision as the fire department has ordered the building closed.” The police escorted the team out the rear entrance.
Two hours after the game ended abruptly, the police had cleared three sides of the Forum leaving about 6,000 demonstrators still gathered in the park across from the front. Surprisingly, there were not any immediate reports of injuries even though the papers reported, “At least a half-dozen demonstrators, some with blood streaming down their faces, were hauled off by police.” Later, it was determined that 25 fans and 8 policemen were injured, while 16 were arrested and charged $25 each. Damages added up to about $100,000. Even after the whole thing was over, the threats to the NHL phones continued. Selke told the press, “I’m sorry this happened. We did everything we could to prevent it.”
The forfeit gave Detroit the lead in the standings, which they held onto. Even without Richard, the Canadiens easily eliminated the Bruins in the playoffs. However, they lost the Stanley Cup finals against the Red Wings.
- Brian McFarlane, Brian McFarlane’s History of Hockey (Champaign, Ill.: Sports Publishing Inc., c1997), 76.
- Herb Ralby, “Richard May Miss Playoffs,” Boston Globe, 14 March 1955, pp. 1 and 12.
- Tom Fitzgerald, “Richard Stick Duels Laycoe, Fights With Official,” Boston Globe, 14 March 1955, p. 6.
- “Rocket Goes Wild At Boston, Clouts Laycoe, Linesman,” Montreal Gazette, 14 March 1955, p. 22.
- “Fight Costs Richard Ban for Ice Season, Playoffs,” Boston Globe, 17 March 1955, pp. 1 and 17.
- Tom Fitzgerald, “Hockey Men at Garden Back Ban for Richard,” Boston Globe, 17 March 1955, p. 17.
- Herb Ralby, “Wings Hit Richard Ruling,” Boston Globe, 17 March 1955, p. 9.
- Jerry Nason, “Richard Had It Coming to Him,” Boston Globe, 18 March 1955, p. 22.
- “Richard Out for Season and Playoffs,” Montreal Gazette, 17 March 1955, p. 1.
- “‘Couldn’t Do Anything Less’ Says Adams,” Montreal Gazette, 17 March 1955, p. 18.
- “City Agog Over Rocket Richard Sentence,” Montreal Gazette, 17 March 1955, p. 19.
- “Hockey Chief Attacked, Detroit Wins by Forfeit,” Boston Globe, 18 March 1955, pp. 1 and 18.
- “Detroit Awarded Game While Leading Canadiens 4-1,” Montreal Gazette, 18 March 1955, p. 24.
- “‘Rocket Richard is Not Retiring From Hockey’ – Selke,” Montreal Gazette, 18 March 1955, p. 25.