March 17 may be St. Patrick’s Day, but it also marks the anniversary of one of hockey’s darkest days.
The Richard Riot in Montreal erupted on this night 59 years ago as fans reacted not only to the major suspension handed out to Maurice Richard for an incident against Boston a few days earlier, but also to the presence of NHL president Clarence Campbell.
Campbell decided to attend Montreal’s first home game after he suspended Richard for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, despite warnings not to go.
On March 13, the Canadiens played in Boston. Richard was high-sticked during play by Bruins defender Hal Laycoe, who was later given a five-minute major and a 10-minute misconduct, but it didn’t end there. After the play was whistled down, Richard attacked Laycoe with his stick and as linesman Cliff Thompson attempted to break up the interaction, the Canadiens star punched Thompson. Richard was ejected from the game and issued a match penalty for attempting to injure Laycoe.
On March 16, the NHL convened a hearing with Richard, Laycoe, referee in chief Carl Voss and representatives from both Montreal and Boston management to rule on supplemental discipline. It was decided Richard would sit out the remainder of the season.
Had Campbell not shown up to the Montreal Forum on March 17, it’s debatable whether or not the riot would have occurred at all. Making matters worse, the NHL president showed up after the game had already started, so he was instantly noticeable as he made his way to his seat. Security was high, but fans threw food, shoes and other things at Campbell. One even managed to get past the security and, as he went to shake the hand of Campbell, slapped him in the face.
Shortly after, a tear gas bomb went off and the game had to be cut short. The Red Wings were awarded the win, the Forum was evacuated and a riot spilled out into the streets.
The following day, March 18, Richard issued went on television to issue a statement and try and ease the situation:
“Because I always try so hard to win and had my troubles in Boston, I was suspended. At playoff time it hurts not be in the game with the boys. However, I want to do what is good for the people of Montreal and the team. So that no further harm will be done, I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and to help the boys win from the New York Rangers and Detroit. I will take my punishment and come back next year to help the club and the younger players to win the Cup.”
In The Hockey News’ March 26, 1955 edition, Elmer Ferguson wrote about the night, which he was in attendance for. Here is the cover of that edition, with Ferguson’s account to follow.
“There never was anything like this in the long history of Montreal sport. And we hope there never will be again. For a band of young hooligans who climaxed a disgraceful display of mob hatred directed against President Clarence Campbell of the National Hockey League by exploding a tear-gas bomb in the Forum might have caused a panic and cost scores of lives.
But amazingly, such panic as developed was limited. From where this observer was stationed, high up in the press box, there was discernable some rishing for the south end exits, but the main body of customers were cool. Some ran, but the poise, the undismayed spirit of other thousands who stood blinking as the acrid fumes brought tears from their eyes, who gagged and choked as the smoke hit their throats, was astonishing. You felt, far up in the press box, that at any moment there might be a wild rush of screaming, frightened people down the concrete stairways. You conjured up visions of spreading smoke and fumes. But only a few rushed for the exists. It was a mighty tribute to the cool balance of these hockey folks. A few minutes before, they were in the throes of excitement, as Red Wings roared over the stricken Habs. Yet, when something real came, most of them met it with cool, almost daredevil indifference.
You may not agree with his judgment, but you can’t but admire the superb courage of Clarence Campbell, a man who faced death throughout World War 2, to whom the heckling and the minor misiles and the torrents of verbal abuse ranging from stupid to obscene hurled his way bounced like thistle-down off one who had faced shells and shrapnel. Here was a man caught between two extremes. If he avoided the game, he would be listed as a coward by his detractors. If he went, he was inciting a riot. So he went. On physical injury, he took his chances, came through a gentleman, whom you couldn’t help but admire.
Rocket Richard sat only a few yards from the President, whose harsh ruling against the greatest of all hockey players started the fearsome display that dealt Montreal sport a black, as well as a tearful eye.
The Rocket sat directly behind the south-end nets. It was just behind him but a few feet away that the tear-gas bomb exploded after the end of the first period. After the excitement had died down, somewhat, the Rocket, almost unnoticed in the milling mob, walked half-way around the rink to where his wife was sitting, took her arm, helped her down the aisle. They walked slowly around. This is a terrible thing,” said the Rocket, shaking his head, unsmilingly. “It was terrible, awful. People might have been killed.”
Curiously, no one seemed to notice the broad-shouldered Richard in his dark street clothes, and grey hat. He and Mrs. Richard walked quietly to the side entrance and left.
When Pres. Campbell entered, after the game had started, with his blonde secretary Phyllis King, the verbal storm broke. It halted, then resumed in full fury when the period ended with Canadiens in arrears 4-1, their championship chances fading fast as Wings ploughed through a team that seemed to be bewildered and disorganized. Hundreds swarmed near the box where he sits, hurled insults. From other parts of the adjacent house, the rain of missiles continued. A tomato had landed on the presidential hat early in the proceedings. After a time, he took off the hat, wiped it carefully. Rubbers flew through the air. Twice Miss King was struck on the side of the face with these missiles, merely straightened her white hat, paid no further attention. Programs, rolled-up newspapers were flung.
A few marauders sought to get up the short stairway to his seat, were thrown back by ushers and firemen. Then a skinny little fellow came along, in the typical wind-breaker, meekly asked the usher if he might shake the President’s hand. The usher, surprised to find a bit of sporting spirit, agreed. The shrimp walked up the stairs, stretched out his hand as if in greeting, then hurriedly slapped at the President’s face.
Jimmy Orlando, former hockey star and wrestling referee, leaped up the short stairway, caught the belligerent one, and yanked him down the steps. The attacker fought, kicked, and punched, but Orlando was too much for him, ushers rushed in.
“He didn’t hit me,” said Pres. Campbell afterward. “He made some flapping motions but I pushed him back with my foot and someone caught him. I didn’t notice it was Jimmy Orlando.”
Then came the bomb. Pres. Campbell gathered in Miss King, they hustled around the corner, out into the passage where the air was cleaner.
Inside the acrid fumes drifted high and wider. Smaller glass-tubed tear-gas bombs exploded on the ice, with short, sharp barks.
Outside, the mob was roaring, windows crashed as bottles and chunks of ice flew. Bullets too streaked through the glass into the brick walls of the empty lobby. This was a dangerous mob. Inside, Pres. Campbell and his friends, with Bill and Mrs. Wray, sat in Bill Head’s clinic. The directors’ room was crowded. Frank Selke introduced a lighter note. “If we’re besieged and have to stay here,” he told the counter-man, “you better make more sandwiches.”
Across the hall, Clarence Campbell was cool, undisturbed. We asked him about the game. “It’s forfeited to Detroit,” he said. “Any time conditions such as prevailed tonight make it impossible to go on with the game, it is forfeited to the visiting team, no matter which club is ahead. The scoring statistics and penalties go into the records as compiled.”
The President bore no marks. He was as relaxed as anybody in the room. “A most unfortunate thing,” he said. “Don’t worry about me. I wasn’t hurt, in any way. The missiles were harmless, the blows missed. It could have been a lot worse.”
Police chief Tom Leggett stood by until midnight. Outside the crowd on St. Catherine street was still roaring, glass was smashing. After 11 o’clock, Tom Leggett consulted with the Forum’s Jim Hunter, and said: “I think you can go home now, Mr. Campbell. There’s no one around the back entrance.”
“All right with me,” said Phyllis King, brightly. She’s a courageous little girl, too. Completely undisturbed by the stormy proceedings. Out they went, with a gigantic, hard-faced sergeant of the RCMP accompanying Bill Hunter and Tom Leggett.
Then the Selkes left quietly. And your agent and Les Daly stepped out of the rear door and hailed a passing taxi.
Out in the front, the crowd still roared, the missiles still flew.
So ended, we hope, a disgraceful incident in the history of Montreal sport. The young hoodlums had, undoubtedly, made their way down from the standing room.”