Maurice Richard died Saturday night in Canada, which is hockey night in Canada. His death, at 78, from cancer, has had the same effect as when he played for the Montreal Canadiens, skating fast and shooting hard, like a rocket. It has stopped an entire nation.
Moments after he died, Canadian television and radio stations switched to all-Richard programming. Tuesday, thousands are expected to pass his coffin in Montreal. Wednesday he will be given a state funeral. Mourners have left flowers at the doorstep of his home on a tree-lined street in Montreal and draped a Quebec flag over the shoulder of his statue outside the Maurice Richard Arena, where junior games are played.
Like Babe Ruth, the first hero of America's pastime, Richard loved kids. Richard Corey, a former president of the Canadiens, grew up like countless Montreal schoolboys, loving Richard, the most prolific scorer of the '40s and '50s. In 1996, just before the closing of the Montreal Forum, Richard's hockey home, Corey recalled a story involving his elementary school janitor, whose last name was Richard.
''Are you related to the 'Rocket?' '' Corey asked him.
''I'm his uncle,'' the man said.
The boy replied: ''Prove it. What's his phone number?''
''It's in the phone book -- under his wife's name,'' the janitor said.
The ''Rocket'' answered the ring and talked for a long time with the boy. Corey asked him to score a goal for his brother. The next game, Richard scored three times. Corey made certain the ''Rocket'' was at center ice on the night the Forum closed; he received a seven-minute ovation that made him cry.
The ''Rocket'' was never sentimental as a player. Anything but. He had dark eyes that, by many accounts, opened wide as he neared a goalmouth. He bore down on the net with a ferociousness that filled opponents with fear. His teammates preferred to get out of his way. He was a 5-foot-10 right winger with a left-handed shot and a will to score; actually, it was a rage.
Red Fisher of the Montreal Gazette, the dean of hockey writers, called Richard the ''most intense athlete this game, this city, this province, this country ever has seen.''
After seeing his first hockey game, William Faulkner wrote that Richard had ''the passionate, glittering, fatal quality of snakes.''
One measure of his impact on the game is the number of his playoff records that endure. He still has or shares nine, including his six career playoff overtime goals, his 34 goals in Stanley Cup final series and his 18 playoff game-winning goals. The first to score 50 goals in a season, which he did in 50 games, he played on eight Stanley Cup champions, including five straight from 1956 to 1960.
He grew up in a tough neighborhood of Montreal, near a jail, the son of a working man. He spoke only French in the beginning and dreamed of playing for the red, white and blue. He did much more than play. He came to be an inspiration to the province and a whole nation's treasure.
Richard remains fixed in memory in black and white: the photos of him, often posed, holding a puck; a rare one of him standing still on the Forum ice, the No. 9 on his back, a halo of haze above him in the holiest hockey temple; the often distant and grainy action footage of him, scoring from in front of the net amid a cluster of defenders, sometimes easier to spot because he is breaking away and shooting the black puck across the white ice.
You could see his black hair.
You could see the effect he had in arenas filled then mostly by men. They stood and screamed and threw their fedoras onto the ice after he scored.
Just before the Forum closed, I asked Camil DesRoches, a poet who worked in the building 55 years, to tell me about the most popular player to wear the Canadiens' revered sweater.
''Maurice Richard, the 'Rocket,' is the Michelangelo of hockey,'' he said. ''The 'Rocket' gave his body and soul to the team like Michelangelo did to his work. The 'Rocket' had to work like hell to be the best of his trade. Michelangelo had everybody against him. Michelangelo painted while lying on his back. The 'Rocket' always had two enemies on his back. He had to carry them. He was tenacious. He would never give up.''
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