(May 13, 2002) -- The 20th century was a time of extraordinary change, rapid and all-consuming, the new left behind the old without pause for concern. Maurice Richard's very nickname is a case in point. He earned the nickname during the war years, during a time, as Roch Carrier points out in his personal memoir of Richard, when Germans were bombing London with V1 and V2 rockets. Richard was never a fast skater, and the nickname has nothing to do with speed so much as it does with destructive force and ability. Remember, a rocket in 1943 was a new, terrifying, and effective weapon. So, too, was Maurice Richard on skates.
The irony, of course, is that half a century later, another Rocket became a star in the NHL, and for him the nickname came both from Richard but also for his speed. Most longtime fans of the game would likely say that Pavel Bure doesn't have that intense glare whenever he skates in over the blueline. He doesn't have that indomitable to win, and he has no Stanley Cups for his leadership skills, either. But speed? Oh, yes, he has that in a way Richard never had. And so, to a new generation, to the modern generation, fans think Bure is named in the same way Richard was. Sort of, but not quite.
Once the media caught on to Richard's nickname, the Rocket appeared everywhere in the papers ... and Richard paid a price. Opponents would try to slow down the rocket however they might, and while the name was flashy, for every admirer, there was a detractor or spoiler.
Richard certainly didn't earn his nickname right away. In fact, there was many a hockey mind that didn't think he had the ability to make it to the NHL. Skill? Absolutely. But strength? Hmmm. In his first year with Verdun,
he broke his ankle easily in the season and was gone for the year. The next year, he broke his wrist and missed a number of games. In his first season with the Canadiens, in 1942-43, he broke the other ankle just 16 games into the season and again was lost for the year. There was no talk about any Rocket then, only about a talented but brittle youngster who might never be tough enough or strong enough to play in the rigours of the best league in the world.
|The funeral of Maurice "Rocket" Richard at Montreal's Basilique Notre Dame that took place on May 31, 2000.|
So who actually used the word rocket first to describe Richard? Ray Getliffe was happy to take the credit. "I think the name came up in his second year," Getliffe recounted shortly before his death in the summer of 2000. "I was on the bench when he got the puck at the blueline, deked two guys, and streaked in with that fire in his eyes to score. I said, 'geez, he went in like a rocket.' [Sportswriter] Dink Carroll was standing behind the bench, and that's when [Richard] publicly became Rocket Richard."
Still later, Jacques Plante thought the name was appropriate for two reasons. "First, there was the way Maurice would turn on his rockets from the blueline to the net. Then, there was his eyes, as bright as the glare from any rocket."
- Andrew Podnieks is the author of numerous books on hockey including the current The Essential Blue & White Book. He is also a regular contributor to Leafs.com and managing editor of A Day In The Life of the Leafs to be published in the fall of 2002.