While it would not be the greatest hockey event in which he was involved, former NHL president Clarence Campbell was at the centre of one particular incident that will forever be tied to his name.
|Campbell served as NHL president from 1946-1977.
(Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
In 1955, the 'Richard Riot' broke out at Campbell's expense, but its genesis harkens back several years earlier.
In 1947, Clarence Campbell, in his role as NHL president, suspended Montreal's fiery star Maurice Richard for a game due to a stick-swinging incident during a contest against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs' player involved received a less severe punishment, causing Richard and the Canadiens to verbalize that they believed Campbell to be anti-French. Although the NHL head office was located in Montreal at the time, and Campbell therefore lived in that city, his detractors stated without hesitation that the NHL president had a bias against the Canadiens.
Maurice Richard later had his own column in the Samedi-Dimanche, and he frequently pointed a finger at Campbell for what he believed was a conspiracy against the largely francophone Canadiens.
'The Rocket' blamed Campbell for referee Hugh McLean's non-call in 1951 which resulted in Richard slamming into a goalpost. Richard was incensed at McLean and after the game, engaged in a fight with the referee. Clarence Campbell fined Richard for his actions.
In 1953, Montreal's Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion was involved in a stick-swinging incident against the New York Rangers after which Campbell suspended Geoffrion from playing in any further games at Madison Square Garden during that 1953-54 season. Geoffrion pleaded with Campbell that he had acted in self-defence, but to no avail. Teammate Richard again took to his newspaper column to protest the fact that Geoffrion got too severe a punishment for what Montreal fans regarded as a retaliatory gesture.
But the incident that arguably defined Clarence Campbell's career occurred in 1955. By then, Campbell was regarded as the most-hated man in Quebec, but this incident took the hatred to an all-new level.
Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard had never won an NHL scoring race, in spite of being one of the dominant players in the league for almost a decade. With a playoff berth for the Canadiens confirmed and only three games remaining in the regular season, The Rocket was leading all NHL scorers. But on March 13, 1955, Richard went into a frenzy after being slashed in the face by Hal Laycoe, a bespectacled defenceman for the Boston Bruins. The game, played in Boston Garden, saw Richard punch Laycoe, and he then swung his stick several times at his opponent. Linesman Cliff Thompson attempted to get in between the two combatants, grabbing Richard and holding him. Laycoe took advantage and punched Richard, sending The Rocket into a blind rage. Richard punched the linesman.
|Clarence Campbell oversaw the advent of the NHL's expansion era. Between 1967 and 1975 the league tripled in size and its popularity was more widespread in North America than in any previous period.
(Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Clarence Campbell took action and because of the severity of the incident, suspended Richard for the rest of the regular season but also for the duration of the playoffs. This, of course, compromised Richard's opportunity to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer.
The Canadiens' next game, played on March 17, was at home in the Montreal Forum against the powerful Detroit Red Wings. In spite of warnings that he should stay home so not to throw a match on a powderkeg, Campbell attended the game anyway, entering the Forum during the first period and taking his usual seat on the aisle, seated beside his fiancée (Phyllis King), who also happened to be his secretary.
The Montreal fans berated Campbell, taunting him, swearing at him and eventually, tossing debris at him. One even attacked Campbell in his seat. Still, Campbell and his fiancée sat steadfast. Montreal fans regarded Campbell as the prime example of the city's Anglo-Canadian elite oppressing the Francophone majority. Then, a fan tossed a tear gas bomb in the general vicinity of the NHL president, sending the crowd scurrying to the exits.
Campbell, like the rest of the crowd, was forced to evacuate the building. The game was forfeited to the Red Wings, and what ensued has become known as the infamous Richard Riot.
16,000 fans spilled out onto Ste-Catherine Street, enraged at the incident and its cause. Eight policemen and 25 citizens were injured in the ensuing riot, while 60 were arrested as the crowd made its way through the downtown core, vandalizing and looting businesses to the tune of almost a million dollars in damages.
Richard was summoned to a Francophone radio station and begged for calm. The Richard Riot was finally quelled some hours later.
Campbell, unknowingly, had ignited a French-Canadian passion like no other Anglo-Canadian before. The Richard Riot contributed to galvanizing the French-Canadian identity, and added much fuel to the fire of the burgeoning Quiet Revolution.
Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.