Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Frank Udvari - The Pinnacle
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Frank Udvari was considered among the finest referees the league had ever seen. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
While this episode in hockey's history was not Frank Udvari's finest professional moment, the infamous event in which he was involved certainly changed hockey history and, it can be argued, also changed political and cultural history.

During the third period of a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the hometown Boston Bruins on March 13, 1955, Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard was skating on a powerplay when struck on the head by the stick of Bruins' defenceman Hal Laycoe. Referee Udvari immediately thrust his arm into the air to indicate a delayed penalty to the bespectacled Bruin. With Montreal controlling the puck, Richard skated behind the Bruins' goal and then back out to the blueline when Udvari finally blew the whistle to stop play and assess the highsticking penalty. 'The Rocket' immediately bolted after Laycoe and swung his stick at him, hitting Laycoe across the head and shoulder. Laycoe dropped his gloves to fight mano a mano, but the linesmen separated the two. Richard dropped his stick but managed to break away from the officials, grabbed another stick and took two more swings at Laycoe, breaking the stick over the Bruin defender's back. Restrained by linesman Cliff Thompson, Richard punched the official twice, knocking him to the ice, unconscious. Frank Udvari assessed Laycoe a five-minute major for highsticking plus a ten-minute misconduct for not immediately going to the penalty box. Richard was given a game misconduct, which included an automatic $100 fine. Richard was taken to the hospital where he was treated for a possible concussion and had a facial gash closed with five stitches.

It was the second time that season that Richard had struck an official.

In August of 1966, Frank Udvari became supervisor of NHL officials. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
At the league's offices in Montreal on March 16, 1955, Maurice Richard, Canadiens' coach Dick Irvin and assistant general manager Ken Reardon were joined by Boston's Hal Laycoe and his GM, Lynn Patrick, as well as referee-in-chief Carl Voss to discuss the incident with NHL president Clarence Campbell. 'The Rocket' admitted to striking Laycoe but, dazed from the blow to the head, he stated that he believed linesman Cliff Thompson to be a member of the Boston Bruins when he punched him.

Clarence Campbell issued his verdict to the media: "I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that the attack on Laycoe was not only deliberate but persisted in the face of all authority and that the referee acted with proper judgment in awarding a match penalty. I am also satisfied that Richard did not strike linesman Thompson as a result of a mistake or accident as suggested." Citing the previous infraction, he continued: "The time for leniency is past. Whether this type of conduct is the product of temperamental instability or wilful defiance of the authority in the games does not matter. It is a type of conduct which cannot be tolerated by any player, star or otherwise. Richard will be suspended from all games both league and playoff for the balance of the current season."

The suspension, which included the final three regular season games as Richard chased the scoring championship as well as all playoff games, was the longest for an on-ice incident ever issued by Campbell in his 31 years as league president. But Montreal fans considered it excessive and protested vehemently.

The iconic Richard was revered by fans of the Canadiens, and they flooded the NHL office with hundreds of calls, including several death threats against the league president.

While the outrage became very public, Campbell refused too back down and against the advice of advisors, announced his intent to attend Montréal's next home game, which was scheduled for March 17 against the Detroit Red Wings.

Frank Udvari began his 14 year NHL career as a referee in 1951. (Hockey Hall of Fame)
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the lobby of the Montreal Forum hours before the game. The crowd spilled out across the street into a public square, chanting and carrying signs of protest at the suspension handed down by Campbell to Richard. The mood quickly turned angry and a group of fans began to break windows.

Inside, the game against Detroit was a contest for ownership of first place, but midway through the first period, with the Canadiens already down 2-0, Clarence Campbell arrived with staff from his office, including his fiancée (who was also his secretary). As he took his seat, the crowd began booing. Some fans threw garbage at the NHL president. By the end of the first period, Detroit was up 4-1, and that is when the problems escalated. Despite attempts by ushers and police to keep fans away from Campbell, a fan managed to elude security, thrust out his hand as though to shake Campbell's but proceeded to slap him instead. As he was being pulled away, he punched the president, and then tried to kick him. Just then, a tear gas bomb was set off inside the arena, sending fans scurrying to the exits.

Montréal's fire chief called for the suspension of the game and evacuated the building. Clarence Campbell was taken to the Forum clinic, met by the Canadiens' general manager, Frank Selke, and after a brief discussion, Campbell declared Detroit the winner of the game.

The angry crowd began to riot along Ste-Catherine Street, breaking windows , overturning cars and setting fires along their route. Store windows were broken and contents stolen. The riot continued through the night, and twelve policemen and twenty-five civilians were injured while hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage was inflicted on the neighbourhood around the Montreal Forum.

The incident became national news in Canada. The next day, Richard gave a televised statement in both French and English: "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."

With the win, the Red Wings were able to conclude the 1954-55 season in first place and the two teams ultimately met in the Stanley Cup Final. Detroit defeated Montreal in seven games to win the Stanley Cup.

The tensions and violence of March 17, 1955 are forever remembered as the 'Richard Riot.' Some claim the incident was the beginning of Quebec's independence and regard the riot as a defining moment in Canadian history. Whether that claim can ever be fully justified is debatable, but the 'Richard Riot' has gone down as a blight on hockey's legendary history. And there, fully justified in his actions in that game against the Boston Bruins that precipitated the riot, was NHL referee Frank Udvari, an Honoured Member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.