Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - Montreal Canadiens - 1955-60
One on One Turning Point

Turning Point - Montreal Canadiens - 1955-60
The legendary Maurice "Rocket" Richard was an emotional star for the Montreal Canadiens from 1942-1960. (Frank Prazak/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The Montreal Canadiens had shown great strength during the early-1950s. Their coach, Dick Irvin, who had led the team since joining them from the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1940-41, went to the Stanley Cup Final in 1951, 1952, 1954 and 1955, squeezing in a Stanley Cup championship in 1953.

Yet, the management of the Montreal Canadiens felt they needed a change. One, they wanted a bilingual coach, but more importantly, the needed a coach better able to handle the wildly emotional Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard.

Richard's intense passion for the game made him one of the NHL's most exciting players, but The Rocket's red glare had caused him and his team a great deal of distress the previous season.

On March 13, 1955, in a game against the Boston Bruins, a stick-swinging altercation with Hal Laycoe led to Richard punching Cliff Thompson, the linesman, who was attempting to restrain him as he repeatedly attempted to break away to continue his attack on the Bruins defenceman. Richard was given a match penalty and an automatic $100 fine, while Laycoe got a five-minute major plus a misconduct for high-sticking.

The incident was Richard's second altercation striking an official that season. National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell subsequently suspended The Rocket for the remainder of that season, including the playoffs. It was the longest suspension issued by the NHL president during his 31-year career. His office received an avalanche of calls from furious fans, several of whom issued death threats. The Canadiens' fans were horrified and felt the penalty was not only severe but unjust.

Nevertheless, on March 17, midway through the first period, Clarence Campbell took his regular seat at the Montreal Forum for the Canadiens contest against the Detroit Red Wings. Tension was already high and the fans booed him as he attempted to watch the game. Fans began pelting Campbell with debris. At one point, a fan approached Campbell and first slapped and then punched him. Police dragged the attacker away while he tried to kick the NHL president. Shortly afterwards, a tear gas bomb was set off inside the arena. The game was suspended and the Forum was evacuated.

Montreal head coach Toe Blake took over for Dick Irvin in 1955-56 and led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup title in his first year behind the bench. (Imperial Oil-Turofsky/Hockey Hall of Fame)
As the crowd was departing, a riot erupted on the streets outside the Montreal Forum. Store windows along Ste-Catherine Street were smashed and stores were looted. When the smoke had cleared, there was approximately $100,000 in damage, along with 37 injuries and 100 arrests. It was only when Richard went on the radio and made a personal plea to calm the tensions, stating that he accepted his punishment and promised to return to help the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup the next season, that calm was restored.

The suspension cost Maurice Richard the 1954-55 scoring title (his points total was eclipsed by teammate Bernie 'Boom Boom' Geoffrion), and led to the firing of Dick Irvin.

Manager Frank Selke believed that coach Dick Irvin had contributed to Richard's outbursts and decided to find a coach would could handle Richard. Irvin was offered a non-coaching job with the Canadiens, which he declined. In his place, a new coach was hired.

Hector 'Toe' Blake had joined the Montreal Canadiens as a player in 1935-36, and starred for the team for thirteen seasons. An integral member of the Punch Line with Elmer Lach and Maurice Richard, the trio was one of the most dominant lines of the era and with Blake as captain, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1944 and 1946.

During the 1947-48 season, Blake suffered a fractured ankle that ended his NHL career. After eight years coaching minor-league affiliates of the Canadiens, Toe Blake was selected as the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens in 1955. Blake was fluently bilingual, but more importantly, was able to control Maurice Richard's explosive temper.

Blake enjoyed immediate success with his inherited team. Not only did he lead the inherited Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup in 1956, but proceeded to do so five seasons in a row. The string came to an end in 1961, perhaps not coincidentally, the first season following the retirement of Maurice Richard.

Toe Blake coached the Canadiens for thirteen seasons in all, and was behind the bench for eight Stanley Cup championships, but no one will ever doubt that his influence, not only on the Canadiens but their star, Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard, played a significant role in the legendary string of five consecutive Stanley Cup victories between 1955-56 and 1959-60.

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