If Howie Morenz was the NHL’s first superstar, then it was Maurice Richard who became the NHL’s first legend. Few players, if any had shown the scoring prowess that Richard displayed during his career. Even today, Richard is often regarded as one among the greatest goalscorers of all-time. Richard, one of the more fiery players ever to play in the NHL, was born in Montreal in 1921.
Richard played with the Montreal Sr. Canadiens just prior to joining the NHL and the big club in the NHL’s general manager, Dick Irvin, was looking for a player to bring the Canadiens back to their former glory. Richard first played for the NHL’s Canadiens in the 1942-43 season, but only for 16 games. Still, the 21-year old registered 11 points in those games and began to excite fans. After that season, Richard wasted little time becoming a star. In the 1943-44 season, the Canadiens had one of the most dominant seasons of all-time, and Richard exploded for 32 goals in just 46 games, tying him with Syd Howe for 6th in the NHL. The Canadiens topped it off and Richard won the first of what would be many Stanley Cup rings. Richard was named to the Second All-Star team as the end of the season.
As dominant as the Canadiens were in the 1943-44 season, it was the 1944-45 season that showed the individual prowess of their players. The Punch line, which had first been put together the season prior dominated the NHL and Richard, with many great passes from linemate Elmer Lach, made hockey history. The Rocket had the season many players can only dream of, scoring at an incredible rate. In December of 1944, he became the first NHL player to score 8 points in a game. Richard finished the season with 50 goals, the first player in NHL history to reach that mark. Most amazingly of all, Richard did it in a time when seasons were only 50 games long, meaning he scored at a goal-per-game.
The previous record was set by Joe Malone all the way back in the first NHL season when he scored 44 goals in 20 games in a very different NHL. Multiple players had broken the 40-goal mark since then, but no one had hit 40 goals since the 1929-30 season, with Max Bentley being the closest at 38 goals in 1943-44. Amazingly, Richard didn’t win the Hart trophy, which was won by his teammate, Elmer Lach, who led the league in points thank to his numerous assists on Richard’s goals. However, Richard was voted to be on the First All-Star Team.
The NHL itself experienced a significant dip in offense in the 1945-46 season, but Richard took a harder drop than most, scoring just 27 goals in 50 games, almost half the rate of the season prior. However, Richard still finished 4th in goals and was only really challenged by Bill Mosienko among right wingers, whom Richard beat out for the spot on the First All-Star Team. Richard snapped back to life in the playoffs, leading the NHL with 7 goals in 9 games as his Canadiens won another Cup. Richard returned to his explosive ways in the 1946-47 season, again leading the NHL with 45 goals, breaking the 40 goal mark that he still was the only one to break from 1930 onwards. Richard not only led the league in goals with 45, but dominated the league. Below him in second and third were Roy Conacher and Bobby Bauer way down at 30 goals, a far cry from Richard’s 45. As per the usual, Richard finished with many more goals than assists and ended up with 71 points in 60 games, one less point than Max Bentley, who led the league. Richard would still take home his first Hart trophy and secure a spot on the First All-Star team for a third consecutive year.
Richard’s 1947-48 season wasn’t as dominant, but was still a strong year, and Richard finished with 28 goals in 53 games, good for third in the NHL. Richard had a rough 1948-49 season, scoring just 20 goals in 59 games and tallying 38 points. Like in the past however, Richard bounced back with a strong resurgent season, leading the NHL in goals for the third season with 43 goals in the NHL’s new 70-game format. Even at this point, no player other than Richard had surpassed 40 goals and Richard had passed the mark three times in his career. Richard finished 4th in the NHL with 65 points and was voted to the First All-Star team for the 6th consecutive season.
Richard had another strong season in 1950-51, but wasn’t placed on the First All-Star team because another star right winger had arisen. The legendary Gordie Howe had an incredible season, becoming the second player after Richard to hit the 40-goal mark after the 1929-30 season. Richard himself scored 42 goals, one behind Howe and totalled 66 points in 65 games. Richard had a good, but shortened 1951-52 season. In the 1952 playoffs, Richard scored a game-winning goal against the Boston Bruins after being knocked unconscious shortly prior to the goal. Richard’s drive and determination was immortalized in the minds of fans for moments such as these in Richard’s career.
As Richard entered his 30s, he remained as intense and aggressive as ever, leading the NHL in PIM with 112 in the 1952-53 season. Partway through the season, Richard passed Nels Stewart with his 325th goal to become the all-time NHL goal leader. Richard’s 28 goals were good for 4th in the NHL, but the abnormality were his 33 assists, which helped propel him to 61 points, good for third in the league. At the end of the 1952-53 season, Richard helped the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup, the third of his career. The Richard-Howe debate was somewhat restored in the 1953-54 season, as Richard rocketed back up to the league lead with 37 goals and finished below only Howe in points with 67 points.
Richard played even better in the 1954-55 season, leading the NHL in goals for the fifth time in his career with 38 goals and setting a personal best in both assists with 36 and points with 74. However, this time, Richard was beat out by only his teammate, Bernie Geoffrion, who had 75 points himself, though it’s to be noted that Richard did miss three games, playing in only 67 games. With his strong season, Richard grabbed back the honour of being on the First All-Star Team. The reason Richard missed those three games was due to a legendary moment in March of 1955. Richard lost his temper like so many times before and attacked Hal Lycoe. Richard continued to lose control and punched a referee in the face, prompting Clarence Campbell to suspend Richard for the rest of the season and the entirety of the playoffs. Montreal fans would not take the suspension of their star lightly and began by pelting Campbell with eggs at the following game. The fans became so unruly that the Canadiens had to forfeit the game. Shortly afterwards a riot ensued and it became known as the Richard Riot, causing massive amounts of damage.
As Richard entered the twilight years of his mid-30s, the Canadiens began to become an extremely strong team, with Richard still helping to lead the way. Richard tied for second in goals with 38 in the 1955-56 season as his Canadiens won another Stanley Cup, the first of many consecutive ones. Richard was named the captain of the Canadiens in time for the 1956-57 season, and continued to lead the way with 33 goals, again good for 2nd in the NHL. Richard would captain the Canadiens to a second Cup win at the end of the season. Richard had a strong, but short season in 1957-58. Near the beginning of the season, Richard cemented his legacy by scoring the 500th goal of his career, the first NHL player to do so. Richard’s performance would continue to degrade into the late 50s, though it always remained respectable. Richard’s inspiring leadership would help the Canadiens take their streak of Cup victories all the way to five in 1960, at which point Richard would finally retired at the age of 38.
Richard scored more goals than any other player in the entire decade of the 1940s, an impressive feat considering that he didn’t even start his career until a few years into that decade. He was voted onto an All-Star Team for 14 consecutive seasons, being on the First All-Star Team for eight of those seasons. During Richard’s last NHL season, his career point total was surpassed by Howe, but Richard’s final goal total of 544 goals was still nearly 100 goals greater than Howe’s total. Richard’s goal record was beaten by Howe in 1963, but beyond Howe, no player came close to their totals until the high scoring 1970s.
The Montreal Canadiens retired Richard’s No. 9 in 1960 and later donated the Rocket Richard Trophy in 1999 to be awarded to the NHL’s leading goal scorer. Richard was inducted into the Hockey of Fame in 1961, after the NHL waived their usual mandatory 3-year waiting period. Richard remained a part of Quebec’s culture and environment for years to come and his No. 9 became a popular number for many star player to follow him.