Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Clarence Campbell for the Montreal Canadiens Losing the 1955 Stanley Cup

March 13, 1955: The Boston Bruins beat the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2 at the Boston Garden. The Bruins' Hay Laycoe hits the Canadiens' Maurice Richard in the head with his stick. In retaliation, Richard, known as the Rocket, does the same.

No member of the officiating crew saw Laycoe hit Richard -- or so they said. Linesman Cliff Thompson sees Richard hit Laycoe, and tries to intervene. Thinking he's another Bruin player, Richard punches him.

That's one thing you can never do, in any sport: Hit an official. Boston police tried to arrest Richard, but Bruins general manager Lynn Patrick -- son of former New York Rangers head coach and GM Lester Patrick, and himself a Hall of Fame player -- tells the cops to let the Rocket go, because the NHL office will handle the situation.

March 15, 1955: With 3 games left in the regular season, NHL President Clarence Campbell announces that Richard is suspended, for the remainder of the regular season, 3 games -- 2 against the Detroit Red Wings, home and away, and 1 at home to the Rangers -- and for the entirety of the Playoffs.

This decision would cost Richard the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer, as his teammate, Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geoffrion, would finish with 37 assists to Richard's 36, and both had 38 goals, so Boom-Boom finished with 75 points to the Rocket's 74.

But there was a far bigger effect than that. Richard was considered the league's best player at the time. At the least, he was considered 2nd behind the Red Wings' Gordie Howe, also a right wing. (By position, not by politics.)
The most familiar photograph of Richard.
The eyes make him look a little crazy.

So Les Habitantes would be losing him when they were in a dogfight with the Wings for 1st place overall in the League, knowing full well that, a year earlier, the Wings had beaten them in the Finals, with Game 7 being at the Olympia Stadium in Detroit, won by an overtime goal by Tony Leswick. They did not want to cede home-ice advantage, especially in a potential Game 7, again.

This wasn't the first time that Campbell had sanctioned Richard. There was a great bias against French-Canadian -- both French-speaking and Catholic -- among the League's Anglophone and Protestant base in the rest of Canada, including the League office in Toronto, home of the Habs' greatest rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Leafs boss Conn Smythe despised Richard, and Campbell was often seen as Smythe's puppet.

And so, opposing players would go after Richard, knowing that the threat came not from what referees or Campbell would do to them, but what Richard would do to them. Like Howe, and later like Bobby Orr -- but not Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby -- Richard didn't need goons to protect him. He did his own fighting, and usually won, and relished beating the thugs at their own game. So they had reason to be afraid of Richard. They frequently fought that fear, and went after him anyway.

Campbell had fined Richard many times, for fighting back. At one point, Richard, like many other great athletes of the pre-television era, had a ghostwritten column in a local newspaper, in this case a French-language publication, Samedi-Dimanche (Saturday-Sunday). One time, he used the column to criticize Campbell's treatment, not just of himself, but of French players in general, giving them bigger fines and longer suspensions than their Anglophone counterparts. For this, Campbell forced Richard to post a $1,000 "good-behaviour bond."
Cartoon in a French-language newspaper:
Richard writes, "I will not call Mr. Campbell a dictator again."

This was the Original Six Era. Six teams, and six bosses: Smythe in Toronto, general manager Frank Selke in Montreal, team president William M. Jennings in New York, owner Weston Adams in Boston, James D. Norris in Detroit, and team president Bill Tobin of the Chicago Black Hawks. (The spelling was changed to one word, "Blackhawks," in 1986.) Actually, it was 5 bosses: Norris owned the Hawks' arena, the Chicago Stadium, and Tobin was essentially his puppet.

The thing was, the American teams' bosses knew that their cities had heavy Catholic populations, if not heavy French populations. And they knew that, at the time, Richard was the biggest drawing card in the sport. And so, while Selke may not have held much sway with Campbell, the others -- Jennings, Adams and Norris -- had, combined, every bit as much over him as Smythe did. And so, Campbell may have held back a bit on punishing Richard on previous occasions.

This, time, he couldn't: Richard hadn't just hit another player over the head with his stick, in self-defense from having the same thing done to him. That was understandable, if wrong. He had hit an official. That was inexcusable, even if he thought he was defending himself against another opposing player.

The media in English Canada, from St. John's to Vancouver, almost unanimously praised Campbell for suspending Richard for the rest of the season. French Canada was furious: They considered it not merely a personal insult, to Richard and his fellow Québécois, but also an attempt by Campbell to fix the chase for the Stanley Cup.
This is actually an American paper, the Providence Journal,
for whom the Bruins were "the home team."
Not an English Canadian paper.

The Rangers and Black Hawks were deep in 5th and 6th place, respectively, and weren't going to make the Playoffs. The Maple Leafs and Bruins were likely to finish 3rd and 4th (though not necessarily in that order), and one was going to play the Canadiens in the Semifinals, and the other was going to play the Red Wings. Neither Toronto nor Boston was considered likely to win.

So a Finals rematch of 1954 -- and 1952, when the Wings swept the Habs in 4 straight -- was considered likely. And whoever had home ice for Games 1, 2, 5 and 7 was likelier to win. And now, especially with Richard out for 2 games between the Habs and Wings, the Wings were likelier to get that home ice.

Letters and telegrams came in to Campbell's Toronto office. Angry ones. Including death threats.So Campbell made a terrible decision: He decided to attend the next Canadiens game, against the Wings at the Montreal Forum.

March 17, 1955: Tensions are high on this Thursday night. The French people of Montreal are angry. It's St. Patrick's Day, and the Irish people of the city, who also see the English establishment as their traditional enemies, are standing with their French bretheren against Campbell. Nevertheless, he attends. So does Richard, in a suit and coat, behind his team's bench. Campbell didn't own the Forum, so he couldn't ban Richard from the building.
Canadien fans Campbell in his seat --with his wife, no less -- and throw things at him, including vegetables and eggs. At the end of the 1st period, with the Wings leading 4-1, someone throws a tear gas bomb. It misses Campbell, but lands on the ice. The building is evacuated. Campbell declares unplayable conditions, and, since it's the Canadiens' responsibility to make the conditions playable, he declares the game forfeited to the Red Wings.

A mob of over 20,000 people are outside, on Rue Sainte-Catherine. They riot, smashing in windows at the Forum and nearby businesses. Nobody dies, but 37 people are hospitalized, 70 are arrested, and damage is estimated at $100,000 Canadian -- about $1 million U.S. in today's money.
The Forum, the next morning

The next day, Richard speaks (in French) on the radio, and asks the people to stop: "Do no more harm. Get behind the team in the Playoffs. I will take my punishment, and come back next year, and help the club and the younger players to win the Cup." They heed his call, and the night is quiet.
The night after that, the Canadiens beat the Rangers 4-2 at the Forum. But the following night, in Detroit, they lost to the Wings, 6-0. While it is not surprising that, without Richard, they only scored 2 goals against the Wings -- who did have Hall-of-Fame defensemen Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost -- it is shocking that they would allow 10 goals.

It was true that Richard was not regarded as a great defensive player, but that shouldn't have made it easier for the Wings' "Production Line" of Alex Delvecchio centering Howe and left wing Ted Lindsay to score so much.

But it could be that the Canadiens were simply disheartened by the whole process. They beat the Bruins 4 games to 1 in the Semifinals. But, sure enough, the home team won every game in the Finals: Detroit won 4-2 in Game 1 and 7-1 in Game 2; Montreal won 6-2 in Game 3 and 5-3 in Game 4; Detroit won 5-1 in Game 5; Montreal won 6-3 in Game 6; and, in Game 7 at the Olympia, the Wings won 3-1.
In 1954, with Richard, the Canadiens scored 12 goals in the 7 games, and won Games 2 and 5 in Detroit; but lost Games 3 and 4 in Montreal, before losing Game 7 in Detroit. In 1955, without Richard, the Canadiens scored more goals: 22, including 6 each in Games 3 and 6, and 5 in Game 4. But they only scored 1 in the key Game 7.

The following off-season, Selke fired head coach Dick Irvin Sr., a once-great player, whose son Dick Jr. would become a great broadcaster for the Canadiens. Selke hired Hector "Toe" Blake, who, with Richard and Elmer Lach, formed the Punch Line, winning the Cup in 1944 and 1946.

Selke brought up several young stars, including left wing Dickie Moore, and a promising center, Richard's much younger brother Henri, known due to his short stature as "the Pocket Rocket." The Rocket and Boom-Boom continued their assaults on NHL nets. Doug Harvey remained the greatest defenseman in the game, a two-way threat, Orr before there was Orr. Center Jean Béliveau and goaltender Jacques Plante came into their own.

The Canadiens won the next 5 Cups, something not done before or since. They avenged their defeat to the Wings in the 1956 Finals, and the Wings didn't win another cup until 1997. They beat Boston in the Finals in '57 and '58, and Toronto in '59 and '60.
Having won 8 Cups, including the last 5 in a row with his brother Henri, become the 1st player with 500 goals in NHL regular-season play, and not causing any more incidents to get him fined or suspended, Maurice Richard then retired. Until Orr and then Wayne Gretzky came along, he was the most popular player in hockey history. By his own admission -- "I wasn't a great player. I was a great scorer." -- Howe was a better all-around player, but the Rocket was more popular. Even English Canada accepted his greatness.
Near the end of his life, the Richard Trophy was created.
While the Ross Trophy goes to the NHL's leading scorer,
goals and assists combined, this one goes to the leading goalscorer.

Campbell, who had been named President of the NHL in 1946, remained in that office until 1977. Instances of his being unfair to French-Canadian players seemed to happen less often. Perhaps he and Richard both learned lessons from the whole sordid thing.


Still, there are people who blame Campbell for stealing the '55 Cup from the Habs. Which is rather petty, given that the Canadiens have won not just more Cups than any other team, 24, but far more: The Leafs are next with 13, then the Wings with 11, then the Bruins and Blackhawks with 6 each.

To put that in perspective: I grew up in Central Jersey, coming into awareness of hockey in the late 1970s, when the Rangers were good but not great, the Islanders becoming really good but not yet having won their 1st Cup, and the Devils were still in Denver as the Colorado Rockies; and, in the other direction, the Philadelphia Flyers had recently won back-to-back Cups.

To this day, the Flyers still have only those 2 Cups, the Devils 3, and the Rangers and Islanders 4 each. Put those Cups together, and that's 13 -- and, despite not having won any Cups since 1993, the Canadiens still have nearly twice as many as that.

Is it petty for Montreal fans to blame Campbell for their team losing the '55 Cup? Certainly. But is it justified?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Clarence Campbell for the Montreal Canadiens Losing the 1955 Stanley Cup

5. Maurice Richard. He lived until 2000, and had plenty of chances to watch ESPN and see misdeeds of players in all sports, including hockey, broadcast over and over and over again. But his misdeed of March 13, 1955 was only shown on TV once. There was no videotape to record it on, since it didn't yet exist. There is no surviving kinescope. There is no surviving film. There isn't even a surviving radio broadcast. Anybody who wasn't watching as it happened, either in the Forum or on television, has never seen the incident.

Had it been preserved, and everyone had seen what he did, there might have been a call for him to get an even longer suspension. After all, look at what happened to Ray Rice: In 2014, the star running back for the Baltimore Ravens was suspended 2 games when it was heard that he punched his girlfriend; when it was actually seen, his career was effectively declared over.

Which leads to...

4. Clarence Campbell. He didn't screw the Canadiens over. He had a job to do, and he did it. He was a fool for going to the Forum on the 17th, but he did the right thing in suspending Richard on the 15th. He had to show that even the biggest player in the game at the time is not above the law. If any one person is to blame for the Habs losing the Finals, it's the man who got suspended, not the man who suspended him.

To his credit, Richard did what he had to do thereafter: He told the fans, in French, to stop the rioting, that he would take his punishment, cheer the Canadiens on the rest of the way, and play next season in hopes of helping them win the Cup. And he helped them win 5 more Cups, and there was never another disciplinary incident with him.

So Campbell got through to him. As he should have.

3. Home Ice Advantage. The home team won every game of the Finals. Had the Habs won just 1 game in Detroit, they would have won the Cup.

2. The Montreal Canadiens. They nearly won the Cup without Richard anyway. It went the full 7 games, and they lost Games 1 and 7 by 2 goals each. They had their chances.

1. The Red Wings Were Better -- For the Moment. They could field an entire starting lineup of Hall-of-Famers: Terry Sawchuk in goal, Red Kelly and Marcel Pronovost on defense, and the "Production Line" of Alex Delvecchio (replacing original Production Line center Sid Abel in 1952) flanked by Gordie Howe on the right and Ted Lindsay on the left.
Left to right: Lindsay, Howe, Delvecchio

They had already won the Cup in 1950, 1952 (beating the Canadiens in the Finals) and 1954 (ditto). In those last 2 (out of 3) games between the teams in 1955, the Wings outscored the Habs 10-2. In the 1955 Finals, the Wings outscored the Canadiens 27-22. This, in spite of the Habs having Hall of Fame defensemen Doug Harvey, Butch Bouchard and Tom Johnson.

Richard might have helped the Canadiens score more than 1 goal in Games 2, 5 and 7; and more than 2 in Game 1. But he wasn't going to have made a defensive difference in Game 2, in which the Wings scored 7; or Game 5, in which they scored 5.

From 1950 to 1955, the Wings were 4-0 in Cup Finals; the Habs, 1-3, including 0-2 vs. the Wings. From 1956 to 1966, it would be Habs 7-0, Wings 0-5, including 0-2 vs. the Habs. From 1967 to 1994, the Wings never made the Finals at all, while the Habs went 10-2. From 1993 onward, though, the Habs haven't made the Finals again, while the Wings have gone 4-2.
Note Richard's Number 9 in the middle,
and the banners for his last 2 Cups in front of it.

But in 1954-55, the season in question, there is little doubt that the Wings were better than the Habs.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. Clarence Campbell deserved a lot of criticism, and going to the Canadiens-Red Wings game on March 17, 1955 was a dumb thing to do. But he was not the reason the Canadiens did not win the Stanley Cup that season. The Red Wings were. Even if Maurice Richard had been available to play in the Finals -- and, as he accepted, it was his own fault that he wasn't -- the Wings probably still would have won, as they had in '52 and '54.


Tommy Belhasen said...

Here's another irony: Maurice Richard became a symbol for Quebec independence--when Richard himself was against Quebec's becoming independence...

Richard was a good hockey player but, like some good sports players do at times, he sometimes let his temper get in the way (like when he struck the official--the NHL was right to suspend him for the season, IMO; if he hadn't been suspended for the whole season, it would have set a bad precedent)...

JayVice said...

Also, prior to the incident that led to being suspended to the rest of the season, he slapped a referee in a previous game. So, even Clarence Campbell took that incident into consideration and had to send a message.