It’s March 13th, 1955 at the Boston Garden arena in Massachusetts.
Inside, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins are nearing the end of a heated game of ice hockey. The Canadiens pass the puck from player to player. The team’s star athlete, Maurice Richard, races across the ice toward the net. But Bruins defender Hal Laycoe intercepts him, raises his stick… and strikes Maurice in the head.
Recovering from the blow, a furious Maurice skates straight up to Hal, lunges, and then slashes him across the face, before breaking his stick over Hal’s back with such a force that it splinters. One of his teammates tries to intervene, but Maurice can’t be restrained.
With a hook to the jaw, he knocks out his interfering teammate and then turns his fury back on Hal. As the men brawl, officials rush to tear them apart. But Maurice keeps on punching, until, finally, he is torn away and forced to leave the ice, bloody and in deep trouble.
By the mid-20th century, Maurice Richard is one of Montreal’s greatest homegrown heroes. In a country where hockey is said to transcend even religion, Maurice, a French-Canadian, claims legendary status. For much of Quebec’s French-speaking population, Maurice is more than an athlete to root for; he’s an inspiration. And when the icon's brawl in Boston earns him a season-long suspension, his punishment will be deemed more than just an excessive ruling. For many French-Canadians, it will feel like an affront, awakening long-held feelings of resentment toward Canada’s English-speaking majority. These decades-old frustrations will come to a head in a night of violence when the people of Montreal take to the streets to vent their anger in what will come to be known as the Richard Riot on March 17th, 1955.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is March 17th, 1955: Montreal’s Hockey Riot.
Act One: Richard’s Suspension Angers Montreal
It’s the afternoon of March 16th, 1955 in downtown Montreal, three days after Maurice Richard’s on-ice fight.
Reporters and cameras flood the steps of the office building where the National Hockey League’s disciplinary hearing is about to take place. As NHL President Clarence Campbell steps out of his car, journalists surge toward him with questions and calls for comment. Everyone wants to know what fate will befall Montréal’s star player Maurice Richard. But Clarence keeps his eyes forward, and his mouth shut, as he makes his way inside.
Behind the closed doors of a meeting room, Clarence takes his place at a table and greets the hockey players and officials already waiting for him. Among those present are several Canadien and Bruins players who witnessed the fight, along with the match’s referee and the Bruins manager. But the wounded faces of Maurice Richard and Bruins player Hal Laycoe stand out amongst their peers.
Clarence shakes his head at their assortment of stitches and bandages. This isn’t the first time Maurice in particular has been the source of trouble. Just two months ago, Clarence fined Maurice for slapping another player with his glove. That was just one incident. As it stands, Maurice is the most-fined player in the entire league — a fact that has contributed to bad blood between Clarence and Maurice.
The two men have a long and acrimonious history. In the nine years that Clarence has been NHL president, Maurice has often criticized him and his leadership. He has gone even so far as to publicly accusing the Anglo-Canadian Clarence of discriminating against the league’s French-Canadian players. But clearly, Clarence’s past punishments haven’t been enough to dissuade Maurice from further violence.
The room crackles with tension as Clarence turns toward Maurice. With a steely edge, Clarence orders the player to explain himself. But Maurice offers little in the way of an explanation. He claims he doesn’t remember what happened, before falling silent. For the next three and a half hours, Clarence and the other men in the room debate what happened on the ice. But for much of it Maurice remains silent, as the meeting is conducted in English, his second language.
As evening falls, Clarence finally dismisses the room. Then, in a 1,200-word statement, he announces his final verdict: Hal Laycoe will face no punishment, but Maurice Richard will be suspended for the rest of the season and from the playoffs.
The decision throws Montreal into a frenzy. Newspapers are flooded with messages from angry fans. Radio stations receive call after call complaining about Clarence’s decision. NHL headquarters fields death threats. One French-language paper even publishes a cartoon of Clarence’s head on a platter.
For many French Canadians, Maurice’s punishment feels personal. Many of the city’s hockey fans feel that the punitive measure is the unjust result of a longstanding bias against the NHL’s French-speaking players. And to many French-speaking Canadians, the issue runs deeper than hockey. It gets to the core of a prejudice within Canadian society one in which the French-speaking minority feels like second-class citizens. To them, Maurice’s harsh punishment is a reflection of their own daily struggles living in a nation dominated by the English-speaking majority.
But however understandable, the uproar alarms Montreal’s city officials. Many grow concerned that the anger over Maurice’s suspension could boil over.
And making matters worse, NHL president Clarence Campbell announces that he will attend the Canadiens home game the following day, but Montreal’s police warn Clarence to stay away fearing his presence will further escalate tensions. But Clarence doesn't take their concerns seriously. He considers it his duty as NHL President to attend matches, and he refuses to shirk that responsibility or look like a coward hiding from angry fans.
So as the evening of March 17th falls, Clarence prepares to leave the city’s NHL office, and head to the Forum, the longtime home of the Canadiens. But as he heads out his office door, the ring of his telephone stops him. With a sigh, he goes back to his desk and answers the phone. On the other end of the line is the Mayor of Montreal. But Clarence just rolls his eyes as the mayor implores him to understand the severity of the city’s anger. The mayor pleads for Clarence to stay away from the Forum. But Clarence ignores the mayor’s wishes. When he hangs up, he strides right out of his office, and heads to the arena.
There, Clarence will inflame the controversy around Maurice’s suspension. His unapologetic appearance will turn heads and attract the ire of thousands of angry residents, inside and outside the Forum. Before the end of the night, the arena will descend into a chaos that will spill over into Montreal’s streets, where an angry mob will make their frustrations heard and wreak havoc on the city.
Act Two: The Richard Riot Begins
It’s March 17th, 1955 at the Montreal Forum, the day after NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended Maurice Richard.
When Clarence arrives at the arena, an angry horde of protesters is already waiting for him outside. Before he exits his car, Clarence steels himself for the barrage of insults he knows is waiting for him. Once he feels prepared, he opens the door and steps out into the frenzy.
Immediately, the crowd turns on him, shouting rebukes and waving signs denouncing Maurice’s suspension. Police officers try to push back the crowd as Clarence hurries inside the stadium. But their angry shouts still ring loud in Clarence’s ears. He tries to brush off the jeers as he makes his way toward his normal aisle seat in a corner of the arena. But spectators quickly clock his arrival, and before too long, it becomes clear to Clarence that the night’s troubles are only just beginning.
All around the stands, Clarence sees the sullen and angry faces of Canadien supporters. It feels like they are watching him more than the game unfolding on the rink.
Thousands of spectators stand up, hurl insults, and then object at the man who suspended Montreal’s favorite player. Peanuts, tomatoes, crumpled newspapers, old shoes, an orange, and even a hard-boiled egg, all sail through the air and strike Clarence. But the NHL president refuses to let this barrage shake him. To the crowd’s chagrin, he remains firmly in his seat and even flashes a wry grin.
Police officers assigned to the arena do their best to keep the angry spectators at bay. But they are unable to keep everyone away. One fan approaches Clarence and smashes a tomato on his chest. As two policemen escort the assailant away, another makes it through security and walks up to Clarence, with a smile on his face and his hand outstretched.
Clarence hesitates because he doesn’t recognize the man. But then he decides to extend his own hand then accept the greeting. But as Clarence reaches out, the man lifts his hand and slaps him instead. Clarence reels back as nearby officers drag the assailant away before he can strike Clarence again.
But it doesn't matter because he is soon replaced. Clarence barely has time to recover before he's startled by a large bang. The tear gas canister explodes nearby. Smoke fills his corner of the arena, burning Clarence's throat and eyes, and those of everyone near him. As people run for the exits, Clarence flees down the stairs, finding refuge in the trainer’s clinic beneath the stands.
With the stadium in full chaos, Montreals’ fire chief halts the game. Clarence opts to declare a forfeit in the visiting team's favor - the first time the NHL has ever issued such a ruling. Already angered by Maurice’s suspension, the forfeit only fuels the ire of Canadiens fans.
As the Forum’s 15,000-person crowd leaves the arena, many decide to join the mass of protestors on the streets outside. And soon, the demonstrations descend into mayhem. One group of men try to break back into the Forum. Another throws bricks and chunks of ice at the arena’s large windows. Chants of “Kill Campbell!” ripple throughout the crowd.
Media coverage of the havoc causes, even more, to join in the action. And within a few hours, the crowd is over 10,000 strong. As the riled-up mob moves through the streets, they bring destruction to everywhere they pass. They topple road signs, smash car windows, tip over telephone booths, and light newspaper kiosks on fire. As they enter Montreal’s shopping district, many shatter store windows and loot whatever they can carry. Others take their anger out with their fists on unlucky passersby. Finally, around 3 in the morning, their ire dies down and the crowd eventually disperses.
The Richard Riot, as this incident will come to be known, remains one of the worst hockey-related episodes of violence in history. By the end of the night, 12 policemen and 25 civilians will be injured. Damage estimates will total $100,000, the equivalent of almost $1.1 million today. And city officials will fear that the destruction is just beginning. Though a hundred protesters will be arrested, the anger of the mob will remain unextinguished, leading the government to reach out to the only person they think can end the chaos.
Act Three: Richard Calls For Calm
It’s the evening of March 18th, 1955, the day after the Richard Riot.
Inside the Montreal Forum, Maurice Richard sits at a table surrounded by microphones and reporters eager to record his first statement on the recent riot.
Last night, Montreal’s officials watched helplessly as protestors left whole blocks of the city in shambles. Fearing tonight will see a repeat of the destruction, authorities appealed to the man at the center of the unrest: Maurice Richard.
Since the riot broke out, Maurice has been following the story on his radio at home. News of the violence troubled the Canediens player. Even though he doesn’t agree with the severity of his punishment, he doesn’t want it to tear his city apart. And he was reluctant to make a statement for fear that it would only inflame the conflict. But, this afternoon, Maurice decided he had to speak out. Now he’s ready to appear on the radio and address the people of Montreal directly.
He clears his throat and nervously tugs at his tie. He takes a moment to make sure he has his words straight, before leaning into the microphones and calling an end to the violence. Maurice’s words have their desired effect. As night falls, no signs of another riot emerge. No windows are broken, no blows are exchanged. City officials rejoice at the calm.
But the tensions underlying the previous night’s riot are far from gone. Instead, the Richard Riot is a portend of upheaval to come. Many will cite the uproar as one of the first explosions of French-Canadian nationalism that continues to shape Canada even today. In the coming years, Quebec will undergo rapid political and social change as it fights to empower French-Canadians and redefine the role of French-speaking society in Canada. This shift will come to be known as the Quiet Revolution — an unlikely name for something many believe was catalyzed by the raucous Richard Riot that shook Montreal on March 17th, 1955.
Next on History Daily. March 20th, 1942. During World War II, US General Douglas MacArthur escapes the Japanese-occupied Philippines and makes his famous vow to return.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Muhammad Shahzaib.
Sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.