The fact that the president of the National Hockey League is still alive in this year of coast-to-coast expansion is a tribute to an unknown fan who tossed a tear-gas bomb at the Montreal Forum on the night of St. Patrick's Day 1955. On that night Clarence Campbell, who is now completing his 22nd year as NHL president, came within half a minute of becoming the first hockey executive ever to be beaten to death by a crazed mob of hockey fans.
The scholarly Campbell was one of two protagonists in the melodrama that historians have since labeled "L'affaire Richard." The other was the great Montreal star, Maurice (Rocket) Richard. As choleric, artistic and Gallic as Campbell was stoic, stiff and Scots, Richard symbolized the oppressed French-Canadian spirit north of the border, and throughout his career he had been in trouble with NHL officialdom.
The Rocket was the supreme idol of every Quebecois who ever watched a hockey game, but somehow, despite his enormous accomplishments as a goalmaker, he had never managed to win a scoring championship. In 1955, with only a week remaining before the end of the regular schedule, he was leading the league in scoring, two points ahead of his teammate, Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion. The Montreal Canadiens themselves were in first place, two points ahead of the Detroit Red Wings, and Montrealers were preparing for a grand celebration.
The brooding Rocket was primed for an explosion on the night of March 13, as he prepared for a game with the Bruins at Boston Garden. His frustration increased during the game as Boston built up a 4-2 lead. The hands on the overhead clock moved on to within six minutes of the game's end, but the Canadiens still had a chance.
As Richard swooped over the Boston blue line for a play on the goal, he felt Bruin Defenseman Hal Laycoe's stick graze the left side of his head. Referee Frank Udvari immediately signaled a penalty and whistled Laycoe off the ice. Before Laycoe could enter the penalty box Richard rubbed his head and saw a smear of blood on his hand. He rushed Laycoe and belabored him about the face and shoulders with his stick. Laycoe survived the blows, dropped his gloves and stick and beckoned Richard to fight him barehanded.
At that point the fight likely would have simmered down but for the intervention of Linesman Cliff Thompson. A former Bruin defenseman, Thompson attempted to cool it entirely by grabbing Richard's stick away from him. Instead he precipitated an even worse outburst. Orbiting into another tantrum, the Rocket picked up a loose stick lying on the ice and hacked away at Laycoe until the stick splintered.
Referee Udvari tossed Richard out of the game, and although an automatic $100 fine was levied against him, everyone in the hockey world knew that an additional, much stiffer, penalty would follow. The question was: Would Campbell punish Richard with a heavy fine or would he finally take an extreme position and suspend him during the final week of the season?
Campbell ordered a special hearing in his Montreal office on March 16. It lasted 3½ hours. Campbell heard accounts from Boston Coach Lynn Patrick, Referee-in-chief Carl Voss, Linesman Sammy Babcock, Udvari, Thompson, Richard and Laycoe. The Montreal defense rested on a claim that Richard had been too stunned by the head blow to comprehend what he was doing.
A lawyer, Rhodes scholar and former referee, Campbell mulled over his notes for more than an hour and then began writing his decision. "I had a hard time making up my mind," he said, but by 4 o'clock he had summoned reporters and announced his sentence: "Richard is suspended from playing in the remaining league and playoff games."
Within minutes of the announcement Montreal's hockey fans—which is just another way of saying Montreal's citizens—were reacting in anger, bitterness and disbelief. One man phoned the NHL office and told the president's secretary, Miss Phyllis King, that he was an undertaker. "Tell Campbell," he said, "that he'll be needing me in a few days."
By the afternoon of March 17 a growing battalion was pacing the sidewalks around the ancient Montreal Forum, where the Canadiens were scheduled to play the Detroit Red Wings that night. VIVE RICHARD and A BAS CAMPBELL proclaimed the signs.
Suspense was heightened by uncertainty over Campbell's personal plans. Nobody really expected the president to attend the game, but then again he had never declared that he wouldn't show up. "If he does turn up," warned a police inspector at the No. 10 station near the Forum, "there'll be trouble."
Late in the afternoon Campbell declared that he had no intention of missing the game. The tall, graying president explained his position quietly and with apparent logic. "I'm a season ticket-holder," he said, "and a regular attendant, and I have a right to go. I feel that the police can protect me. I haven't consulted them, and they haven't advised me not to attend."
Mayor Jean Drapeau later challenged Campbell's version. The mayor insisted that a police official suggested that Campbell remain home, but when Campbell insisted upon going to the game the officer urged him to drive his car to a garage two blocks east of the Forum. Unlike Campbell, Maurice Richard was hesitant about making an appearance, but when his wife said she wanted to see the game the Rocket felt obliged to go along with her.
The opening face-off was scheduled for 8:30 p.m., and by that time more than 600 militant demonstrators had gathered on St. Catherine Street West, in front of the Forum, and on Atwater and Closse Streets, which bound the side entrances. Unobtrusively, the Rocket pushed his way through the crowd and camped in a seat near the goal judge's chair at the end of the rink. Campbell, who had dined at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association with his secretary and her sister, was delayed by the meal and arrived at the garage later than he had anticipated.
Just what happened in the following critical moments is uncertain. Officials of the Forum insist that they had instructed Campbell's party to wait until the police arrived to escort them to the rink. But it was Campbell's impression that the officials meant the trio to proceed and enter by the back door. In any case, the police in front of the Forum had their hands full containing the crowd that was growing increasingly more belligerent.
Campbell found a policeman and asked to be escorted to his seat. The constable summoned a police inspector, who escorted the Campbell party to the referee's room, where Campbell hung his coat. He then walked to his box at the south end of the rink with the two women, and they took their seats.
The fans already were unhappy about the game itself. Detroit had taken a 2-1 lead before Campbell arrived, and the Canadiens appeared disorganized without the Rocket. As soon as Campbell took his seat a thunderous roar cascaded off the roof of the Forum: "Va-t'en, Va-t'en!" The more the fans chanted the worse the Canadiens performed. By the end of the first period the local heroes were behind 4-1 and it was obvious that Campbell was in trouble.
As the intermission approached a torrent of debris poured down upon the NHL president and his guests. Miss King's white hat was knocked off her head by a tossed overshoe. Assorted fruit splattered Campbell's dark-green fedora. Since most of the missiles were flying wide of their target, an obliging fan rose six seats behind Campbell to serve as a spotter and direct the fire of those above him.
When a soda-pop bottle struck a woman nearby, several fans implored Campbell to leave, but the implacable president remained seated and even managed to force a smile. "I tried to avoid doing anything that would provoke the crowd," he said later. But his slightest movement was enough to spur an attack. A youngster swooped down from the aisle above and pretended to shake hands with Campbell. As the president reached forward, the youth hurled several punches in Campbell's face. The police chased the boy and grabbed him.
At long last the siren wailed, heralding the end of the first period. Normally, Campbell would have returned to the referee's room, but his time he remained seated, on the premise that it would be less provocative to the crowd. It was a mistaken premise. Soon dozens of fans from the bleachers were charging toward Campbell's unprotected seat, while the president remained exposed and unguarded by either constables or ushers. Normally a police guard would have surrounded him. but the demonstration at the barricades outside the Forum had become so threatening that all available cops had rushed down to guard the doors.
At 9:11 p.m. Campbell's party was completely encircled by a mob that observers contend was bent on killing the president. "The ill feeling," reported Maclean's Magazine, "was growing more intense by the second and there was nobody to help him. Looking around at the sea of hate-filled faces, Miss King had the feeling that they were closing in for the kill."
Suddenly an explosion shook the vast arena, and thick fumes curled their way roofward from an aisle at the lip of the ice surface. A tear-gas bomb had landed 25 feet from Campbell, sending a surge of panic among the spectators. The cry of "fire" was heard in every section of the Forum as onlookers began choking and rubbing their eyes and throats.
That a full-scale disaster didn't develop can be attributed to the police and firemen, who somehow managed to open up all exits and move the panicked crowd into the streets. Campbell seized Miss King by the arm. "Let's get out of here," he said, and they threaded their way to the first-aid room, where Campbell learned that Fire Commissioner Armand Paré had refused to permit the game to continue.
As the frightened spectators poured from the Forum to the fresh air outside, they were greeted by a mob of about 600, mainly composed of young adults and teen-agers. Some of the mob rushed at the emerging fans, removing their rubbers to throw them at the police. Others hurled chunks of ice at the Forum windows, and still others found bricks and concrete chips to throw at the Forum wall. "It seemed." said Montreal General Manager Frank Selke, "as if an angry sky had suddenly fallen on the city."
Police estimated that the crowd had swollen to at least 10,000 by 11 p.m., when they called for reinforcements. Like soldiers in a besieged fortress, Forum employees sought cover where they could find it. Wrestling impresario Eddie Quinn thought he was safe in his office on the cast side of the building until a rock crashed through his window.
Throughout it all, Clarence Campbell the stoic Scot, maintained his poise as he waited in the first-aid room. "I was never seriously afraid of being lynched," he insisted. "As a referee I learned something about mobs. They're cowards."
By 11:30 p.m. the noise had abated. A police inspector led Campbell and Miss King to a car in the back of the Forum and drove them home. Unaware that Campbell had escaped, the mob continued to chant for his skin at the front of the building until they realized that he might have eluded them. The sudden realization infuriated the rioters even more, and hundreds embarked on fresh destruction. By early morning, when the rioters finally had dispersed, the total loss was estimated at $100,000.
When Campbell awakened the morning of March 18 he heard rumors on the radio that he had resigned. He promptly reported to his office at 8:30 a.m. to deny them. He also denounced Mayor Jean Drapeau, who said the riots occurred because of "provocation caused by Campbell's presence." The president replied, "Does he think I should have yielded to the intimidation of a bunch of hoodlums?"
In the afternoon Richard drove down to the Forum, where he delivered a public address in French to the press, radio and television pleading for law and order. "So that no further harm will be done," he said, "I would like to ask everyone to get behind the team and help the boys win from the Rangers and Detroit."
It was too late. Although they eventually defeated the Rangers on March 19, the Canadiens lost the final game to Detroit on the 20th and finished in second place. Worse still, Richard's young teammate, Boom Boom Geoffrion, won the league scoring championship with the Rocket playing second fiddle again. Without Richard to lead them, the Canadiens were eliminated by the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals.
But L'affaire Richard had two positive results. Proceeds from the forfeited game were donated to Paul Meger, a former Montreal forward who had been suffering from a serious head injury. And Clarence Campbell married Phyllis King.