To measure his place in the history of hockey and French-speaking Canada, you would have to imagine a combination of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
Richard, who died at 78 of complications from abdominal cancer, always identified himself as "only a hockey player" and was uncomfortable with politics. But like Ruth and Robinson, his statistics and social import transcended sports.
In 1944-45, Richard scored 50 goals in a 50-game season when 1-0 and 2-1 games were commonplace. His career total of 544 goals surpassed Nels Stewart's record by 219. His Canadiens won eight Stanley Cups, five in his final five seasons. And in a Canada then dominated by the English-speaking population and its traditions, Richard, born in a Montreal slum, sparked a revolution of French pride.
There are those in Montreal today who will tell you the movement toward Quebec separatism began on the night in 1955 when Richard's suspension by NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell produced a frightening riot on St. Catherine Street.
"He was just an icon in Montreal, in Quebec," said Dickie Moore, a former teammate. "People just worshiped him. So did we all."
Each one of Richard's goals between 1943 and 1960 was a fist in the air for French Canadians, then largely shut out of political power. And Richard didn't score them meekly. He played with a feverish intensity that those who witnessed it never forgot. This was no smiling, gracious Wayne Gretzky, no powerful but guileless Gordie Howe. This was a superstar with a bad attitude.
"Richard always had that mean look on, every game we played," Howe recalled. "He was 100 percent hockey. He could hate with the best of them. But with all respect, he set the standards to chase."
Wearing his famous No. 9, Richard would streak up ice with a gaze that dared interference. "The menace was implicit in him," wrote Red Fisher, the Montreal columnist.
Richard's speed and explosiveness earned him his nickname. His naked passion and goal-scoring ability earned him his reputation.
"There was nothing more fascinating I've ever seen in this sport than to see Maurice Richard between the blue line and the goal," said Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who used to risk expulsion from his Quebec boarding school by listening to Canadiens games on a forbidden radio.
Whenever opponents and spectators recall Richard, they point to his burning eyes, as much a part of his legend as Ruth's tiny footsteps or Michael Jordan's protruding tongue. "They were coal black," Fisher said, "wet and shining with the intensity he brought to every game."
"When he is worked up," said Frank Selke, the Canadiens' general manager when Richard played for them, "his eyes glow like headlights. It's not a glow but a piercing intensity. He is a frightening sight."
While he left his mark on the NHL with eight first-team all-star selections, five scoring titles, and the 1947 most-valuable-player trophy, Richard also stamped his imprint on Canadian history in March 1955.
Always temperamental - "Sometimes, I just cannot control myself," he said - Richard finally snapped in Boston on March 15, striking the Bruins' Hal Laycoe with a stick and punching linesman Cliff Thompson.
Campbell, the urbane, tweedy, very English commissioner whom Richard had called anti-French and a dictator in earlier newspaper columns, suspended the Canadiens star for the last three regular-season games and the entire playoffs. He further outraged Montreal fans by announcing that he would attend the Canadiens' game against Detroit the following night at the Forum.
"He was obstinate," Fisher said. "He insisted on coming even though the mayor of the city had asked him not to."
On the night of St. Patrick's Day at the sold-out Forum, Campbell was pelted with fruit and programs. One spectator feigned shaking the commissioner's hand, then punched him in the mouth. When another heaved a tear-gas bomb toward Campbell, Montreal's fire marshal vacated the arena, and the game was forfeited to Detroit.
Incensed fans gathered outside the building. By dawn, they had burned trolleys and cars, looted dozens of downtown businesses, and caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. At least one bullet was fired into the Forum. Sixty-two people were arrested in what came to be known as "the Richard Riot."
"The hate and ugliness in that crowd was frightening," Fisher recalled.
The next night, Richard went on national TV and, in English and French, appealed for calm.
"My dear friends," he began, "because I always try so hard and had my troubles at Boston, I was suspended. . . . I will take my punishment and come back even stronger next year."
The rioting ceased, but the pent-up anger festered against English domination of the French Canadians' province and country. The separatist movement blossomed in Quebec, though Richard declined many requests to enter politics. Still, he remained a revered figure among the Quebecois.
"Sometimes, I felt sorry for the man," Howe said. "He must have gotten a standing ovation when he went shopping."
Today, the citizens of Montreal will line up for blocks outside the Molson Centre to view the body of Richard. A tent, open 24 hours a day, has been erected outside the arena. Streams of Montrealers have passed through, signing their names to condolence books and recalling Richard.
Tomorrow, a massive funeral procession is expected to begin at the site of the old Forum - Atwater Avenue and St. Catherine Street - and wend its way to the state ceremony at the ornate Notre Dame Basilica in Old Montreal. A great throng will watch the funeral on a giant outdoor TV screen at Place D'Armes, a downtown square.
Already, mournful fans have made a shrine of the statue of Richard that stands outside an arena bearing his name on the city's east side, not far from the old Bordeaux Jail, in whose shadow Richard was born in 1921.
Mounds of flowers obscure its base. A Quebec flag - its fleur-de-lis flapping defiantly in the wind - has been draped around his neck like a cape. And handwritten notes that speak to the adoration this gifted, feisty hockey star evoked have been affixed to the bronze likeness.
"The angels are lucky," read one attached to its left arm. "They have you with them for eternity. We have the memory of a great man: You, Maurice Rocket Richard. Thank you."
Frank Fitzpatrick's e-mail address is email@example.com