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Workers Vanguard No. 1114

30 June 2017

Honor Maurice “Rocket” Richard

Anti-Québécois Chauvinism in the NHL

We reprint the following article from Spartacist Canada No. 191 (Spring/Summer 2017), newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste.

On 11 March 1996, the Montreal Canadiens closed the historic Montreal Forum with a postgame ceremony honouring the team’s 22 “living legends.” One by one they strolled onto the carpet-covered ice wearing their jerseys. When number 9 finally came into view, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation which would last for eight minutes. Thirty seconds into this mass show of affection for Maurice “Rocket” Richard, francophone public address announcer Richard Garneau revelled, “Il est perçu comme le symbole de tout un peuple qui se reconnaît dans ses exploits et sa personnalité.” (“He is seen as the symbol of an entire people that recognizes itself in his exploits and in his personality.”) Breaking with custom, Garneau’s anglophone counterpart failed to translate these remarks.

Forty-one years earlier, that recognition famously exploded on the streets of Montreal in the “Richard Riot.” On 17 March 1955, following the Rocket’s suspension by National Hockey League president Clarence Campbell for the season’s three remaining games and the entire playoffs (costing Richard the scoring title and the Canadiens a championship), thousands of protesters gathered outside the Forum during a game against the Detroit Red Wings. Inside, fans pelted Campbell with tomatoes and eggs. One set off a tear gas bomb. Campbell declared the game forfeited and the fire chief ordered the Forum emptied, pouring thousands more into the streets, where young protesters set cars on fire, rocked streetcars and destroyed mailboxes, newspaper stands and windows. Participants held picket signs declaring “Long live Richard” and “We want Richard.” The cops arrested about 100 protesters, mostly young, working-class francophones.

Support extended throughout Quebec, and then some. Over 3,500 in the Saguenay region signed a 160-foot-long telegram of support. In response to a gathering of Richard’s supporters at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, the Soviets expressed “sympathy” with their guests and “blamed the suspension on the English and the Americans.” Journalist André Laurendeau observed that the Montreal protest “was not driven only by sporting rivalry or by a sense of the injustice committed against its idol. It was a people frustrated, protesting against its fate.”

From its inception in 1909, Le Club de Hockey Canadien was designed as a team for French-speaking hockey fans, if not necessarily French-owned or managed. It was intended to bolster National Hockey Association profits by stoking a national rivalry with the anglophone Montreal Wanderers (later Maroons). Known as the Habs (short for “habitants,” as the early French settlers of Quebec were known), the Canadiens would become a founding member of the NHL in 1917.

This was French Canada’s team—and throughout the 1940s and ’50s Richard was the Canadiens. In his classic children’s story The Hockey Sweater, Roch Carrier, who also wrote a biography of Richard, recalled his hockey-playing youth in Ste‑Justine: “On the ice...we were five Maurice Richards against five other Maurice Richards,” all wearing Canadiens uniforms with “the famous number 9 on our backs.”

A working-class, devout Catholic francophone from Montreal’s east end, Richard rose to become not just the best, but the most electric player of his generation: the first 50-goal scorer (in a 50-game season, not the 82 of today), first to score 500 goals and NHL career leader in goals when forced to retire in 1960. Richard led the Canadiens to eight Stanley Cups and played in 14 all-star games. It wasn’t just the goals scored, but how and when: often bloodied; speeding toward the goal, head down and dark eyes glaring; one arm fending off a grabbing defender, controlling the puck with the other and then unleashing a shot on goal from his knees, falling backward, sideways or forward. After being knocked unconscious in a 1952 playoff game against the Boston Bruins, Richard returned to the ice to net the winning goal.

As Richard, his teammates and millions of Québécois were keenly aware, this was all done with a deck ostentatiously stacked against him: the Anglo-chauvinist thugs who hauled Richard down onto the ice or slashed him across the ankle; the taunts of “French pea soup,” “dirty French bastard,” “speak white”; and the referees, linesmen and league officials who turned a blind eye and in turn penalized, fined, censored and suspended Richard for retaliating against one provocation and dirty blow after another.

As an accomplished Golden Gloves boxer, Richard often gave better than he got. On one occasion, after being knocked out by Gordie Howe, the slightly conscious Richard responded to Sid Abel’s gloating, “How’d you like that, Frenchie?” by getting to his feet and breaking Abel’s nose. Millions saw in the Rocket’s victimizations and triumphs their own struggles against chauvinism and inequality, defense of their language, customs and culture. Each goal scored and black eye meted out by the Rocket and every Canadiens victory was greeted as an arrow to the chest of Anglo chauvinism; every loss and retribution by the Anglo-chauvinist lords who ran their league like a colonial fiefdom, an echo of the [1759] French defeat by a British invasion force on the Plains of Abraham.

Richard joined the Canadiens in 1942 amid the stirrings of rising nationalist sentiment beginning to sweep through Quebec along with an Anglo backlash which found its reflection on NHL ice. A 1942 Canada-wide plebiscite on military conscription for World War II won overwhelming support among anglophones, while francophones rejected it with a near unanimous voice. (For his part, Richard tried to enlist on three occasions, only to be turned down due to injuries suffered on the ice.) As for Clarence Campbell, thanks to his service in the Canadian army he was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Conn Smythe, the vicious anti-French bigot who owned the Toronto Maple Leafs, recruited for the war effort and reviled the francophone players who rightly refused to kill and die for their English oppressors. During that decade Smythe’s all-Anglo team replaced the defunct Maroons as the most bitter rivals of the Canadiens.

The close of the war was marked by a rise in labour struggle. In 1949 this saw its most powerful expression in the courageous asbestos workers strike. In the face of brutal repression by the government of reactionary Quebec premier Maurice Duplessis, the strike was defeated after more than five months. These class struggles catalyzed a reawakening national consciousness among the oppressed Québécois. Although himself apolitical and socially conservative, Richard’s pride and combativeness played a role in this revival. As teammate Jean Béliveau noted of Richard in his autobiography, “He was a hero who defined a people who were emerging from an agrarian society in the post-war era and moving to the city to seek their fortunes.”

In 1954, Richard used his weekly column “Le tour du chapeau” (“Hat Trick”), published in the Montreal newspaper Samedi-Dimanche, to declare NHL president Campbell a “dictator.” He cited the harsh fines and suspensions Campbell regularly meted out to the francophone Canadiens while shielding anglophone players from discipline. The offended autocrat ordered the Canadiens’ front office to compel Richard to apologize, withdraw the remarks and drop the column, which cost him a significant loss of income. Campbell ordered Richard to post a $1,000 bond with the league as assurance against any future fines. Deeply insulted by this public humiliation of their hero, Québécois fans paid the bond, just as they had been paying his fines for years.

One year later, this simmering anger would erupt in the Richard Riot, which to many was the opening shot of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Years later, asked about the suspension that led to the riot, Campbell patronizingly responded, “It helped Richard. He had reached the stage where he wanted to challenge authority. Now, he has a better appreciation of the importance of conformity to regulations. He is not rebellious anymore.” As for conformity to regulations, in 1980 Campbell was convicted of conspiring to bribe a legislator, a crime for which he was forced to endure a symbolic day in prison—a couple of hours more than Richard spent in the penalty box during his career.

A Clash of Nations on Ice

At the team’s inception, the francophone Canadiens players were dismissed as not talented enough to compete with their anglophone rivals. Playing a unique style marked by better skating and more speed and finesse in contrast to the thuggish, rugby-derived contact that dominated the sport, over the next 85 years the Canadiens would win the Stanley Cup a record 24 times. Yet for decades, Québécois players have been demeaned as smaller, weak on defense and reluctant to “mix it up,” and their accomplishments diminished as well.

Richard’s record-breaking 50-goal season and the Canadiens’ 1944 Stanley Cup victory were both dismissed as the product of a league depleted when its best anglophone players were sent overseas to kill Germans. The Rocket put that canard to bed in 1946, leading the Canadiens to his second Stanley Cup. Nine days later, Jackie Robinson made his first appearance for the Montreal Royals minor league baseball team. The next year, Robinson would take the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first black man allowed to play major league baseball in 60 years. Robinson, who recalled being treated very kindly during his brief tenure in Montreal, would overcome a torrent of racist abuse from fans, players and the press during a Hall of Fame career highlighted by the 1955 World Series victory against their hated New York Yankee rivals. For quite some time after Robinson first put on a Dodger uniform, Brooklyn would be black America’s team. Every stolen base, every home run, every diving catch by Robinson was embraced by the black populace as their own victories, no less than Richard’s were for the Québécois.

The struggles against the demonization, racist stereotyping and discrimination of these peoples may be similar, but the historic roots of their oppression—as well as their aspirations—are quite different. Black people in the U.S. constitute a race-colour caste, the vast majority of whom are forcibly segregated at the bottom of society. Their historic struggle has been for direct assimilation—immediate economic, political and social equality. There is no separate black language, and long ago black culture assimilated with the national culture and became the greatest single factor in modifying the basic Anglo-Saxon culture of the United States. Integral to American capitalism, the oppression of black people can only be eradicated by a socialist revolution in which black workers play a leading role.

The Québécois are a separate nation, conquered by the English and forcibly incorporated against their will into a society with a different language, religion and culture. They are the subjects of an English sovereign who sits atop a throne 3,200 miles away. The discrimination and vilification of the Québécois people found its expression in repeated attempts at forced assimilation. The proud Richard had the reminders of this domination rubbed into his nose on a daily basis.

The championship trophy, Lord Stanley’s Cup, is named for the Earl of Derby, appointed Governor General of Canada by Queen Victoria in 1888. The team with the best record was awarded the Prince of Wales Cup. Every NHL game with a Canadian team is opened with the singing of “O Canada” (“God keep our land glorious and free!”). Richard and his teammates were forced to suffer through the serenading of then-Princess Elizabeth with “God Save the King” when she visited the Forum in October 1951. On orders from the mayor, Richard was benched for most of the game to make sure it would be polite enough for the future monarch. A few years later, downtown Montreal saw the construction of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel blocks away from the Forum—the Habs’ home, which was located in the English-speaking west end. Clarence Campbell’s office was in the Sun Life building, an edifice that, more than any other, represented Anglo financial dominance. To this day, the NHL’s award for the most valuable player in the playoffs is named for the Anglo-chauvinist Conn Smythe.

For Quebec Independence and Socialism!

Today’s Canadiens are a far cry from the pride of the Québécois that last won a Stanley Cup nearly a quarter century ago. The team ownership passed first to Americans and more recently back to the Molsons, who as owners previously forced the end of Richard’s career. (So bitter was Richard that he refused to serve Molson beer at the tavern he briefly owned after retiring.) In recent years the team roster has included very few francophones—a trend throughout most of the league. Anti-Québécois bigotry still pervades the NHL: the same epithets spewed, the same stereotypes peddled, the same pressures to speak English in the locker rooms. In a blatant display of Anglo chauvinism, in 1991 top draft pick Eric Lindros turned down a $50 million contract to play for the Quebec Nordiques, declaring he wouldn’t play there “if they offered me $100 million.” Hockey Night in Canada provides Don Cherry a weekly platform for his anti-French, anti-immigrant rants.

In his 2010 book, Discrimination in the NHL, Bob Sirois, a Québécois forward for the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals who retired in 1982, observed, “Many players who used racial slurs against us are now employed by NHL teams. They hold strategic positions as scouts, coaches and assistant coaches in the minor professional leagues and the NHL.” Sirois documented statistically that among players of equal talent, NHL experts will choose an anglophone Canadian ahead of a Québécois (or even an American or European): “The figures show that only the very best athletes from those nations will make it to what is in fact the English Canadian National Hockey League.”

Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur noted this in a 1994 interview with the French-language daily Le Droit: “It has been known for a long time that Team Canada, whose offices are in Calgary, is not interested in including third and fourth-line Quebec hockey players. Those positions are reserved for their disciplined and obedient English-speaking players.” Lafleur described the NHL as no different, citing Boston Bruins star defenceman Raymond Bourque, who said had he not been a first-line player, he would never have been able to pursue his career in Boston.

This tracking begins at the lowest levels of organized hockey. Among Québécois players excluded from Junior Team Canada was Mario Lemieux, who in 1991 and 1992 would lead the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup. Sirois noted acidly: “It was said that Mario Lemieux was unable to adapt to the Canadian hockey style.”

Out of sight of Richard’s on-ice battles against Anglo chauvinism were skirmishes with team owners. Throughout professional sports at the time, athletes were little more than indentured servants, bound to accept the team’s terms or not play at all. Richard, who spent the off-seasons of his first few years in the NHL working as a machinist, was denied raises commensurate with his value to the team—and to the entire league as its biggest draw—with no recourse.

When Red Wings star Ted Lindsay, one of Richard’s greatest tormentors, began agitating in the early 1950s for organizing the players around the issues of pensions and distribution of team revenue, he sought out the Canadiens’ Doug Harvey to enlist Richard’s support. The Rocket so despised Lindsay that he would only give passive, lukewarm support to the proposal for a players association.

The organizing plan went down to defeat. The Red Wings and Canadiens rewarded Lindsay and Harvey, two of their best players, by trading them to other teams. We highly doubt that Lindsay drew the lesson that his Anglo chauvinism poisoned any efforts to enlist Richard, a natural leader for the francophone players, behind him in a struggle that would be to their mutual benefit. Despite the rarefied environment at the top, professional sports reflect the national, ethnic and racial divisions in capitalist society writ large.

While the Québécois nation has taken some measure of control over its destiny over the last 50 years—partially freezing out the dominance of English through language and immigration legislation, for instance—it remains oppressed by English Canada. Following the razor-thin defeat of the 1995 referendum on sovereignty, the federal government passed the Clarity Act, essentially outlawing any unilateral declaration of Quebec independence. And Quebec is still in reality Canada’s only “bilingual” province despite its 80 percent francophone majority, a fact that is only a thin veil for continued English oppression.

The struggle of the Québécois against national oppression has over and over again, throughout history, provided the spark for broader social and class struggle. The workers of English-speaking North America are duty-bound to stand in solidarity with those struggles. Quebec independence must be fiercely defended by every class-conscious worker on the continent and in the world. But it will take socialist revolutions, in Quebec and in Anglo North America, to expropriate the capitalist exploiters, not least the filthy-rich NHL owners who had their empires passed on to them by the tormentors of Maurice Richard.


Workers Vanguard No. 1114

WV 1114

30 June 2017


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Honor Maurice “Rocket” Richard

Anti-Québécois Chauvinism in the NHL