Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 9, 2020

The Kid Brother Was Pretty Good Too

A NOTE TO READERS: As previously advised, this post is one day late because of current travels. There will be just one post later this week, then the regular Thursday / Sunday schedule resumes on March 19th. As always, thanks for your support.

There are so many ways this story could have turned out badly. Sibling rivalry is common enough, and while theories about the impact of birth order are no longer highly regarded, they haven’t been entirely dismissed. So it’s easy to understand how the a boy whose oldest brother wasn’t merely his senior but a hero to the fans of a professional franchise and an entire region, might well come to resent his sibling, to chafe at comparisons and to seek any path but the one trod by his brother the sports star.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard (the French pronunciation is “ree-SHARD”) is a legend in NHL history, and is venerated by hockey fans throughout French-speaking Canada. Playing for the Montreal Canadiens in the Original Six days, when the compact league offered far fewer roster spots than now so that only the best of the best players ever got to wear the sweater of an NHL franchise, Richard stood apart from almost all his contemporaries. He was the first player to score 50 goals in a season, and the first to light the lamp 500 times in a career. At the time of his retirement in 1960, the Rocket was the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer. When league commissioner Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the tail end of the 1954-55 season after a violent episode on the ice, fans in Montreal rioted. Upon his passing in 2000 Richard was given a state funeral, the first Quebecois outside of politics to be so honored.

Maurice’s brother Henri was the lesser Richard by so many standard measures. He was younger by 15 years and barely of school age when his big brother debuted in the NHL. As an adult he was also smaller, not just than his older sibling but at 5’ 7” and 160 pounds more diminutive than most players who laced up skates for NHL teams.

But instead of smoldering with envy over his older brother’s fame or choosing any career but that of a professional hockey player, Henri Richard sought from an early age to follow in Maurice’s footsteps. To do so while compensating for his stature, Henri became a lightning fast skater and an especially deft stickhandler, the ideal playmaking center who could set up scoring opportunities for the wing on either side of his line.

In junior hockey Henri quickly came to be called the “Pocket Rocket,” which was both an acknowledgement of his skill and one more comparison to his famous brother. The nickname also served as a public reminder of the enormous pressure he would face when, while still a teenager, he earned the chance to wear the familiar red, white and blue sweater of Les Habitants. Toe Blake, Montreal’s coach at the time, doubted that the youngster would last in the league, in part because of his size but mostly because of the heavy weight of expectations. Five consecutive Stanley Cup championships later, Blake was ready to say that “the Pocket was a better all-around player” than the Rocket.

Such comparisons are in the eye of the beholder of course, but Henri Richard’s career accomplishments are stunning. Skating with the Canadiens for his entire two-decades in the NHL, the Pocket Rocket won eleven Stanley Cups, more than any player in league history. He holds the franchise record for games played, tallied more than 1,000 points, and was a ten-time All-Star. And Blake was not the only one who compared Henri favorably to his sibling. Long after his own retirement but while Henri was still skating, Maurice penned an autobiography in which he heaped praise on his little brother. “He was a better stickhandler than I was and a better skater,” wrote the Rocket about the Pocket, adding “the only difference was that he couldn’t score goals the way I could, but he made up for that by becoming a terrific playmaker.”

But Henri could score too, especially when it mattered most. His goal against the Red Wings in overtime of Game 6 won the Cup for the Canadiens in 1966. Then five years later, in Game 7 against Chicago, the Canadiens trailed 2-1. That was until Henri netted the equalizer, and then the winner, clinching yet another Stanley Cup, 3-2.

Montreal won one more championship with the Pocket Rocket wearing the captain’s sweater, then a young goaltender named Dryden and a speedy winger named Lafleur extended hockey’s greatest dynasty for a few years after Henri Richard retired in 1975. But the NHL has grown to 31 teams, and what was once a league of almost exclusively Canadian skaters now boasts decidedly international rosters, even while a franchise based in Canada hasn’t captured the Stanley Cup since 1993. In sports, as in life, change is the one constant.

Yet when news came this week of Henri Richard’s passing at age 84, fans of a certain age couldn’t help but recall a distant time, when even their fiercest rivals had to acknowledge that the Flying Frenchmen of Montreal were hockey royalty. Long-ago days when a kid brother who turned out to be so much more than that flew up and down the ice, setting up the plays and scoring the goals that earned the love not just of a fan base or a city, but of an entire province and its people. Henri Richard, grace and guile on skates.


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