Henri Richard graciously accepted lifelong comparisons to his prolific and fiery older brother Maurice, who was an established star with the Montreal Canadiens when Henri broke into the NHL in the 1955-56 season.
Maurice was nicknamed “Rocket” for his explosive style and scoring feats. Because Henri was much slighter in build at 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, he became known as the “Pocket Rocket,” a clever nickname that did little justice to his brilliant playmaking and singular ability to control the game against bigger, brawnier opponents.
Henri Richard made a name for himself by winning more Stanley Cup rings — 11 — than he had fingers, an NHL record and three more championships than his brother won. Richard, who played his entire 20-year NHL career with the Canadiens, died Friday at a care facility in Laval, Canada, north of Montreal. He was 84 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.
“All I ever had in my mind was to play hockey. To play with the Montreal Canadiens. Nothing else,” he once told the Montreal Gazette. “And finally, I did.”
Richard, who was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979, scored 358 goals and 688 assists for 1,046 points in 1,258 games. He twice led the NHL in assists; his brother led the NHL in goals five times and finished an 18-year-career with 966 points in 978 games. Henri scored 49 goals and 129 points in 180 career playoff games and was the captain of the Canadiens from 1971-72 through 1974-75.
“Henri ‘Pocket Rocket’ Richard was a great player and a great ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens organization. His passing is a great loss for all,” Geoff Molson, president and co-owner of the Canadiens, tweeted in English and French. “My thoughts are with his family.”
Henri was a young but integral member of the Canadiens’ “Flying Frenchmen” when they won five straight championships, starting in 1956. No team has won as many consecutive titles since then and none might ever match that because the salary cap works against accumulating and keeping talent over the long term as the Canadiens did.
“Some people say it was destiny, but I just think I was in the right place at the right time. That was a great team. There were so many great hockey players,” he told the Hall of Fame in 2003. “I wouldn’t have said it before, but now that it’s all over, I thought winning like that was normal.”
Maurice retired in 1960 but Henri played 15 more seasons, including a run of four championships in five seasons from 1965 through 1969. In 1971, after being benched by coach Al MacNeil in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final and calling MacNeil “incompetent,” Richard responded by scoring the Cup-winning goal in Game 7 against Chicago. He won his final title in 1973.
“Henri Richard was one of the true giants of the game,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “The entire National Hockey League family mourns the passing of this incomparable winner, leader, gentleman and ambassador for our sport and the Montreal Canadiens.”
Henri Richard was more than 14 years younger than Maurice and was a child when Maurice left home to pursue his hockey career. They had little in common besides their unquenchable drive to excel and to win.
Hall of Fame center Jean Beliveau, who played with both men on Montreal teams that are considered among the best ever assembled, devoted a section of his 1994 autobiography to praise Henri’s talent and approach to the game.
“I had plenty of admiration for Henri from his earliest days, not only for what he did on the ice, but off,” Beliveau wrote. “When you’re the younger brother of a hockey legend, it will take people a while to recognize you for what you are. Maurice had been retired for several years before fans began to notice that Henri was a star in his own right.
“All through his long career, everywhere we went, the first question anybody ever asked him was, ‘How’s Maurice?’ Each time he was remarkably patient. ‘Maurice is fine.’ He was a very productive hockey player (1,046 points in 1,256 games) and very tough. He was also a great team player, and a great captain after I retired. It is not by chance that Henri Richard holds the all-time record of eleven Stanley Cup wins.”
Richard became an ambassador for the Canadiens after his retirement. He is survived by his wife Lise, their children Michèle, Gilles, Denis, Marie-France and Nathalie, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Maurice Richard died in 2000 at age 78.