Maurice Richard grew up in the tough Bordeaux section of Montreal and learned the game in the city's amateur system where he skated with teams such as Parc Lafontaine and the Verdun Maple Leafs. He also competed with the Montreal Royals before joining the Canadiens for the 1942-43 season.
His potential was obvious to coach Dick Irvin, and his talent helped reawaken a franchise that had been struggling for a few years. Richard scored his first NHL goal on November 8, 1942, against the New York Rangers. Irvin teamed him for the most part with Gord Drillon and Buddy O'Connor. He was enjoying a fine start to his career with five goals in 16 games when his debut was cut short by a broken ankle.
Richard scored 32 goals in 46 games during his first full season, then contributed 12 scores in nine contests to lead Montreal to the Stanley Cup over Chicago in 1944. This included the first of his three career record hat tricks in the finals. Teamed with Elmer Lach and Toe Blake on the dreaded Punch Line, Richard became the NHL's first 50-goal shooter in 1944-45. This feat was accomplished in 50 games, a performance that wouldn't be equaled until Mike Bossy did it in 1980-81. On December 28, 1944, Richard became the first player in NHL history to score eight points in one game. This remained the league standard until Darryl Sittler's 10-point night in 1976.
The Rocket went on to top the NHL in goal-scoring four more times in his career. He also gained a place on the NHL All-Star Team 14 consecutive times from 1944 to 1957, and eight of these selections were for the First All-Star Team.
During the 1952 semifinals against Boston, Richard was knocked unconscious by a check courtesy of Leo Labine. He was revived but remained in a semiconscious state when he scored the dramatic winning goal on Sugar Jim Henry. This became one of the moments that defined Richard's image in the minds of hockey fans across the league. On November 8, 1952, he scored his 325th regular-season goal against Chicago to surpass Nels Stewart as the NHL's all-time leader.
The fiery temper that often inspired Richard to greatness caused him to spend a fair bit of time in the penalty box. This trait also caused one of the most notorious incidents in league history. On March 13, 1955, Richard was given a match penalty for deliberately injuring Hal Laycoe and punching linesman Cliff Thompson. A formal inquiry took place after which NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the remainder of the season. This decision came when the Rocket was leading the NHL in scoring and the Habs were battling for first place in the standings. Needless to say, Montreal supporters were outraged. A memorable scene saw Campbell being pelted with eggs when he tried to take his seat at the Forum for a game against Detroit the following St. Patrick's Day. The crowd became so unruly that the game was forfeited to the Red Wings and the building evacuated. A riot ensued outside, causing $500,000 in damage and leaving some deep wounds, particularly among the francophone community.
On October 19, 1957, Richard beat Glenn Hall of Chicago to become the first NHL player to score 500 regular-season goals. The historic tally was assisted by future Hall of Famers Dickie Moore and Jean Beliveau. Richard was often at his best in the most important games. His six career overtime goals set an NHL record. In all, he played on eight Stanley Cup-winning teams in Montreal. Even when injuries slowed him down just before the end of his career, Richard's presence in the lineup inspired his teammates and helped them win their fourth and fifth consecutive championships in 1959 and 1960. During the late 1950s, he gained much satisfaction playing occasionally on the same line as his brother Henri. On March 20, 1960, he beat Al Rollins of the New York Rangers to score his 544th and last regular-season NHL goal. He scored his last playoff goal on April 12, 1960, to help Montreal take a three-games-to-none lead over Toronto on their way to a four-game sweep in the finals.
The Rocket retired after this last triumph and was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1961 when the customary three-year waiting period was waived. Richard remained visible in the Montreal area throughout his retirement. He served as the first coach of the WHA's Quebec Nordiques in 1972 but stepped down after two weeks because he didn't like the pressure and the fact that he was away from his family. Richard officially rejoined the Canadiens in 1980 when he agreed to represent the team at various public events. He craved a job in hockey but was never given the opportunity even after his recommendation to draft Mike Bossy in 1977 made him look a great deal smarter than many people might have given him credit for. Richard also worked as a representative for Molson Breweries and S. Albert Oil Limited.
Richard was a hero to hockey fans across Canada, but he attained godlike status in his native Quebec. In 1983, when the Montreal daily La Presse conducted a survey of the top men of the 20th century, Richard trailed only folk singing legend Felix Leclerc. On June 25, 1998, the NHL board of governors voted to honour Richard with a trophy in his name to be presented annually to the league's top goal scorer. The Rocket was on hand at the 1999 NHL Awards to present the trophy to its inaugural winner, Teemu Selanne. As the century came to a close, Richard battled cancer with the same determination that brought him so many admirers as a player, but he succumbed to his illness on May 27, 2000. He was given a state funeral that was broadcast across the country - the first time such an honour was accorded an athlete.