February 13, 2011

Towards the summit of Kilimanjaro

Henri Richard

(info about Henri Richard)

The foundations of hockey

Thomas Kieller

Henri Richard: Complex situation against the Boston Bruins.

At the time where the National Hockey League counted only six teams and where rivalry between the cities was possibly at the greatest, Henri excelled on the ice by combining skill and intensity. Quick and good handler of the puck, this center played a determining role in the line up of the Montreal Canadiens which had success in the overall ranking during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Without having the biggest size, this man native of Montreal knew his role well in this outstanding team by distributing passes to his linemates and by making plays. As the years went by, he won eleven Stanley Cup; a record that will probably stand for a very long time. During his 20 season career, he wore proudly the bleu-white-and-red jersey. He was truly a loyal player to his team and to his city. Besides, it’s by making dazzling plays in matches against the five other great clubs (Rangers, Bruins, Red Wings, Black Hawks and Maple Leafs) that number 16 of the Canadiens showed his talent and combativeness. Henri gave himself body and soul, because he was truly a passionate player on the ice.

The interview took place on February 12, 2010 at 10:00 in the office of Henri in Laval, Canada.

Prelude – Peacefully, Henri arrives at the reception of the organization where he works. After the usual greetings, he leads me to his office while saying hello to his colleagues on the way. On the table and on the shelves, one could find many promotional articles, photos of him with the Montreal Canadiens, calendars and newspaper clippings. There is a hockey spirit in his office.

Arrival in the NHL

Thomas Kieller: In your first season in 1955-56, the Montreal Canadiens had a good group of players. Hector "Toe" Blake, who was named as coach, saw in you a young player who was just arriving. Could you tell me, how did you make your place in the Canadiens’ line up?

Henri Richard: First, when I was ten years old, it was a dream for me to play with the Canadiens. Besides, my brother Maurice was already playing for them. In 1955, I was invited to the training camp and obviously it was not certain that I would make the team. I was only 19 years old and I could still play another year in the junior category. During this camp, I practiced with the team and I think that I did well, but the management sent me back anyway to the juniors. Afterwards, they called me back for an exhibition match against the Montreal Royaux, a senior club at that time. Of course, I went there and, in this match, I scored a couple of goals. After this game, I signed a two season contract (1955-56 and 1956-57) with the Montreal Canadiens.

Thomas: In 1955-56, there were a lot of talented players on the team such as Jean Béliveau, Dickie Moore, Bert Olmstead, Bernie Geoffrion, Maurice Richard, Doug Harvey and Jacques Laplante. Did you have difficulty to make your place in the team?

Henri: Well, I have to say yes and no. In the first game, Bernard Geoffrion, a good player on the team, injured himself. That’s it; already I had my opportunity to play with Jean Béliveau and Bert Olmstead. This is the way it started for me, but it was not easy because we had a good team and I had to make my place. In the first five years, we won the Stanley Cup every time!

Thomas: So, it started for you like this?

Henri (while laughing): Yes, I was playing on the right wing with Béliveau and Olmstead, but it did not last long; four or five games! I remember that I was everywhere on the ice. I was not supposed to do that, it’s more the responsibility of the center. And me, on the right wing, I was everywhere. Bert Olmstead was telling me: "Keep your wing." Even if he was saying this to me, I did not change anything because I did not speak English. I did not understand him and I was going everywhere anyway.

Thomas (while laughing): Excellent! Did the presence of those players motivate you to do better?

Henri: No, I had my own motivation, because I wanted truly to play for the Canadiens. A child’s dream was coming true. I did not need to be pushed in this manner. I could motivate myself on my own.

Thomas (smiles): Oh yeah!

Henri (smiles): Yes!

Thomas: Besides, did you have the support of your teammates and was there competition between the players?

Henri: There was definitely some competition. Three-quarters of the players were coming from the province of Quebec and many were from Montreal. We had a similar background. However, it did not keep us from helping each other because the Canadien hockey club was a family. Players were going out in a group. For example, when we were playing outside Montreal, we were always together. This way, we won the Stanley Cup several times. One can think that now the situation in the National Hockey League (NHL) is a little bit different.


Thomas: All the players that I mentioned earlier as well as you were talented players and also guys who liked to work. Besides, you probably still are...

Henri (laughs): Yes, in a sportive environment, but concerning work not necessarily. To tell you the truth, I never worked; I rather always played!

Thomas: If we go back in time, I presume that with the Canadiens one should work hard during training?

Henri: Oh yes concerning this point, I was working. If it was a game or a practice, it was the same for me. I played like I practiced.

Thomas: Can you describe me what were you doing during the hockey training in 1955 until 1965? Was it based on skating, puck handling, strategies or team plays?

Henri: Let’s say that it was mostly focused on the hockey game in general. Today, it is not the same at all. During my era, we practiced and we played line against line. We were doing matches between ourselves. The focus of the training was not put on the technical aspects. We knew what to do on the ice and the philosophy during training followed this.

Thomas: Were there sessions of physical training in a gym as it is frequent nowadays?

Henri: Not at all. As I’m concerned, I was playing tennis a lot, such as four to five times a week which allowed me to be fit because it is a demanding sport physically.

Thomas: During your practices, were there some skating sessions?

Henri: Yes of course, we were skating during practices. But before the start of the training camp, I did not skate. I was playing tennis before arriving to the camp. This way, I was in good form.

Thomas: I see that hockey has changed a lot in this matter?

Henri: Oh yes, it changed quite a bit. I cannot tell you exactly what the guys are doing right now during training, but I know the situation is not the same anymore.

Henri’s playing style

Thomas: We know that hockey is a very physical sport and there are some great strapping men on the ice. You are 5 feet 7 inches tall. Before you started your career in the NHL, some people made comments regarding your height. Did these remarks offend you and did it push you to do more?

Henri: Yes, it made me do much more because some persons were saying that I was simply there because my brother Maurice was on the club...

Thomas: From where was this combativeness coming?

Henri: I think it is a little bit a family thing. My father played hockey and baseball. He was also a working man who did his job well. So, I believe it is coming from my family.

Thomas: I know that you and your brother had different styles of playing. Could you describe me yours?

Henri (with a smile): Yes indeed, Maurice was a true goalscorer and he was good at it. His teammates were passing him the puck near the net and he was scoring a lot of goals from there. In my case, I was not a goalscorer, but I was the guy who was creating the plays. I had some speed and I was even faster than my brother. Well, I should have been a goalscorer because it is more profitable at the end. Ha ha ha!

Besides, I played with Maurice… He was supposed to end his hockey career the season I arrived in the league. When he knew that I was making the team, he changed his idea and continued. I played with my brother five years before he retired. So, we combined our playing styles together.

Thomas: You were the one who was making the plays by good puck handling.

Henri: Yes, I could control the puck. There are some of my fellow teammates who were saying that they were unable to have the puck, because I had it so much during practices.

Thomas: Did you have a lot of aggressiveness along the board, in spite of the fact that you were a center?

Henri: I was not fit to be a physical player with my height and, even more, I was only weighting 165 pounds. Besides, I did not put on much weight because I’m now 170 pounds. Anyway, I was more focusing on my skating... When you are not big or when you do not have the size, you must try to control the puck as fast as possible, because the guy behind you will try to hit you. So, I was a good skater.

Thomas: You have probably compensated with a little bit of combativeness?

Henri: Yes, if you hesitate slightly in hockey or in any sport in general, you will not do the job well. I was never scared of anybody and it helped me a lot.

Intensity, playoffs and Stanley Cup

Thomas: You played in the era where the league was composed of six teams (Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs). The competition between these great cities was ferocious. Could you tell me how it was?

Henri (tells with enthusiasm): Oh yes, there was a big rivalry between clubs. There were only six teams, so we were facing each other often, meaning fifteen times per season. The competition was really there because we knew all the guys. Now, when a team comes to Montreal, there are unknown players. It is quite different from my time.

Thomas: Was it possible to feel the rivalry in the arena?

Henri: Yes, the prevailing atmosphere was charged especially when we were playing in Chicago or Toronto. There was a huge competition with the Maple Leafs. And with Boston also... In fact, it was really intense against all teams because we were playing each other so frequently.

Henri Richard: Well in control of the puck and to the detriment of Bobby Orr.

Thomas: Concerning your opponents, you saw the same faces and the same numbers during many years. We can think of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Andy Bathgate, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Frank Mahovlich, Norm Ullman, Phil Esposito, Bobby Orr and Bobby Clarke. These players and many others did they push you to surpass yourself?

Henri: Of course, with adversaries of this type it surely helped. We played so often against each other that we were motivated to the maximum.

Thomas: Was there a player particularly against who you wanted to do more?

Henri (laughs): Well yes, I had a few small quarrels with Stan Mikita. Let’s say that we didn’t like each other that much. In a way, it was a natural competition!

Thomas (laughs when he is listening to the last response): We know that in the playoffs, the level of the game and the stakes are really high. Every team sets their goal on the Stanley Cup. Were you anticipating the playoffs season after season, because of the high intensity?

Henri: Like I said earlier, in my first five seasons, we won the Stanley Cup all the time. But in my sixth season, we lost in the semi-finals against the Black Hawks. It was not natural for us to lose after winning five times in a row. On the other hand, it was normal because there was a lot of competition. All of us wanted to do more in the playoffs. With only six teams in the league, there were continually some challenges. Besides, it was exciting for the sport and for the game on the ice.

Thomas: You won the Stanley Cup eleven times…

Henri: On this matter, I have always said that I was at the right place and at the right moment. As the years go by, I had good teams and good players with me. At that time, the Montreal Canadiens were always really strong.

Thomas: You appreciated those moments?

Henri: Oh I can say yes, I appreciated it and I really enjoyed it.

Thomas: In 1971, after 16 seasons in the league and with ten Stanley Cup already won, the management of the Canadiens named you captain. Was it a memorable moment for you?

Henri: We give a great importance to this, but I must say that during my era it did not have the signification that one could think because it was the coach who was leading the team. The captain had nothing to say. For me, it was only a title that was given.

Thomas: It is not a small honour!

Henri: Not necessarily… I should say yes and no at the same time because the captain was named by the players, but they could name anybody. Most of the time, it was the oldest or the one with the most seasons with the team.


Thomas: During your 20 season career in the NHL and all with the Montreal Canadiens, you have seen a bunch of teammates. I will name some because it is important to remember them like Yvan Cournoyer, Serge Savard, Jacques Lemaire, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Marc Tardif, Guy Lapointe, Ken Dryden, Rogatien Vachon, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey. Of course, there are other names, teammates and friends that you mixed with... Did you have pleasure to help the young players who were arriving with the Canadiens like I suppose you where helped at the start of your career?

Henri: I don’t know if we call this helping, but I think you rather must do the appropriate actions on the ice. As far as I am concerned, I was not the guy who was talking the most. One day, Toe Blake asked me if I spoke French or English, because he never heard me before. And yet, I was playing for the team for a couple of years already. Nevertheless, I think that you must motivate yourself first and afterwards the young guys will motivate themselves...

Thomas: In a way, you were motivating them by your actions on the ice…

Henri: Exactly, you don’t have to talk on the ice. The things you do on the ice speak for themselves.

Thomas: I want to come back on a subject, was the team spirit between the Canadien players a fundamental thing to enjoy hockey, to do well your job and to eventually win the Stanley Cup?

Henri: Definitely, we stood together. After the matches, all the players were leaving and we were going to the same place. The Canadiens, it was like a family.

Thomas: And this, season after season?

Henri: It always existed. At the end, when you are leaving, it is natural that the situation changed. The years are behind you, so it’s normal that your implication decreases a bit.

Last words

Thomas: Do you watch the new generation in the NHL?

Henri: I follow it but from far. I should say, unfortunately from very very far away, because it’s my style. We understand each other; I follow it but from a different point of view.

Thomas: Do you like the modern hockey? There is an evolution with tougher and more athletic players who do not hesitate to give solid body checks along the boards in order to get the puck back and to try to score a goal.

Henri: Well exactly, I believe that it is a little bit too tough. For example, a player can pass the puck and he can be checked afterwards. He can count even to two and, still, he may get hit during this time. Two seconds, it’s long. Personally, I think that there are too many guys who get injured this way. I found this disturbing and I don’t like to see that. There should be a rule for it, but... it’s hockey.

Thomas: Thank you M. Richard for this talk.

Henri: It was my pleasure.