Encounters with Red, the Richard Riot Ref

Fate has a way of just dropping in on you.

I was the editor of a small Alberta weekly newspaper in the late 80s-early 90s. It was ranching country. I knew bugger all about ranching when I arrived, so I spent much of my time learning the ropes of cattle country.

Nothing like the high profile, front page politics, crime, concerts, celebrity sightings and major sporting events which I had grown up with in Montreal, that’s for sure. Oh, there was news. Storms. Fires. Petty Crime. But over all this was more like cattle drives, subdivision arguments, rodeo and long lists of 4H club results.

I was fresh out of school, writing, editing, interviewing, pointing my cameras, happily spending hours in the dark room, listening to rock and roll, developing shots for the pages of the paper I had been entrusted to edit. I was single, newly sober, and I had my dream job. I simply loved it.

One day, unannounced, an old man came by the office. He was flogging some event he was involved in down the road in Calgary. His name was Red, and he was hoping to generate some ticket sales for an NHL old-timers hockey game he was officiating in a couple of weeks.

I had already put together most of the paper for the following edition. I had very little room for another story, let alone free advertising. But I took the interview.

At age 70, Roy Alvin Storey looked like an actor. A big physical presence, he had a large, almost egg-shaped head, bushy white eyebrows and big wide eyes. He smiled easily, almost constantly actually, was comfortably bald, and had a unique warm voice. He was easy to listen to.

I called him Mr. Storey, till he cocked his head to one side, raised one of those unique brows and straightened me out.

Though his head was void of hair, “It’s Red, Jeff,” he said, flashing a friendly toothy grin, putting me at ease.

Most people younger than I (28 at the time) probably didn’t know him. But as a complete hockey nerd, a stats guy, and a history buff, I sure did.

I was interviewing the great Red Storey. A Hockey Hall of Famer. I apologized profusely, explaining the layout was mostly done for the paper. I knew instantly I just didn’t have the space to do this piece justice. I told him I could pull a story and get a small promo piece in for his book. He was such a gentleman about it, assuring me that anything I could do was just fine. It was short notice and he understood. He knew the media game better than I did.

He was surprised that for someone so young, I knew as much about hockey as I did. I was flattered. I explained to him that I had grown up in the original city of champions, Montreal. Hockey was THE religion, and the Canadians were the Pope, Buddha, Allah and Christ combined. Oh, he knew that.

He also knew many of us growing up in Montreal had connections to the Canadiens. They are a major part of the social life, with players doing charity work, or paid public appearances all over the city. Players were always being spotted in bars and restaurants. Some had ownership stakes in local brasseries, and could frequently be seen slinging or quaffing frosty mugs with adoring fans.

As for me, well, at 14 I had gone to Doug Harvey’s hockey school. I also was once a camp counselor at the National hockey school in the Laurentians for a summer, getting the kids on the ice with Larry Robinson, Yvon Lambert. I had skated with Donnie Marshall. Ian Turnbull. I knew my history. Or did I?

First, I got the details about the alumni game out of the way. That was the easy part.

But history was looking me in the face, and I wasn’t about to blow it.

On the fly I scrambled to remember what I knew about Red Storey. All I could come up with in my supposed brain, was that he had been the referee on the ice on March 17, 1955 at the old Montreal Forum. The night of the infamous Richard Riot.

Hey, weren’t you the ref for the riot? I probed, mostly to show him I was no bumbling idiot.

We talked for almost two hours. I knew I would get way more out of picking his brain than I could possibly pass on to my readers in Cochrane. I learned so much about this fascinating icon of Canadian sports, and Order of Canada recipient. So much about history. His and ours.

How he had been born in Barrie, Ontario. How, as an 18-year old multi-sport athlete, he had made the Toronto Argonauts football team and quickly won back to back Grey Cups. How he had scored three touchdowns in the 1938 Grey Cup game, throwing in a mammoth 102-yard run for good measure as the Argos waxed the Blue Bombers 30-7 at Varsity Stadium. That game, and his part in it are among the greatest Grey Cup performances of all time.

I learned how he had NFL legendary teams like the Chicago Bears and New York Giants in his sights, before a knee injury forced him to retire from pro football in 1941. How he would take a stab at playing pro baseball with the Montreal Royals the next year, four years before Jackie Robinson made the team in 1946. How he once scored 12 goals in a senior level lacrosse league game in Quebec, a record that still stands. How he would go on to spend 12 years officiating in the Canadian Football League. How he would wear the stripes as an NHL ref for nine years, dishing out penalties and breaking up fights, watching immortal legends of the game break records, make history.

But there was that game, too.

“It was like if someone lit a match it was going to blow up,” he would explain to me and countless other journalists over the years, a well-rehearsed set up about the crackling mood in the Forum during warm up on St. Patrick’s Day in 1955.

The boos rained down from all sides when NHL President Clarence Campbell showed up five minutes after puck drop in the first period. Blocking views while taking his seat, he was forever the showboat, his late appearance interpreted by many as a sign of defiance.

It should have been an exciting, late season first place battle between the Habs and Red Wings. But this would prove to be much more than a hockey tilt. The day before, Campbell had suspended hometown hero Maurice “Rocket” Richard for the rest of the season for punching out a linesman a four nights earlier.

Richard and Campbell had a history. The Rocket had once called Campbell a dictator in a newspaper column. The Francophones of Quebec already were unhappy with Anglo power brokers who treated them like second class citizens.

In fairness, Campbell was going to be scorned no matter what he did. Richard had hit officials before the latest incident. The officials were on his back, and he needed to show some backbone. Other teams felt Richard needed to be expelled from the game altogether. But Campbell decided to ban Richard for the rest of the year and post-season, basically ending Montreal’s very realistic hopes of yet another deep run into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The game meant nothing when you’ve lost your star. Nothing, yet everything.

Before, during and after the game the crowd was furious. Popcorn, tomatoes even, pelted the president. A man tried to slap him. Another man got close enough to squash a tomato on his coat. (The tomato man would be considered a hero by some, have his legal bills covered and expensive gifts send his way.) The nastiness inside the iconic rink peaked when someone tossed a homemade cannister of tear gas, the yellow smoke drifting near the seats where the league president and his girlfriend sat. The two were ushered away, dodging (unsuccessfully) projectiles as they made their way to the ice level exits. With the Habs down 4-1, the game was called off as the angry crowds spilled out of the building.

On a crisp spring night outside the Forum, 7,000 to 8,000 hockey fans were witnessing or otherwise participating in the mayhem. Cars and trollies, police cruisers, were being overturned, set on fire. Windows were smashed and stores looted for miles down St. Catherine street, the heart and soul of the city’s retail and entertainment district. Gun shots split the night. Over 100 people were arrested. Over seven hours of rioting would turn the town and the reputation of the sport upside down in what would be the worst off-ice hockey incident for 56 years.

The Richard Riot would be capped only when the Boston Bruins walked into Vancouver and walked out hoisting the Stanley Cup on June 15, 2011. It was devastating for the hometown fans looking for their first Cup. In Game Seven on a hot summer night, the home team never had a chance, losing 4-0. The anger of the loss set off riots in the streets, which caused nearly $6 million in damages, with 140 people hurt, and over 1,200 criminal charges filed. I watched on television as my generation lashed out in hockey madness, decades after a previous generation experienced its own anguish.

Hockey, the good and the bad, is such an intricate part of the Canadian fabric, isn’t it?

And for a couple of hours, on a crisp fall day in the early 1990s, I had a close encounter with it.

Roy Alvin Storey would take his last breath in his adopted hometown of, you guessed it, Montreal. On March 15, 2006 at the age of 88, Red checked out. His obituary in Canada’s biggest newspapers, the Globe and Mail, and the Montreal Gazette, did not touch on his incredible athletic journey, and barely mentioned his countless charity endeavors.

I will never forget his friendly manner as he walked me through two hours of incredible moments in his life. His hearty belly laugh, the twinkle in his eyes, the facial expressions. I was a rookie reporter with a front row seat to history. He made me feel as valuable to fans as any veteran scribe, as knowledgeable as Red Fischer, Bob McKenzie or Eric Duhateschuk.

Red Storey was that kind of guy.

It was that moment I knew, for sure, as a journalist, I had the best job in the world.

You never know who was about to walk through your door and into your newsroom.

Thank you, Red.

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