• Sal Maiorana

Happy birthday: The Pocket Rocket, Henri Richard

A happy leap year birthday to the Pocket Rocket, Henri Richard, who is 84 years old today. Or, is he actually 21 since he celebrates his actual birthday only every four years?

Richard enjoyed a career that is the envy of almost every player who has ever laced up skates in the NHL. He played all 20 seasons with one team, the dynastic Montreal Canadiens, and his name has been carved into the Stanley Cup 11 times, more than any player in history.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Richard once said of his great fortune to have played with, and stayed with, the Canadiens.

Yeah, right place at the right time for the better part of two decades.

And the thing is, many believed that he wasn’t the most talented Richard of them all. That distinction often goes to his older brother, Maurice, known better as the Rocket, who played 18 seasons with the Canadiens, won eight Stanley Cups, and holds the distinction being the NHL’s first 50-goal scorer when he reached the figure in just 50 games in 1944-45.

But when the final tally is added, Maurice scored more goals (544-358), but Henri played in more games (1,258-978), scored more points (1,046-966), and won those three additional championships.

“There were a lot of people who told me that playing with Maurice was going to add a lot of pressure, but I never felt any pressure,” Henri once told NHL.com referring to the first five years of his career which overlapped with his brother who was 15 years his senior. “I never thought about Maurice being a big star. It was normal for me. I was only 19 when I came up and Montreal had a lot of great players; it wasn’t just Maurice.”

Henri, who stood just 5-foot-7 and weighed a mere 160 pounds, began his NHL career in 1955, the Canadiens won the Cup all five years, and Henri was more than just the little brother, the Pocket Rocket. An aging Maurice still did what he did best, score goals, and he had 122 in his final five seasons, but Henri scored 116 in his first five years, and earned two All-Star berths.

After Maurice retired, Henri continued to star alongside Canadiens’ greats such as Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Serge Savard, Jacques Lapperriere, Yvan Cournoyer, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, and so many others.

Long-time Canadiens general manager Frank Selke, who was running the team when Henri made his debut, once said, “I have been blessed with a lot of great stars over the years. But game in, and game out, Henri Richard may have been the most valuable player I ever had.”

Given how many Hall of Famers Selke was attached to, that’s incredibly high praise.