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Wish you were there: Pondering the athletes whose best moments we wish we witnessed

Maurice "Rocket" Richard and his fight with Hal Laycoe is at the top of Kevin Paul Dupont's list of moments he wishes he could have seen live.
Maurice "Rocket" Richard and his fight with Hal Laycoe is at the top of Kevin Paul Dupont's list of moments he wishes he could have seen live.Katie McInerney/Globe Illustration (AP, Creative Commons) (Custom credit)

The game over, the on-ice mayhem long subsided, the crowd of 12,023 streamed out of Boston Garden, Bruins fans ecstatic about the home team’s 4-2 victory over Montreal.

Meanwhile, Boston Police Lieutenant Frank Gannon stood outside the Canadiens dressing room, engaged in a heated exchange with coach Dick Irvin, insisting he would have to book Rocket Richard on charges stemming from the great Montreal winger’s stick-swinging brawl with the Bruins’ Hal Laycoe.

Irvin, warned Gannon, might be arrested too, if he didn’t pull the bloodied Rocket out of the shower. Always room to accommodate another guest down at the precinct.

It was one of those nights in the Original Six NHL. Fights. Blood. Raw emotion. And the Rocket, forever with little licks of fire near-visible in his eyes, smack in the middle of it all.

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Just some 50 yards down the hallway in the old Garden, Laycoe sat in the Bruins dressing room and explained to a Globe reporter how it was Richard, his ex-Montreal teammate, who touched off the melee. With 4:49 left in the third period, Richard clipped him around the head with his stick prior to a faceoff, said Laycoe, and all hell broke loose.

“Then I swung my stick,” Laycoe told the Globe’s Tom Fitzgerald, “and I quickly dropped my gloves to fight.”

It would end in cracked lumber, matching head wounds, and worst of all for Richard, his punch to linesman Cliff Thompson that ultimately finished the season for the legendary Habs scorer.

Rocket Richard's brawl with Hal Laycoe almost got him locked up.
Rocket Richard's brawl with Hal Laycoe almost got him locked up.TUROFSKY

But at least no arrest. It was the diplomatic Walter Brown, owner of the Bruins and Garden president, who convinced Gannon that the NHL office would settle the matter.

All of that was on the evening of March 13, 1955, the second of a weekend home-and-away with the Habs, and, no, yours truly was not on Causeway Street to witness it. That is, in part, why I’m writing about it more than 65 years later, and also why my colleagues in the Globe sports department have included similar thoughts about great athletes, or epic moments in sport, they wish they had seen.

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Much to my regret, the Rocket retired before I ever had the opportunity to see him play. The fierce, tempestuous right winger, the first NHLer to score 50 goals in a season, retired in September 1960. His abrupt departure at age 39 came just a few days into training camp, at a time when I was most likely trying to master multiplication tables in Mrs. Conroy’s second-grade class at Center Elementary in Bedford.

I wouldn’t go to my first Bruins game at the Garden for another 3-4 years. It would be another couple of years before the arrival of Bobby Orr. All of it was long before I began to understand Richard’s greatness, his standing among NHL greats, his cultural sway in his hometown of Montreal (where he grew up Depression-poor) and throughout the province of Quebec. Never getting the chance to see the Rocket remains No. 1 on my list of sports regrets.

So who’s your pick? What athlete, man or woman, or perhaps equine, do you wish you had been able to see perform live and in person?

Best seat in the house, right up close, who would you most want to see if you had the chance to turn back the clock and savor the moment?

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TELL US » Which athlete or historic sports moment do you wish you could have seen live?

I opted for a night watching Richard, but just as easily could have raised my hand for Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Muhammad Ali, Satchel Paige, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Ty Cobb, Joe Louis … or countless others I never had the chance to see live.

I interviewed Williams a couple of times, when I was a Red Sox beat reporter for the then-Boston Herald American in the late 1970s, and he was an occasional visitor to Chain o’Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla. He was Williams, voice booming, man and legend in full.

My one time talking to Ali came in 1983 or ’84, during my days on the New York Times sports staff. The legendary heavyweight was in Manhattan, pushing a new line of cologne during a press conference at Tavern on the Green. Then only in his early 40s, the great Ali struggled for words and moved slowly, haltingly. It was some months before he made public his struggles with Parkinson’s disease.

The universe of great sports names is near-infinite. My good pal Bob Hohler reached back a mere 2½ millennia with his choice of Pheidippides. For those not around then, he was the Greek messenger who raced 26 miles in 490 B.C. in record time, though Hohler’s review of Globe archives shows that he failed to pin on his number at the Hopkinton start line.

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READ MORE » The Globe Staff picks the athletes and moments they wish they saw live

The idea behind collecting our thoughts here — and asking for yours — came to me when Bob Gibson died in October. The great Cardinals righthander was 84. Gibson was the best I ever saw pitch. Granted, choosing one’s “best” is all subjective, and in many cases quite personal. Gibson’s performance in the 1967 World Series, for me, was both soul-crushing and awe-inspiring.

Bob Gibson pitches against the Red Sox on Oct. 12, 1967, during Game 7 of the World Series. He threw a three-hitter.
Bob Gibson pitches against the Red Sox on Oct. 12, 1967, during Game 7 of the World Series. He threw a three-hitter.Associated Press

I was at Fenway Park, Section 2, last row of the grandstand, for Games 1 and 7. Gibson won both with daunting command. He made three starts in the Series, won all three, went the distance in all three, allowed but three earned runs, fanned 26, and walked five. Beat that!

There were other great hurlers of the era, the likes of Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Ferguson Jenkins, Tom Seaver, and later Nolan Ryan. But for me, Gibson was mythology come to life, Zeus with a heater.

In ’67, as a 14-year-old, there was nothing I cared more about than that Red Sox season, with its magical plot twists, the repeated heroics of Carl Yastrzemski and Jim Lonborg, the dramatic yet understated narration of Ned Martin in the broadcast booth: “If you’ve just turned your radio on … it’s happened again!”

All of it swept away by Gibson’s 27 dazzling innings across three afternoons in dappled October sun. Mercy.

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Soon after Gibson died, I asked the Twitterverse to offer up with names of the players they wish they had seen play. To be expected, the responses, via social media and e-mail, were diverse, as they were among my fellow Globe writers and editors.

Many chose Orr, which underscored a few things: first and foremost, his astounding, transformational talent; his impact on the Bruins and the franchise’s brand; how long it has been since he played (now more than 40 years); and the fact that he was but 27 when he took his final shift with Boston. It was all so splendid, so overwhelming, so magical, yet so short.

Had I not seen Orr play dozens of times in his prime — albeit usually while standing on a seat in the Garden’s second balcony — he no doubt would have been my choice ahead of the Rocket.

Local TV legends Mike Lynch and Bob Lobel picked up on my tweet question during a recent episode of their podcast, “Lobie, Lynchie and Friends with Hank Morse.”

“We played along at home,” Lynch wrote to me the next day. He placed the Bambino atop his “regret” list. Who could argue? Personally, I would have chosen a game when Ruth was still under the employ of Harry Frazee.

Other names Lynch and Lobel kicked around included Joe DiMaggio, Eddie Shore, Milt Schmidt, Harry Agganis, and Gehrig.

From Pheidippides to Muhammad Ali: The Globe sports staff on which athletes they wish they saw live

I never saw any of them play, but I often had the pleasure of interviewing Schmidt over some 40 years, beginning in the late ’70s. He was ever a gentleman, a joy to interview, and his memory even in his 90s was as exacting as the rock-solid checks that were part of his Hall of Fame tool kit.

A lasting memory of mine: Orr and Schmidt side by side during a press conference at the Garden a short time before Schmidt died (January 2017). As the frail Schmidt rambled on about Orr being the greatest ever to lace ‘em up, the impish Orr quietly, and intending for everyone in the room to see, peeled off a $20 bill and pressed it gently into Schmidt’s hand. “Thanks, Uncle Milty,” said Orr.

Milt Schmidt poses on the ice in 1953.
Milt Schmidt poses on the ice in 1953.ASSOCIATED PRESS

In Montreal, Richard and Jean Beliveau, a decade younger than the Rocket, remain the names that define the franchise. Guy Lafleur, too, to a slightly lesser extent.

“The two most significant Canadiens are Jean Beliveau and the Rocket,” noted NHL.com historian Dave Stubbs, who spent years chronicling the Habs for the Montreal Gazette. “Rocket was the fire in the belly, the coal in the furnace of the Canadiens, and Jean Beliveau was the conscience of the team.”

The legacies of both men linger in Montreal, each honored with statues that stand outside the Bell Centre. Both are revered, with Richard’s memory still held with such a passion that it’s not rare today to see a Montreal grade schooler wearing his No. 9.

“Surprisingly, to me,” noted Stubbs, “there is still a reverence and respect paid to [Richard] by a generation of Montreal hockey fans, who, for them, the Canadiens history began with Saku Koivu.”

The night Richard went berserk at the Garden served as precursor to the famed Richard Riot four days later, St. Patrick’s Day. The fracas in Montreal was touched off when league president Clarence Campbell suspended him for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. The riot began inside the Forum, where irate fans hectored Campbell and showered him with debris, and carried out into the streets, leading to some 40 injuries, upward of 100 arrests, and extensive damage to neighboring storefronts.

The suspension cost Richard the chance to maintain his hold on the league scoring race (teammate Boom Boom Geoffrion edged him by 1 point) and further cost the Habs in the playoffs. They fell to the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final, then piled up a record five consecutive championships from 1956-60.

Bruins left winger Eddie Sandford was on the Garden ice the night of the Richard-Laycoe brawl. Sandford, then 26, had the requisite speed to be assigned as Rocket’s shadow.

“All those years I played against him, he spoke to me only once,” recalled Sandford, fashioning a French accent. “It was before a faceoff at the Forum, and he said to me, ‘Eddie, how you like Dick Irvin?’ ”

Irvin, long Richard’s coach, was fired after the Habs lost the Cup Final to the Wings in ’55. Some felt he was removed, in part, because he lost control of Richard, and in turn lost the chance to win the Cup that spring.

The night Richard asked him about Irvin, Sandford was playing for the Black Hawks and was coached by Irvin in Chicago.

“And I said to Rocket, ‘Oh, Irvin’s a tough guy,’ ” recalled Sandford, who is now 92 and lives in Woburn. “His answer to me was, ‘Rocket have him for 12 years.’ ”

The emphasis was on 12, and Richard’s tone made them sound like they were 12 long years.

Keeping up with the Rocket on the ice was a chore, said Sandford. Habs teammates nicknamed him for his speed. Once across the blue line, puck on his stickblade, he skated ferociously, in an era when the one referee often didn’t reach for his whistle when opposing forwards or defensemen all but jumped on the shooter’s back.

“Woody Dumart covered him a lot,” recalled Sandford, referring to his old Boston teammate. “Lines would change and they’d say, ‘Get on the Rocket!’ I’d get on him, but I’d be 10 feet ahead of him, then he’d be flying. I couldn’t keep up with him. Not many could.”

Not only was Richard fast, noted Sandford, but he had exceptional balance.

“You could run into him, give him a solid check,” said Sandford, “and he’d bounce right off it and just continue skating without missing a beat. Awful good shot, too. He shot backhand and forehand — a pretty darned good backhand.

“He was dedicated. He wanted to get the puck and go, and he wanted to go all the way, score. He lived that kind of a life.”

‘“He was dedicated. He wanted to get the puck and go, and he wanted to go all the way, score. He lived that kind of a life.”’

Eddie Sandford, former Bruins left winger, on Rocket Richard

One interesting parallel between Richard and Williams is that they both very early in their careers, and at the same age, posted the numbers that still very much define them: Richard’s 50 goals and Williams’s .406 batting average.

Richard potted his 50 at age 23, in 1944-45, after playing but 62 games in his first two NHL seasons. Williams hit .406 in 1941, his third season in the big leagues, and turned 23 that August.

Richard never scored more than 45 after that, and Williams’s next-best season was .388 in the summer he turned 39. The two retired within days of each other.

Ted Williams in May 23, 1941. He would finish this season with a .406 batting average, as if you could forget.
Ted Williams in May 23, 1941. He would finish this season with a .406 batting average, as if you could forget.TED SANDE

Rocket came to training camp in September 1960, wasn’t convinced he had the speed to compete to his liking, and announced his retirement in an evening press conference quickly pulled together in the midtown Queen Elizabeth Hotel.

So take me to the Forum, and drop me in the center-ice reds, somewhere in the thick of that 1944-45 season, with the rawboned Richard piling up goals (50 in 50 games) like no one had ever seen.

Beginning in the late ’70s, I started covering games in Montreal when the Bruins visited. It often felt like a night at the theater. In the expensive seats, men still came dressed in suit and tie, women in fine dresses, diamond necklaces, and long fur coats.

The Habs were the city’s pride, the centerpiece of sport and culture, and the old Forum quaked when the Flying Frenchmen scored … and scored … and scored again.

“I said it as a kid, and I said it many times,” said Sandford, who grew up in Ontario. “The place to be in the wintertime, on a Saturday night, was the Forum in Montreal. There was nothing like it.”

Likewise, there was no one like Richard. Even if it’s left to my mind’s eye to testify.

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Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.