Montréal Canadiens. To put just that feat in perspective, two facts: only one other North American athlete has won 11 team championships in the highest professional league of his sport, and that's Bill Russell, of the NBA's Boston Celtics; also, by the time he had retired, the inimitable Henri Richard had had more championship rings than birthdays - he was born on February 29th, in a leap year.
He has also led the NHL in assists twice - a feat never matched by his older brother, Maurice 'The Rocket' Richard. Can you imagine being the younger brother of a team's biggest legend, playing for the same team years later, making a name for yourself (and a nickname, 'Pocket Rocket', because at 5'7'', he was three inches shorter than his brother), making the Hall Of Fame (1979) and getting your own jersey retired? It definitely takes a special man to pull it off, an incredible athlete.
But Henri Richard is much more than an overly talented athlete, he is also a Man with a capital 'M'; he has been serving as a Habs' ambassador for decades now, and it's easy to understand why: he attends most games at the Bell Centre and greets everyone who comes his way, one at a time, and thanks each one for coming when we should all be thanking him for the amazing memories he has created for us, but also for helping make this team of what should have been underdogs into the greatest one of its sport.
And he takes it outside the arena as well: I sent him a fan letter and two cards on September 22nd and got this in the mail on October 22nd - a month to the day, an awesome return: the one top-right, wearing the white uniform from Ultimate Trading Card Company's (no idea who they are!) 1992-93 All Ultimate Team set (card #81) and the one at the bottom, with the brown contour that's supposed to look like an old-time TV set, from the 1966-67 Topps set, for which Topps didn't identify itself anywhere, seeing as they were the only brand manufacturing cards that year. Not only did he sign both in blue sharpie and added his jersey number (#16) at the end, but he also added (and signed!) a 1999 Molson Export card (like the Réjean Houle one I talked about earlier this year) in which he is photographed with the Cup - as well as a Molson Export postcard with the same picture blown up. Molson, as team owners, spared no expense praising the team's heritage, even in their ads.
So not only was Mr. Richard generous enough to take the time to sign and send my cards back - he added two himself. My grandfather had told me a lot about not only Henri Richard's prowess on the ice, but also of how affable a gentleman he was off the playing surface. He'd even bought me a vinyl record when I was a kid, ''Tous Mes Secrets De Hockey'', in which Mr. Richard relates what he feels are the secrets that led him to the NHL - taking the time to learn to skate well, determination, how to pass and shoot - never once mentioning his God-given talent, thus letting kids believe they, too, could someday reach the big league despite not having the obvious generous genetics he was born with.
Before high school, say ages 6-11, when there were games on weekdays, I was usually only allowed to watch the first period on TV before going to bed. I'd then sneak my Habs radio (shaped like a stick and a puck donned by the Canadiens' logo) beneath my pillow and fall asleep listening to the game. On nights with no games, I'd go to bed listening to Mr. Richard's record, holding my plush E.T. doll under my arm and dreaming of one day playing in the NHL. As a goalie. I never actually made it, but it was close enough to my satisfaction - and the dreams I had in the meantime were more than worth my while.
Thank you, Mr. Richard.