MONTREAL (AP) -- Maurice ''Rocket'' Richard, whose explosive speed and scoring heroics made him the cornerstone of the Montreal Canadiens' dynasty that won five straight Stanley Cups, died Saturday at the age of 78.
Richard, who slipped into a deep coma overnight, died of respiratory failure after a long battle with abdominal cancer.
The hockey great was hospitalized with a recurrence of the cancer that was first diagnosed more than two years ago. He also had Parkinson's disease, and doctors suspected the onset of Alzheimer's.
Richard, No. 62 on The Associated Press list of the top 100 athletes of the 20th century, helped the Canadiens win eight Stanley Cups during his 18-year career.
''What truly set him apart -- what made him a special hero to the fans -- was his extraordinary intensity,'' Prime Minister Jean Chretien said in a statement.
''He played with great emotion and flair and possessed an unmatched will to win. His dazzling combination of skill and drive not only made him one of the greatest hockey players ever, it also made him a symbol to all of what it takes to be a true champion.''
Richard and the Canadiens were followed with religious zeal in Montreal, with his fiery temper and the fans' dedication to their hero leading to a 1955 riot outside the Montreal Forum.
''He loved hockey, the Canadiens and the fans,'' said Jean Beliveau, the former Montreal captain who disclosed last week that he has a malignant tumor in his neck.
''He was a great leader. He didn't talk much. He preferred to express himself on the ice. I would tell younger players to watch the fire emanating from his eyes.''
Richard finished his career with a then-record 544 goals. He was the first player to score 500 goals and the first to score 50 goals in a season when he did it in 50 games in 1944-45. His six overtime goals remains a playoff record.
''Rocket had that mean look on, every game we played,'' Hall of Famer Gordie Howe said. ''He was 100 percent hockey. He could hate with the best of them.
''He could rile up the Montreal fans in a hurry. God, sometimes I felt sorry for the man. He must have got a standing ovation when he went shopping.''
A number of Montreal radio and television stations switched to all-Richard programming upon learning of his death.
''We're ready to share our grief with the public,'' Maurice Richard Jr. said outside Hotel Dieu Hospital. ''We know what our father meant.''
Andre Robidoux, a doctor who treated Richard, said the former player was on medication and did not suffer in his final days.
''He died of respiratory failure, which was caused by several factors,'' Robidoux said. ''We did all we could to save him over the week and throughout his illness.''
Richard was ambidextrous, a right wing who shot left-handed. He often switched from backhand to forehand as he swooped in on goalies. In the days before curved blades and slap shots, the Rocket possessed a hard, accurate shot and he was one of hockey's most dangerous scorers.
''What I remember most about the Rocket were his eyes,'' Hall of Fame goalie Glenn Hall once said. ''When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine. It was terrifying.''
Richard had great strength and shrugged off checks. He sometimes carried defensemen with him as he zoomed in on goalies.
''With his pride, his passion, his drive, and his determination, Maurice Richard embodied all the qualities that make hockey great,'' NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. ''He will live on through his legend and his legacy of excellence.''
Born in Montreal on Aug. 4, 1921, Richard grew up in a rough part of the city, next to a jail. He played hockey in the city's park league but his early career was often interrupted by injuries. There was a broken ankle, then a broken wrist. When he was promoted to the Canadiens in 1942, Richard broke his ankle again and the team's general manager, Tommy Gorman, said ''It looks like we have a brittle-boned player on our hands.'' Gorman even considered releasing Richard.
But as he matured, Richard shook off that image and became one of the most compelling figures in the six-team league through the 1940s and '50s.
On March 13, 1955, Richard got into a brawl with Boston's Hal Laycoe, swinging his stick at the defenseman three times and then taking a punch at linesman Cliff Thompson.
NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Richard for the final three games of the regular season and the entire playoffs. Then, four days after handing down his ruling, Campbell appeared at the Forum for a crucial game against Detroit.
He was greeted by boos and a shower of peanuts and programs. Then a fan approached Campbell as if to shake his hand and slugged him instead. A tear gas bomb exploded on the ice and the game was forfeited to the Red Wings.
When the fans spilled out of the Forum on to Ste. Catherine Street, in the middle of downtown Montreal, stores were looted and the crowd started a full scale riot.
The next day, Richard went on the radio to plead for calm. ''I will take my punishment,'' he said, ''and come back next year to help the club and the younger players to win the Stanley Cup.''
And that's exactly what he did.
The next year, with Richard back, the Canadiens began an unmatched run of five straight championships. Nine months after he retired in 1960, Richard was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, which waived its usual five-year waiting period to honor him.
He often drew double coverage on the ice but he skated right through it, bowling defenders over and then staring them down with his dark, menacing eyes. The Rocket's Red Glare could dissect defenders.
''As soon as he would touch the puck, you could feel the electricity in the crowd,'' said former linemate Bernie ''Boom Boom'' Geoffrion. ''It was amazing to see how people would react. There's never been another like him.''
Richard led the league in goals five times and was part of the most devastating power play in hockey history, one which forced a change in the rules. Before the Richard-led Canadiens mastered the manpower advantage, penalized teams were forced to play shorthanded for the full term of the penalty. But the Canadiens became so proficient with the extra skater that they often scored two and three times, causing the rule to be changed and limiting power plays to a single goal.
''There were games when I felt everything I shot would go in,'' Richard said. ''On some nights, if I touched the puck, I knew I would score.
''We were supposed to win all the time. When we did not win, it was a tragedy to many fans. All they knew was win, win, win.''
Richard and wife Lucille, who died in 1994, had seven children and 14 grandchildren. Richard's brother, Henri, also played for the Canadiens.
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