A great many words have been written about the legendary Canadien and Hall of Famer, Maurice “Rocket” Richard. The Rocket’s 1944-45 campaign, in which he became the first (and only) NHL player to score 50 goals in a 50-game season, has long been the standard by which all other goal-scoring feats are measured. The 2009-10 season marks the 65th anniversary of “50 in 50” – a time to reflect. Richard’s feat bears scrutiny, that we might better understand and appreciate it for what it was…and wasn’t.
Yes, Maurice Richard was the founding father of the NHL’s 50 in 50 club, but he’s not alone: Mike Bossy (1980-81), Wayne Gretzky (1981-82, 1983-84, 1984-85), Mario Lemieux (1988-89) and Brett Hull (1990-91, 1991-92) are all members. For some fans, the fact that Richard was first is not enough. Often, they feel the need to explain why Richard’s 50 in 50 was somehow a greater achievement than any subsequent 50 in 50. These conversations usually revolve around a few key points, which can be summarized as follows:
MYTH: It was more difficult to score 50 goals in a 50-game season than in an 80-game season because scoring drops in the spring as teams battle for playoff berths.
FACT: The NHL only played four 50-game seasons, from 1942-43 to 1945-46. In three of those four seasons, goal scoring actually increased during the last quarter of the season. In 1944-45, the average number of goals scored per game jumped from 7.12 during the first 112 games of the season to 8.05 over the final 38. Richard’s stats run counter to the NHL as a whole, however: he had 41 goals through Game 37, but only scored 9 in the last 13 games of the campaign.
MYTH: Goals were harder to come by back in the 1940’s. It wasn’t like the “freewheeling 80’s”.
FACT: Here’s a comparison of the Average Goals/Game for the four 50-game seasons and the first four seasons of the 1980’s:
Average G/Gm 1942-43: 7.22. 1943-44: 8.17. 1944-45: 7.35. 1945-46: 6.69.
Average G/Gm 1980-81: 7.69. 1981-82: 8.03. 1982-83: 7.73. 1983-84: 7.89.
While the 1980’s saw a great many goals scored, the average game was quite comparable to the early 1940’s. There can be no doubt that the inflated scoring so long ago was due to the fact that many of the NHL’s top players were serving their countries in World War Two. Scoring began to drop as soon as the war ended and the returning NHLers swapped their tunics for sweaters, as can be seen in the G/G average for 1945-46. Perhaps a more telling statistic, however, is the percentage of 20+ goal scorers during the War Years compared to 32+ goal scorers in the early 80’s (***NOTE – 20 goals in 50 games is .4 G/Gm. .4 G/Gm over an 80-game season is 32 goals, which is why I chose that number): 1942-43 to 1945-46: 73 of 511 players (14.29%). 1980-81 to 1983-84: 200 of 2408 players (8.31%). During WWII, a significantly greater percentage of players scored at a pace of .4 G/Gm or better. After the war – and after Richard’s 50 in 50 – goals were harder to come by.
The facts above do not in any way cheapen Maurice Richard's singular achievement, however. The Rocket was a goal scorer throughout his career, and the War Years - just like the early 1980's - were an era in which goal scorers flourished. In that era, Richard stood tall. And, in the process of becoming the first player ever to score 50 goals in 50 games, he accomplished something else - a feat never before seen in the NHL, and one which has since been achieved by just four other players: Statistical Supremacy. What is "Statistical Supremacy"? Check back tomorrow for Part Two...
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