The Canadian-produced film “The Rocket,” showing through Thursday at the Parkway Theatre in South Minneapolis, depicts Montreal Canadiens superstar Maurice “Rocket” Richard‘s struggle against anti-French Canadian sentiment in a National Hockey League dominated by English-speaking Canadians. A key scene from early in Richard’s career — one with an unspoken Minnesota connection — gives a taste of what he had to deal with.
On Dec.17, 1944, at the old Madison Square Garden, a rugged New York Rangers defenseman named Bob “Killer” Dill attacked Richard and goaded him into a fight. Bad idea. Richard cleaned Dill’s clock on the ice, then pounded him again in the penalty box after the two exchanged words.
Hockey fight was real, but details missing
The fight actually happened, but two details never made it into the film. Dill was American. And he grew up in St. Paul.
Dill died in 1991, and Richard in 2000. The movie, released in 2005, depicts Dill as a maniacal goon who was out to get Richard, but Dill’s son, Bob Dill Jr. of St. Paul, said filmmakers exaggerated the animosity. In fact, Dill Jr. said he met Richard at a dinner he and his father attended in the 1980s, and the two old-timers carried on like old friends. Dill Jr. has a picture on his desk of his father and Richard taken that night, smoking cigars and smiling.
“What I heard from Richard, after they fought, the two of them went out and had a few drinks together,” Dill Jr. said. “I guess that’s the way they handled things in those days.”
The elder Dill played less than two seasons in the NHL, from January 1944 to the end of 1945, all with the Rangers. Only a handful of Americans played in the six-team league at that time, and Dill Sr. was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979, thanks in part to five productive seasons with St. Paul in the old U.S. Hockey League. Dill Sr. also scouted for the Rangers, Chicago and the North Stars.
No question, Dill Sr. knew how to use his fists. Author Ross Bernstein, writing in his book “The Hall,” called Dill Sr. a “notorious brawler.” The numbers support that. In 76 NHL games, Dill Sr. racked up 135 penalty minutes, according to the NHL official guide and record book. But he also compiled 15 goals and 15 assists, respectable numbers for a defenseman.
In the dramatic tension leading up to the fight, the filmmakers paint Dill Sr. as a Hansen Brother times 10, brutal and bloodthirsty. They even hired Sean Avery, an actual NHL goon, to play Dill Sr., one of several active players who appear in the film. (Coincidently, Avery now plays for the Rangers, though he didn’t when the movie was made.)
The film also suggests Dill Sr. acted with the Rangers’ approval. Not so, says Dill Jr. He says that Lester Patrick, then the Rangers general manager and a legendary figure in the game, apparently wasn’t a fan of Dill Sr.’s gritty style.
“He would send my father notes that he was too rough and taking too many penalties,” Dill Jr. said. “So the movie really wasn’t accurate that way.” Plus, Dill Jr. said American players dealt with almost as much prejudice as the French-Canadians, and heard similar insults about their toughness and talent.
After the 1944-45 season, the Rangers sent Dill Sr. to St. Paul, a club they owned, to serve as a drawing card, Dill Jr. said. Dill Sr. thrived for the Saints, earning first-team USHL all-star honors in 1947 and 1950 and scoring 15 goals in 1949, when the Saints won the league playoff championship.
Richard went on to score a then-record 544 career goals in an 18-year career that ended in 1960.
Dill Jr. says film makes Richard too gruff
After that memorable dinner with Richard, Dill Jr. said he corresponded with Richard and learned more about the fight. Richard told him he suffered a three-stitch cut over one eye, a detail the movie did not include. And Dill Jr. had one quibble with Roy Dupuis, who played Richard in the film.
“I don’t think the guy smiled once in the movie, which is kind of depressing,” he said. “I think Richard was kind of a quiet person, but for that one meeting, he was a bubbly guy, and very humble.”