Richard returned to the hospital the next week with his own son and the puck.
Inspired by the Rocket
Hospital visit created Habs fan for life
Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Win or lose Game 4, nothing can dampen Robert Vanden Abeele's enthusiasm for the bleu-blanc-rouge.
The retired customs officer has been a loyal Canadiens fan since 1955, when he turned 17 and Habs legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard paid a surprise visit to his bedside at St. Mary's Hospital - not once, but twice.
Vanden Abeele had fallen under a streetcar and both his legs had been cut off.
It was the year of the Richard Riot, and that fall, Vanden Abeele had written the Rocket a fan letter. To Vanden Abeele's astonishment, Richard arrived at the hospital unannounced.
"I was speechless, I couldn't believe it was him. Right there in my room," Vanden Abeele, 69, said Tuesday.
"I didn't know what to say exactly. What do you say to someone like that?"
Vanden Abeele recalls Richard spent about an hour with him.
"He didn't say all that much. He spoke with his eyes. I could tell that what had happened to me really affected him."
It's what happened next that Vanden Abeele will never forget.
"He told me he'd score his next goal for me, and then he left."
There was a small black and white television in Vanden Abeele's room, and that night he watched Richard play against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Richard didn't score.
The next game was on a Saturday and the Habs played the Boston Bruins at the Forum: Jean Béliveau scored all four goals.
On Sunday, Nov. 7, in a game in Boston, The Rocket scored his 429th career goal.
"I thought he had forgotten all about me," Vanden Abeele said, "but the next day he came back to the hospital with son, Normand, and he gave me the puck that scored the goal, and an autographed hockey stick.
"He told me he worked hard to get the puck in the net for me, and that it hadn't been easy."
Hospital authorities had hoped to promote Richard's visit to St. Mary's as part of a fundraising campaign that year to raise money for a new wing. But Richard politely turned them down, saying he didn't want people to think he was seeking public sympathy.
Vanden Abeele said Richard's kindness helped him deal with his rehabilitation.
"From my room in the hospital, I could see kids at Collège Nôtre Dame next door skating," he said.
"I started to feel sorry for myself. For me there would be no more skating, no more skiing, no more bicycling. But the Rocket gave me a boost. He cheered me up, gave me the inspiration and the strength to conquer my fears and to learn to walk again.
"He will always be my champion, my hero."
Vanden Abeele still has the puck and the stick, and Richard's autograph, and said he'll never sell them, no matter what he's offered.
"To me, they are priceless souvenirs. I'll never part with them."
Of Monday's game against Philadelphia, which the Habs lost 3-2, and slipped behind in Eastern Conference semifinals, Vanden Abeele said the Canadiens aren't skating as fast as they were in Richard's day.
"They didn't call him the Rocket for nothing," he said. "Maurice was fast. Then, too, games back then were so different than they are now.
"The Habs aren't as tight as they should be. They lose the puck too often. Kovalev, he's good some times. Price is okay, but he's still too young. If the guys on the ice don't do their job, the goalie's lost."
Still, in spite of the setback, Vanden Abeele remains an optimist.
"I'm still a believer! No matter how bad it seems, you've got to believe."
© The Gazette 2008