Howard Joseph (Howie) Riopelle
Born: January 30, 1922 (Ottawa)
Died: September 22, 2013 (Ottawa)
Member: Ottawa Sports Hall of Fame
Rip Riopelle was a seasoned, 25-year-old veteran, both as an athlete and a warrior, by the time he joined the Montreal Canadiens in the fall of 1947.
The aggressive winger had four solid seasons of senior hockey behind him, beginning with air-force teams in Ontario followed by two campaigns with the Montreal Royals of the Quebec league, including an Allan Cup title as senior hockey champions. He had even missed a season of play when he was sent overseas on active duty during the war.
In October, 1947, Riopelle and four others trying out for a spot on the Canadiens roster were loaned to the local Shawinigan Cataracts for an exhibition game at Shawinigan Falls, Que. Some 5,000 fans packed the arena for a rare view of their Canadiens heroes in action, only to be surprised when the home team, bolstered by the spare Habs, recorded a 6-5 victory. The spares accounted for half the Shawinigan goals, Riopelle scoring, as did Billy Reay (later to coach Chicago to the Stanley Cup) and defenceman Doug Harvey (a future Hall of Famer).
Riopelle earned a spot on the Canadiens, a team dependent on the scoring of the Punch Line — Elmer Lach centering Toe Blake and Rocket Richard. When Blake suffered a broken leg in January, 1948, newcomer Riopelle got a rehearsal on the famed line.
He spent much of three seasons with the Canadiens playing on a third line, responsible for shadowing and checking the opposition’s top scorers. Reay and Leo Gravelle were frequent linemates.
In looking back on his career, Riopelle considered himself an ordinary player.
“I wasn’t exceptional,” he told the Ottawa Citizen in 2009. “I played a lot against the best players in the world on a defensive line. Gordie Howe embarrassed me too many times to talk about.”
Unlike some of the others jostling for a spot on the roster, Riopelle often seemed indifferent to his fate with the team. He had started a fabric business in Ottawa, using his connections in Montreal to supply his downtown shop in an age when many households were still accustomed to making their own clothes. After a fine performance in the 1949 playoff semifinals, during which Canadian Press reported the winger “has turned in consistently good play during the series,” Riopelle trained with the team in October before the start of the season only to suddenly announce his intention to retire to spend more time on his business. The start of the new season was only hours away when Canadiens general manager Frank Selke announced Riopelle had signed, having yet again changed his mind, or perhaps appreciating he had leveraged his circumstances for a better contract.
He enjoyed his most productive season in 1949-50 despite suffering a serious back injury. Doctors ruled surgery too risky, and the winger retired from the NHL. In 169 games over three seasons, he scored 27 goals and 16 assists. He had a goal and an assist in eight playoff games.
After missing an entire season, Riopelle was lured back onto the ice with the Ottawa Senators. The Canadiens, who still owned his rights, sold him to the Quebec league team. He skated in 206 games with the Senators with a notable 31 goal and 60 assist campaign in 1953-54 to claim the President’s Cup as the league’s top scorer. When the team halted operations midway through the 1954-55 season, Riopelle hung up his skates for good.
He was the youngest of 15 children born to a devote Roman Catholic family who lived at 38 Champagne Ave. in what is now Ottawa’s Little Italy neighbourhood. Riopelle scored a hat-trick to lead St. Patrick’s College to a 9-5 victory over Assumption College of Windsor to claim the Ontario Interscholastic championship in 1940. He was coached by Alex Connell, a star NHL goaltender who had retired only three years earlier.
Riopelle played junior hockey in Ottawa before enlisting in the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942. He skated for air force teams in wartime in Toronto and Arnpior, outside Ottawa. He received his training at RCAF Station Uplands at Ottawa, gaining his wings in January, 1944. He was promoted to flying officer while overseas that October.
On Remembrance Day, 2010, Riopelle and fellow veteran NHLer Tony Licari took part in a ceremonial puck drop as the Ottawa Senators prepared to play the visiting Vancouver Canucks. (Licari, who had also served in the RCAF, played nine NHL games with the Detroit Red Wings. He died July 4, 2013.)
Riopelle was the last surviving of his siblings. He was also predeceased by his first wife, Claire (née McCloskey), who died in 2001, aged 79. He leaves his second wife Marjorie (née Foran) Plunkett; two sons; two daughters; 10 grandchildren; and, five great grandchildren, as well as Marjorie’s three children, five grandchildren and great grandson.