Montreal Canadiens' magical playoff run helped inspire Lawson in naming of yearling

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Next year, Henri Richard and Joe Zuger will be roommates.

Not the former hockey and football standouts. Rather, their horse-racing namesakes.

Pocket Rocket and Zuger are currently yearlings and Woodbine Entertainment CEO Jim Lawson says the plan is to move both to the Toronto oval in 2022, with the two becoming stall mates. Lawson has a say regarding the path of both horses as he's the breeder/owner of Pocket Rocket and bred and owns Zuger with two partners.

Lawson also had a hand in the naming of the two horses, and as is usually the case in racing, there's a sentimental story behind each moniker.

When Lawson's first grandson, Henry, was born June 2, he decided to name a yearling after him.

"I was like, 'Let me think, how many Henrys do I know,'" Lawson said. "I knew of one, Henri Richard.'"

That's hardly a surprise given Lawson's favourite hockey player growing up was Jean Beliveau, the former Montreal captain who won 10 Stanley Cups as a player and another seven as an executive with the club. Richard was a longtime teammate of Beliveau's and has the distinction of playing for the most Stanley Cup-winning teams (11, all with the Canadiens).

He and his famous older brother, Maurice (The Rocket) Richard, remain two of the most recognizable names in the franchise's illustrious history.

Henri Richard was dubbed The Pocket Rocket because of his five-foot-seven, 160-pound frame but he could also skate like the wind. The yearling carrying his name is also a small horse. His father is Runhappy, a speedy sire.

The Ontario-bred colt was also born March 2, 2020, four days before Richard died at the age of 84.

What's more, Lawson was also drafted by the Canadiens in 1978. He played two seasons with the American Hockey League's Nova Scotia Voyageurs before retiring to pursue a law career.

The Canadiens are currently the talk of the hockey world. After securing the fourth and final post-season berth in the North Division, Montreal defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime on Thursday night to win the third-round in six games and advance to the Stanley Cup final.

It's Montreal's first Stanley Cup final berth since '93. That year, an upstart Habs squad, led by superstar goaltender Patrick Roy, won the NHL title.

This year's squad has similarities to '93 as goaltender Carey Price has anchored the Canadiens' stellar playoff run this year.

The night Henry was born, Montreal beat the Winnipeg Jets 5-3 in the opening game of their North Division final, which the Canadiens swept in four games. The squad is 8-2 overall since the start of the Winnipeg series

"After Henry was born, the doctors put him in front of the TV and I have a picture of him watching the Habs play," Lawson said. "They were undefeated before losing to Vegas but they've been on a roll ever since young Henry was born.

"It's almost like the stars were aligned."

Zuger, too, is a name from Lawson's youth. The horse is named after Joe Zuger, the former Hamilton Tiger-Cats quarterback who threw a record eight TD passes in his first CFL start and led the Ticats to three Grey Cups over 10 seasons (1962-71).

Zuger served as a scout, assistant coach and player-personnel director with Hamilton from 1972-80. He became the team's GM in 1981, a post he held until 1992 when he retired from football.

Lawson also has CFL roots.

His father, Mel, played quarterback for the 1943 Grey Cup-winning Hamilton Flying Wildcats. His grandfather, Charles, owned the Hamilton Wildcats in the 1940s and was a key figure in the merging of the Wildcats and Hamilton Tigers to become the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1950.

Jim Lawson was also chairman of the CFL's board of governors from 2013-19, twice serving as interim commissioner. He stepped down to concentrate full-time on his duties as CEO of Woodbine Entertainment Group, Canada’s largest racetrack operator.

"I grew up going to Hamilton Tiger-Cats games and Joe Zuger was the guy," Lawson said. "He had great years in Hamilton and should be considered for the Hall of Fame.

"But those were my formative years in terms of sports and going with my dad to Civic Stadium even before Ivor Wynne (Stadium). There was Joe Zuger, Tommy Joe Coffey, Hal Patterson, John Barrow, Angelo Mosca, Garney Henley . . . I can name you name and numbers of pretty much the whole team.

"But it (naming the horse Zuger) helps tell a little bit of the story about him. Joe Zuger is 81 and while he's not in the Hall of Fame, this is another way to bring back the fond memories of him."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2021

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press

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