It’s an iconic image of hockey now lost to a changed game.
Montreal Canadiens number 10 Guy Lafleur flies down the wing, flies over the blue line and fires a slapshot that sends the goalie sprawling, the goal light flashing and the Montreal Forum crowd explode.
Hockey as it was for decades played in the dreams of little players who still couldn’t tie their own skates.
There were others who could – Bobby Hull and Frank Mahovlich come to mind – but such a coin is so rare today that it is considered extinct.
Maybe it’s because today’s goalkeepers are twice as big as the goalkeepers of the sixties and seventies. Maybe it’s because the defenders are quick enough to follow. Perhaps it has to do with the coaching philosophy that has changed from “Let the goaltender see the puck” to “Block the shot with your teeth if you have to.”
Never mind. Let’s go. And now, too, Guy Lafleur, dead at 70.
No one scored with more flair and drama than what some called “Flower”, others “The Blond Demon”. Her hair was like the tail of a rocket launch, screaming speed even in still photographs of the day.
He was the superstar who led the Montreal Canadiens to five Stanley Cups, including four in a row in the late 1970s. He won three consecutive goalscoring titles and two consecutive Hart Trophies as NHL Most Valuable Player . In 1977, he received the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur, who died at 70, brought style to the Canadiens in the team’s glory years
Guy Lafleur made hockey iconic like no one had before
He, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux are the only three “retired” players ever inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame – and then come back to play a little longer.
Ken Dryden was on the radio Friday morning saying his longtime teammate was “natural” on the ice, but anything but natural off the ice.
“The Flower is a very strange person,” Lafleur’s roommate Steve Shutt told me in 1978. “He’s the furthest thing from an athlete you’d want to see off the ice.”
Fairly true. After an early morning rink, we went to lunch where Lafleur chain-smoked, drank beer — Molson’s, of course — played that night, smoked between the rules, and was, as usual, dominant.
It was no surprise to those who knew him well that there would be health issues later in life. “He’s so hyper,” Shutt said many years ago. “It winds up like a spool.”
Lafleur put himself under absurd stress – each pre-season writing down what he expected to accomplish during the season and leaving his prediction in a sealed envelope with his agent – loath to train in the summer and regularly skipped the optional practices.
For a while he tried switching to a pipe but soon returned to cigarette after cigarette. Three years ago he underwent a quadruple heart bypass and, shortly after, another surgery for lung cancer. He seemed cured for a year but then, in the fall of 2020, the lung cancer returned.
His passing is still a huge shock to Quebec fans who revered the number 10 so much, coming just a week after the passing of Mike Bossy, another francophone hockey superstar.
Canadiens president Geoff Molson released a statement on Friday expressing deep sadness and explaining how such a star “always kept it simple, accessible.”
“You didn’t need to see Guy Lafleur’s name and number on his jersey when ‘The Flower’ had the puck on his stick,” added NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Like Wayne Gretzky later, little Guy Lafleur was an established star before he was a teenager. In 1962, he was only 11 years old when he scored seven goals in a single game at the prestigious Invitation Peewee in Quebec.
The native of Thurso, Quebec, an industrial town on the Ottawa River downstream from Ottawa was so obsessed with hockey that his parents found him asleep, already fully dressed for morning practice. He had dreamed that night, like every night, that he would grow up and one day play with his idol, Jean Béliveau. Like Béliveau, he wore number 4. When he left for Quebec to play junior hockey, he kept a poster of Béliveau near his locker.
Lafleur led the Quebec Remparts to the Memorial Cup in 1971, scoring an incredible 130 goals in his final season of junior hockey. He knew that, ironically, his great success would probably prevent him from playing with Beliveau, because he was obviously going to be drafted at or near the top. Back then, the team with the worst record had to pick first, meaning he could wear No. 4 with the California Golden Seals, a team that had sunk to the bottom and no longer exists.
But Montreal general manager Sam Pollock had a plan. He engineered a trade that brought the Golden Seals’ first pick of the 1971 draft to the Canadiens, and he also sent a veteran player to the Los Angeles Kings, who were the only threat to finish with a worse record than the Golden Seals. . The strategy worked: the Golden Seals finished last, meaning Montreal could claim the award from Thurso.
Lafleur would never play with his idol, however, as Jean Béliveau chose to retire that summer after winning another Stanley Cup. Beliveau would stay with the Canadiens in a managerial position, meaning the two met often and quickly formed a strong father-son relationship.
“He came to see me and asked me what I thought about him taking my number,” Béliveau told me 44 years ago. “’If you want it, take it,’ I told him. “But don’t you think you have enough on you already?” Why not choose another number and make it famous yourself? » ”
Soon, the No. 10 was not only the most exciting new jersey on the Montreal Canadiens roster, but it was a product itself, with the No. 10 selling everything from rope soap to water. Köln.
Success, however, did not come as quickly as fans hoped and Lafleur wanted. Many Montreal fans thought Pollock should have picked another junior sensation, Marcel Dionne, after Dionne outplayed Lafleur that first season.
It was also said of the league that Lafleur was afraid to fight for himself. He became reclusive and his production slipped. He began to write melancholic poetry. And he often found himself crying on the Canadians’ big blue-white-red couch in Béliveau’s office. Fans were disappointed. The Montreal media wanted to know what was wrong with him.
In the spring of 1974, Béliveau ceased to be an attentive ear and challenged the young Lafleur. He castigated him for not working hard enough. Hearing such words from his idol changed Lafleur overnight. “I’m going to show the bastards,” he told Béliveau.
He threw away the helmet that had kept his fluttering locks from forming that iconic breakaway image. And he quickly became Guy Lafleur, perhaps the greatest player in the world of the later years of the 1970s, while remaining a caring and gentle soul, caring towards his fans and loved by his teammates.
The 1980s were not so glorious. He narrowly escaped serious injury in a car accident. He stubbornly refused to change from his flamboyant, all-attacking style of play to a more defensive style demanded by his former teammate and now coach, Jacques Lemaire. He asked for a trade, the team refused, so he retired at the start of the 1984-85 season having scored just three goals in 19 games. He was only 33 years old.
Four years later, Lafleur was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. No surprise, but a nice one would follow soon, as he signed with the New York Rangers, where he played one season before ending his career with two seasons with the Nordiques in his beloved city of Quebec. He retired for the last time in 1991. He and his wife, Lise, decided to open a restaurant.
In total, he played 1,126 games and scored 560 goals and 793 assists for a total of 1,353 points.
The flowing mane of the iconic years is largely gone, but never the collective memory.
Special for the Globe and Mail