NHL Network Radio’s Mick Kern remembers ‘The Flower’ Guy Lafleur, dead at 70
A mere week after the passing of Hockey Hall-of-Famer Mike Bossy, hockey has lost another hero, a figure larger than life, a person that made a lot of people smile during his all-too-brief time playing the game he was born to play.
Even the name sounds poetic.
There are a handful of athletes that can be identified by a signature look, or move. Casual sports fans could pick these legends out of the crowd. When it came to Lafleur, where does one start?
His blonde hair majestically flying through the air as Number 10 gracefully darted through the neutral zone?
His sweater rippling as he accepts a pass from Jacques Lemaire, and then snaps a shot past Bruins’ netminder Gilles Gilbert to tie Game 7 of the 1979 Eastern Semi-Final with a scant 74 seconds remaining in the 3rd period?
Maybe it’s the shy smile on his face, as he accepts platitudes from Pete Mahovlich, Steve Shutt, and Larry Robinson, for scoring yet another highlight-reel goal.
The Disco Album, the Sports Drink, the TV commercial about losing his hair, the ubiquitous cigarette in his hand, piloting a helicopter; at times, Guy Lafleur was bigger than the game, but he was also a creation of the game.
The cliché is correct…we would have invented him if he hadn’t existed.
But he did exist. And he lived and breathed hockey from an early age, an artist with a flair for the game from the start, a time shifter in a sport (and era) that actively discouraged it. A player in the age of escalating money appeared to still strap on the blades for the sheer joy of playing hockey.
We have heroes because we need heroes. If just to put an extra jump in our step, we live vicariously through the ups, and downs, of those deemed worthy of such fawning attention.
They are more than heroes, they become friends. Even family. Or so we like to imagine. Many of life’s markers along our personal path in life are illuminated by the accomplishments of a favourite musician, band, artist, or actor.
And athlete. Especially athletes.
Despite the ever-growing economic disparity between the jock and the audience (not to mention ownership), we can all relate to throwing a ball or trying to run fast. Most of us have done those things, but never at the level we may have initially aspired to. Add in skates, ice, and a stick. Hockey is indeed Nureyev On Ice, with a healthy helping of Smash-Up Derby added to the mix.
Guy Lafleur fit that to a T.
From an early age, Lafleur was the flower that reached for the sun. And with that extended reach came pressure, but each step of the way up the hockey ladder he handled it with aplomb.
The tales are legendary of a young Guy showing up at the local arena in Thurso, Quebec, and getting out on the ice well before the rink was opened. That natural dedication to his craft quickly rose him to prominence in small-town Western Quebec.
When he graduated to Junior Hockey, Guy set the newly formed Quebec League record book on fire, putting up unheard-of totals of 103, then 130, goals for the Quebec Remparts in the 1969-70, and 1970-71 seasons. Only Mario Lemieux (with 133 goals in 1983-84 for Laval) has ever bettered Lafleur.
By the time the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft rolled around, Guy should have been ready to ply his trade with the California Seals, or the equally moribund Red Wings, or Penguins. Well off the hockey radar. Just a kid playing the game he loved.
Instead, thanks to the shrewd wheeling and dealing of legendary Canadiens’ GM Sam Pollock, Lafleur ended up in the pressure cooker of pressure cookers. Montreal, Quebec. And just in time to take the torch from his hero, retiring legend Jean Beliveau.
It took three seasons for the Guy that we expected, that we demanded, to emerge. He put up a respectable total of 29 goals in his rookie campaign but was outscored by the likes of fellow Francophone rookies Richard Martin and Marcel Dionne. Impatient critics made sure to point that out. His 64 points set a record for most points by a Canadiens rookie, but we knew there was more. Lafleur lit the lamp 28 times in his sophomore season and dipped down to 21 the third time around the sun.
For most players, those would be solid totals. But Lafleur wasn’t supposed to be most players, dammit. He was going to be the Next Hockey God for not only Montreal, not only Quebec, not only Canada but for The World.
He briefly contemplated jumping to the Quebec Nordiques of the recently hatched rival World Hockey Association, but the hidden hand of fate intervened, and he re-upped with the Habs.
And ditched his helmet.
This is where The Flower truly emerged.
When the 1974-75 season began, the already formidable Les Canadiens had all-star goaltender Ken Dryden back from a one-year sabbatical, and they had Le Demon Blond.
Excuse the purple prose, but the Flower blossomed, suddenly scoring goals at the pace we expected, and breaking the 100-point barrier for the first time. He lit the lamp 53 times in the 1974-75 campaign in only 70 games, missing a number of games thanks to a slash from Darryl Sittler.
Lafleur followed up that breakout year with totals of 56, 56, 60, 52 and 50 goals, becoming the first NHL’er to reach the 50-goal plateau in six straight seasons. No wonder a young Wayne Gretzky put him up there with the likes of Gordie Howe, and Gilbert Perrault, when talking about his favourite players when he was a teenager.
The silverware soon followed. Three times Lafleur led the league in scoring. Two times he took home the Hart Trophy as league MVP. His peers elected him as the top player on three occasions. He was the MVP of the 1977 playoffs, with 26 points in 14 games; pretty heady totals in the pre-Gretzky NHL. Guy was one of the handful of players to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP the same season he won the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky also accomplished this. It doesn’t get better than that.
Lafleur was a key part of the four straight Stanley Cup championships between 1976 and 1979 (also remember he was on the 1973 Cup-winning team, with a respectable 8 points in 17 post-season games).
When he recorded his 1000th NHL regular-season point on March 4th, 1981, with a goal against the Winnipeg Jets, he was the youngest player to reach that lofty plateau (a record since broken).
Everything was coming up Flower. At least on the ice. Off the ice, as we’d later learn, Guy experienced many of the same ups and downs as us mere mortals, but social media didn’t exist then to drag out heroes back to Earth, even when it might have benefitted them.
Lafleur was surrounded by one of the best-constructed hockey teams of all time, and no doubt benefitted from that association. But he also made the Shutts, Little M’s, and Lemaire’s better, too. How many goals would he have scored if the Seals, or the Penguins, had been able to draft him? Arguably more, because there would have been less pressure on him. Marcel Dionne, forever linked with Lafleur because of their junior days and same draft year, has pointed out that Guy had it tougher than him, due to playing in Montreal, and playing in far more pressure-packed playoff games than Dionne, who toiled most of his career for a usually less-than-impressive Los Angeles Kings’ franchise.
Then again, Guy Lafleur of the California Seals may not have potted as many goals if he hadn’t been surrounded by the Shutts and Lemaires of the world. Maybe the Seals don’t move to Cleveland. Maybe a whole bunch of alternative timelines open up. Let’s stick to what we know.
For a period between Phil Esposito and Wayne Gretzky, Guy Lafleur was the most prolific point producer in the National Hockey League. And as good as Espo was battling in the black-and-blue slot, and 99 was for jaw-dropping creativity anywhere on the ice, Lafleur was a showman.
Think Pavel Bure. Or Mike Modano. Or Alex Ovechkin. Okay, a shyer Ovie.
Lafleur was that rare player that would bring you out of your seat when he picked up the puck and a head of steam. What might he do this time?
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Montreal was still a good team, but the rest of the league had caught up to them, and the likes of the Islanders, and Oilers, became the respective powerhouses.
In large part due to a rash of injuries, Lafleur’s final four full seasons with Montreal produced only a season-high of 30 goals. Again, good totals for most players, but not for Lafleur. A falling out with former linemate, now head coach, Jacques Lemaire, hastened retirement for #10. (Note…maybe hockey fans should have seen this as a sign of things to come for trap hockey-loving Lemaire).
So he stepped away from the game that he had given so much to, the game that had grown richer because of his involvement. On November 26th, 1984, Lafleur retired. Which caught most of the hockey world by surprise. This guy could still play. Did he retire too soon?
Lafleur became a Goodwill Ambassador for Les Canadiens, a fitting role since Lafleur was one of the few players that most fans from other teams not only respected but liked. But there was a spat with the team over money, and it became clear the job wasn’t for Guy. He missed the game. Again, did he retire too soon?
Well after the magical flair had left his game (for it leaves everybody’s game eventually), Lafleur returned to the NHL after a three-year retirement.
Superstar centre Wayne Gretzky, who broke a number of the Flower’s records, had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of 1988, and that shocking transaction shook up the hockey world.
Lafleur was watching and had finally admitted to himself that he had indeed retired too soon. He was interested in joining the Kings, but the team had enough on their plate and passed.
Phil Esposito was running the New York Rangers by then, and never being one to miss a unique promotional opportunity, extended an offer for The Flower to play on Broadway. The recently inducted Hockey Hall of Famer accepted, despite most of the hockey world mumbling their disapproval. Hockey Gods, especially legendary ones, should remain up on Mount Olympus. Don’t risk mixing with mere mortals, and looking ordinary.
There was no way the by then 37-year-old forward was going to produce at a Hall of Fame level any longer.
By 1988, Lafleur was ready to play again. And to play for the reason he initially would get up early for in his hometown in Thurso, Quebec, and get to the arena before it was even officially open. Because he loved the game.
The 88-89 Rangers weren’t the 76-77 Habs, but Lafleur put up respectable totals of 18 goals, and 27 assists, in 67 games.
One of the games he missed due to injury occurred in December 1988. The Rangers were in Montreal, and it was a hot ticket to get. I was in attendance at the Montreal Forum on that evening, and the sense of disappointment was palpable. Guy wasn’t going to be able to play. He did don a Rangers jersey and head out to centre ice for a pre-game ceremony, and the ovation was loud and heartfelt. But one knew it was only a precursor for the real thing.
The Real Thing happened Saturday, February 4th, 1989.
The New York Rangers were back in town, and this time, Guy Damien Lafleur was going to be able to play.
It was a typical early February winter’s evening in Montreal, and one bundled up appropriately for the occasion. We made the two-hour trip from Ottawa for the occasion, the tickets burning a hole in our pocket. On the walk down Ste. Catharines to Zorba Restaurant, the spot of our weekly pre-game meal, we fielded a number of generous offers for the tickets.
Mere money was not going to keep us from this game, this moment.
That season, the Canadiens were one of the best teams in the league, vying with Terry Crisp and his Calgary Flames for the top spot all season long. It would be appropriate that both those teams would meet up 3-and-a-half months later in the Stanley Cup Final, with the former Atlanta Flames winning their first Cup, doing so in six games, and lifting the Silver Mug on Forum ice, the only visiting team to ever do that to Les Canadiens.
But that was all in the future. On this frosty Saturday night, a hero from the past was back. And while the two points up for grabs mattered, paying respects to the not-so-distant past took precedence.
How would Lafleur look? That was the gist of the many conversations going on all around us as we made our way up the crossed hockey stick escalators, and took our seats high up in the centre blues, right at centre ice. Every game at The Forum was a meeting of the Two Solitudes, as one learned to speak, or at least understand, a rough yet visceral mixture of French and English. After all, we had a shared passion. The Montreal Canadiens. And tonight, the Prodigal Son had finally returned.
How would he look? What about how would his old team look? Would they allow all the attention to affect their game? Rookie head coach Pat Burns had already shown that he had an iron grip on his charges, having righted the ship after a slow start to the season.
Stephane Richer, in between 50-goal seasons as it turned out, opened the scoring just over 3 minutes into the game, and more than a few people commented on the fact the new sniper was heard from first. But the Rangers reeled off the next 3 goals and had grabbed a 3-2 lead by the mid-way part of the second period.
Lafleur had picked up an assist on David Shaw’s first-period marker, and the capacity crowd roared its approval. But that was only the warmup.
Showing that he still had a flair for The Moment, Lafleur turned the clock back not once, but twice, in the next six minutes, scoring his 11th and 12th goals of the season.
The first goal was met with a shower of noise, celebration, high-fives, and smiles not usually associated with a visitor’s goal.
The second goal almost brought the house down. Enveloped by a dancing, leaping, twisting mass of joyful humanity, I’m convinced that night was the moment they made plans to build a new arena because the damage to the old barn from the ensuing celebration was far too extensive to plaster over.
As both a fan, and as a member of the sports media, I have attended my fair share of games, both big spotlight moments, and off-the-radar Tuesday nights affairs at somewhere such as the Brendan Bryne Arena with a smattering of fans (Hartford Whalers over the New Jersey Devils February 18th, 1987).
I may have been at louder games during that span, but I cannot recall a more passionate collective cry from the assembled masses. When Guy scored his first goal, we were instantly transported back, only for a fleeting moment, to the mid-1970s. I was back in Grade 6 in Edmonton, in an age long before the Internet, listening to the CJCA sports reports before bedtime, hoping to hear that Lafleur had scored yet again.
When Guy scored his second goal a few minutes later, I was back there for good. When everything seemed better, seemed simpler, and the Montreal Canadiens were becoming a team for the ages.
The ovation went on and on, and at some point, the game had to resume. The Rangers held a 5-2 lead, and New York was battling for a playoff spot in the Patrick Division (they would finish 3rd). The game almost became an afterthought, except for the hope that Lafleur could complete the hat-trick. This would be the only time I could recall the faithful completely on the side of the visitors.
During the ovation after Lafleur’s second goal, I glanced down at the Habs’ bench. There was no sign of any panic. It was almost as if they shrugged and said, “there, you got what you wanted”. Shane Corson would score late to make it 5-3, and Claude Lemieux would score early in the 3rd to close the gap to one.
There was a hat-trick recorded at the Montreal Forum on the evening of February 4th, 1989, but it was by Shane Corson. His two 3rd period goals led a steady Montreal comeback, and they prevailed 7-5, and goaltender Patrick Roy kept his home-ice unbeaten streak alive.
So the paying customers got what they wanted that long-ago night. Goals, two of them, by their hero, and a win by their heroes.
Lafleur was naturally named one of the game’s three stars, and it’s one of the few photos I took that evening that turned out.
How did the remainder of Lafleur’s NHL career turn out? That would be his only season on Broadway, as he headed off to where it all began, Quebec City, and the rebuilding Nordiques for two seasons.
Guy looked great in the Nords’ uniform, and trust me when I say he was the only player from that team fellow Habs fans cheered for. Only Lafleur, and a young Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin, were the bright lights during those dark days at Le Colisee.
After three seasons back in the big league, Lafleur packed it in for good after the 1990-91 season. 560 goals in 1,126 regular-season games.
While Lafleur’s last NHL game was the next Sunday, at home in Quebec (against the Canadiens), the final Saturday night game that year was in Montreal on March 30th, and the standing ovation for Lafleur went on and on and on. Guy would score the final goal of his storied career during the 2nd period, bulging the twine on his final shot on net in Montreal, in a 4-3 loss to the home team.
I was in the stands for that game, and while it didn’t possess the crackling electric urgency of that February 1989 game, it was more of a loving goodbye, to a player who made all those chilly, dark February nights that much more bearable, and provided us with tales to tell the next generations about those sweet, all too brief moments when we were all younger, and everything seemed better. A warm embrace, and a thank-you for a son who did well, before heading off into the good night.