Even in Glamorous Canadiens, Guy Lafleur Was a Rock Star

Panache was the word for Guy Lafleur, a towering figure in Montreal hockey history who swept down the Canadiens’ right wing in the 1970s...


Panache was the word for Guy Lafleur, a towering figure in Montreal hockey history who swept down the Canadiens’ right wing in the 1970s, golden streaks behind him, before freezing many goaltenders with his slap shot mortal.

Lafleur, often described as a rock star on the NHL’s most glamorous team of the era, died after three years of treatment for lung cancer, his sister Lise Lafleur announced Friday. He was 70 years old.

During Lafleur’s heyday, the Montreal Canadiens were arguably the best team in league history. They won four straight Stanley Cups from 1976-79, with the 1976-77 team losing just eight of 80 regular-season games. Fans are still debating whether this version of the Canadiens or the 1950s version that won five consecutive cups is the best.

There was never a dispute over who was the biggest star of the 1970s Blue, White and Red. Not only was Lafleur a prolific scorer, but he also played hockey the way French-Canadian fans liked to see him, in style. NHL fans knew him as The Flower, the literal translation of Lafleur, but in Quebec his nickname was more appropriately Le Démon Blond.

He combined the best traits of his predecessors, Quebec hockey icons Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Jean Béliveau. While Lafleur didn’t have the pure power of Richard on his skates, he had the eyes of an assassin as he approached the net with the puck on his stick. His grace and elegance were closer to that of the majestic Beliveau, as Lafleur was a gifted playmaker as well as a scorer.

For six consecutive seasons, from 1974-75 to 1979-80, Lafleur scored at least 50 goals. He played 961 games with the Canadiens from 1971 to 1984, finishing with 1,246 points, which remains the franchise record.

Lafleur’s playing days with the Canadiens didn’t end well. In 1984, his former teammate Jacques Lemaire was the head coach, and they clashed over how the game should be played. Lafleur retired at the start of the 1984-85 season, but returned four years later — after being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame — to play three more seasons with the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques.

“He was a great player,” said Scotty Bowman, who was the Canadiens’ head coach from 1971 to 1979. “I don’t know if any player in history had the pressure he had . When he was drafted by Montreal in 1971, they had just won the Cup, Béliveau had just retired.

“It was big shoes to fill, coming to Montreal to replace a player you can’t replace.

Lafleur was Beliveau’s direct successor, and before him, Richard, as the Canadiens’ French superstar. It was not an easy position in Montreal, passionate about hockey. Immediate success was demanded.

On top of that, Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock had used all his nefarious tricks to land Lafleur, who grew up in the small Quebec paper town of Thurso. He decided the California Golden Seals were the best bet to finish last in the 1970–71 season, earning the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft. Pollock persuaded the Seals to trade the pick, and later, when it looked like the Los Angeles Kings might fall below the Seals in the standings, Pollock traded veteran center Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles. Backstrom had 27 points in 33 games and the Kings edged the Seals, allowing Pollock to take Lafleur for first.

But the Canadians had a lot of talent, and even a prodigy like Lafleur had to earn his place in the lineup. This did not calm fans, especially when two French-Canadian players taken just after Lafleur in the 1971 draft, Marcel Dionne (Detroit Red Wings) and Richard Martin (Buffalo Sabres), immediately started scoring.

“Of course everyone in Montreal was comparing Lafleur to Dionne and Martin,” Bowman said. “They were playing regular minutes, and he wasn’t. He had a lot to overcome. It took time.

“He was a calm guy – he never complained about his fate. There was a lot of pressure on him, but he kept it to himself,” he said.

The breakthrough came in the 1974-75 season, when he was paired with left-winger Steve Shutt and scored 53 goals. For much of the next 10 years, they were one of the league’s most feared duos.

Lafleur’s most famous goal came on May 10, 1979, as the Canadiens were about to lose their chance to win a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup. With two minutes left in the third period, they lost 4-3 to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the Cup semi-final.

But the Bruins took that infamous penalty from too many men, then came Lafleur’s go-to goal with 74 seconds left. He picked up the puck in his own end, circled and then streaked the right side. Lafleur sent the puck to Lemaire, who carried it into the Boston zone with Lafleur behind him. Lemaire dropped a pass and Lafleur, in midair with his dirty blonde mane, fired a slap shot that left Boston goaltender Gilles Gilbert sprawled on his back.

The goal sent the game into overtime and Yvon Lambert scored to win it for the Canadians. The New York Rangers were dispatched in five games, and the Canadiens and Lafleur won a fourth championship.

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