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Hockey legend Guy Lafleur to celebrate Canada’s game

Guy Lafleur is in town for the Richmond Celebrates Hockey Day event at the Richmond Olympic Ova - Maniacduhockey photo (via Wikipedia)
Guy Lafleur is in town for the Richmond Celebrates Hockey Day event at the Richmond Olympic Ova
— image credit: Maniacduhockey photo (via Wikipedia)

Guy Lafleur was destined for stardom. Still, it took time for ‘The Flower’ to blossom.

Drafted first overall in the 1971 National Hockey League amateur draft by the Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, there were great expectations of the 20-year-old who had torn up the Quebec major junior league as a teenage phenom. He scored 130 goals and 209 points in 62 regular-season games and added 43 points in 14 playoffs games during the 1970-71 season.

“There was lots of pressure because everybody was expecting me to replace Jean Beliveau who had just retired (following the 1971 Stanley Cup final) and you don’t replace a guy like that,” said Lafleur said in a phone interview with The Richmond Review, prior to his appearance at this Saturday’s Richmond Celebrates Hockey Day event at the Richmond Olympic Oval. “Fans were expecting me to score right away, but also I was not playing on a regular line or on the power play because of the talent on that team.”

He was also constantly being compared early in his career to Marcel Dionne, who was drafted second overall by the Detroit Red Wings. Dionne was not only playing a regular shift but also being used on the power play.

Despite being brought along slowly, Lafleur still had an impressive rookie season with 29 goals and 64 points in the 1971-72 season. He added five points in six playoff games. He had 55 and 56 points each of the next two seasons before breaking out offensively and becoming the superstar many of the Canadiens’ supporters had hoped for or expected.

His 53 goals and 119 points in 1974-75, followed by a league-best 12 goals in 11 playoff games, coincided with his decision to stop wearing a helmet. But, he stressed, it had nothing to do with his scoring exploits.

“A lot of players didn’t wear helmets at the time and I was wearing a big heavy one at the time so I decided to take it off,” he said. “I was practicing without it and felt I was playing better or at least seemed to have more confidence.”

But it was getting significantly more ice time, Lafleur explained, that led to his increased point totals.

Lafleur won the first of three consecutive Art Ross trophies as NHL scoring champion in 1976-77 with 125 points, adding 17 more in the playoffs to help lead the Canadiens to their first of four consecutive Stanley Cup titles. He also topped the league in scoring in 1976-77 with a league-high 80 assists and 136 points, while contributing a playoff-best 17 goals and 26 points in 14 playoff games that spring during which he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. In 1977-78 he led the league in goals with 60 and points with 132.

Lafleur recorded a sixth straight 50-goal, 100-point season in 1979-80 with an even 50 goals and 125 points—the first player in NHL history do so—before an injury limited him to 51 games the following year in which he still managed 70 points. He had 84, 76 and 70 point campaigns each of the next three seasons before abruptly retiring 19 games  into the 1984-85 season.

The Canadiens’ all-time leading scorer with 1,246 points in 14 seasons, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988 but only months later was back playing in the NHL with the New York Rangers.

“I was playing a lot of Legends’ games touring across Canada and was in pretty good shape,” he said. “I was encouraged to make a comeback and started negotiating with the Rangers, but went to training camp without a contract. Eventually I signed for year and an option. It was tough to get in (NHL) shape first of all, but it was really worth it. My first game back was like being in a Stanley Cup final. It was unbelievable and really emotional the way the fans were very happy for me.”

After a respectable 45 points in 67 games with the Rangers in 1988-89, Lafleur signed with the Quebec Nordiques and promptly scored 34 points in 39 games in 1989-90. He concluded his career with the Nordiques the following season.

“I was really happy (to finish my career where it started as a junior),” he said. “Unfortunately we didn’t win too many games the two years I was there, but there was lots of talent on that team (the nucleus of which went on to become the Colorado Avalanche and Stanley champions in 1996).”

* * *

Guy Damien Lafleur grew up in the tiny (2011 population 2,455) western Quebec mill town of Thurso, where he first demonstrated an insatiable love for the game.

“When you go to sleep with your equipment on you have to love it,” he laughed. “I was always practicing, practicing, practicing and as kids we used to play mostly outside. But it was fun and it was an event. Every day to go play hockey, even ball hockey, was great. It’s the camaraderie I miss the most.”

Lafleur grew up idolizing Jean Beliveau. He first met the Montreal Canadiens’ legend while playing at the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament in 1962. Beliveau was there to drop the puck and Lafleur had his photo take with him.

“He was so nice to me and a lot of the kids there at the time and I was telling my dad ‘One day, I want to play in the NHL and to be like him,’” said Lafleur. “He was a great role model, as was Gordie Howe who another idol.”

Lafleur was 15 years old when he made his junior hockey debut with the Quebec Junior Aces in 1966. He scored 159 points over the next two seasons before joining the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 1969. Back-to-back 100-plus goal seasons, capped by 43 points in 14 playoff games in 1971 only heightened expectations as he prepared for a career in pro hockey.

Though they were the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Canadiens would land the much-coveted Lafleur with the top selection in the 1971 NHL amateur draft—the result of some clever stickhandling by general manager Sam Pollock. In 1970, Pollock traded the Canadiens’ first-round selection and Ernie Hicke to the California Golden Seals for the Seals’ first pick in 1971 and Francois Lacombe. Then when it appeared the Los Angeles Kings might finish below the Seals in the standings, Pollock traded steady veteran Ralph Backstrom the Kings. The Seals finished last and with the No. 1 pick, which originally belonged to the Seals, Montreal picked Lafleur.

Lafleur would have been nervous enough playing his first NHL game, but the fact it was at the Forum and Montreal fans hoping that he would become the team’s next superstar only added to the pressure.

“I was really nervous, especially with all your relatives that have come to see you play,”  he said. “I remember being very impressed with the building and fans. You want to get on the ice right away. I played centre with Yvan Cournoyer and Frank Mahovlich and I had an assist on Frank’s goal. I was really happy about that.”

But Lafleur’s ice time was limited, typical with the Canadiens of that era. They insisted on bringing their young players along slowly and were in a position to do so.

Once his apprenticeship was complete, both Lafleur’s confidence and scoring took off. Playing right wing on a line with good friend Steve Shutt and Pete Mahovlich, Le Demon Blond (as his Francophone fans called him, referring to his long blonde hair flying behind him whenever he raced up the ice to unleash his trademark howitzer slapshot) he became the best player in hockey. Period.

“With Steve, I didn’t have to look where he was because I knew most of the time. Peter, as a centre, was all over the ice but we complemented each other very well,” he said.

Throughout his NHL career, which spanned 17 seasons and included five Stanley Cup championships, Lafleur always enjoyed playing games against the other Canadian teams.

But it was the playoffs that Lafleur looked most forward to.

“They were always something special, and we had a particularly big rivalry with the (Boston) Bruins,” he said. “I think things were more competitive then and it was like a big family among the players on each team. Today, it’s more business-oriented.”

Now 61, Lafleur seems content in retirement and still follows the game closely. He considers Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins the best overall player in the NHL, but is also a fan of Vancouver Canucks’ stalwarts Henrik and Daniel Sedin. He also retains close friendships with many of his former teammates including Shutt, Larry Robinson, Rick Green and Richard Sevigny.

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