“Lafleur… coming out rather gingerly on the right side. He gives it in to Lemaire, back to Lafleur… he scores!!!” – Danny Gallivan
May 10, 1979. A day hockey fans of a certain age will never forget.
Game 7, NHL semifinals. The three-time defending Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens, locked in battle against the arch-rival Boston Bruins, coached by the bombastic Don Cherry.
Habs trailing 4-3 late in the game, on a power play thanks to a now-infamous too many men on the ice penalty.
The weight of a dynasty upon his shoulders, the game’s most iconic player stepped up with his most iconic moment.
Guy Lafleur took a drop pass from Jacques Lemaire, unleashed a thunderbolt from the top of the right circle that beat goalie Gilles Gilbert and sent the Montreal Forum crowd into a frenzy.
The rest of the game is almost a footnote. Yvon Lambert scored in OT, the Habs went on to beat the New York Rangers in the Cup final and Cherry became a TV legend.
But that moment, and so many others in the childhoods of myself and countless thousands of other good Canadian kids, belonged to Lafleur.
I’m still trying to process the news that Lafleur, Le Démon Blond, died on Friday (April 22) after battling cancer. He was 70 years old.
“Hope you write something,” said my learned colleague John McKinley, a hockey kid of the same vintage – and somehow still a loyal Buffalo Sabres fan all these years later. “Someone who lived it needs to to explain what that guy meant to so many kids growing up when we did.”
I think you just did, John.
Lafleur will always be larger than life for me. He was almost more of an artist than a player, a high-powered Ferrari amid a parade of tractors in the rough-and-tumble 1970s.
We didn’t have endless access to every game on TV or social media video clips. We got maybe once a week on the telly, plus the morning newspaper summaries, magazines ‘borrowed’ from the school library and our imaginations.
And oh, how Guy Lafleur spurred our imaginations.
He was a rock star, with a frenetic, speed-based game highlighted by his long hair flowing in the wind.
He won scoring titles and Stanley Cups, appeared in commercials and even made a disco album. He made it cool to drive a Monte Carlo. He chainsmoked in between periods. The line of Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky and Gilbert Perreault at the 1981 Canada Cup may have been the best ever assembled.
He was beloved by everyone from small children to heads of state.
On the ice and off, he went full-speed. His career seemed almost like a comet – burning brighter than all others for a short time, then fading away too soon.
You could measure his greatness by the grudging respect he had from all my Hab-hating buddies growing up.
“I hate them, but that Lafleur is so good,” was a familiar refrain.
That reverence was universal.
As a younger reporter, I used to enjoy long chats with former NHL ref Lloyd Gilmour, who regaled a wide-eyed me with wondrous stories from his life in the game.
The two players he spoke most highly of? Bobby Orr and Guy Lafleur.
‘The Flower’ retired at age 33, frustrated by his role on what had become a defence-oriented team.
He was elected to the Hall of Fame, then gave his fans a wonderful second act, emerging with the New York Rangers after four years away, with a little less hair to flow in the breeze but still the same electric aura.
In his return to the Forum, he summoned the magic one more time, scoring twice against Patrick Roy, the defeaning ovations for an opposing player surely unmatched in Canadiens lore.
I’ve covered a long string of NHL oldtimers games.
They mostly played to half-filled arenas. Unless Lafleur was listed in the lineup, whereupon 6,000 people were suddenly jammed into a 3,000-seat arena, happy fire marshalls high-fiving fans sitting on the stairs like bleu, blanc et rouge sardines.
I’ve been fortunate enough in this job to meet all kinds of big-name celebrities.
Only once did I ‘break character’ and turn into a starstruck little boy. I had a chance to sit down with Lafleur, who happily answered all my questions for 45 minutes, like there was no one else in the world. When we were done, I couldn’t help myself, asking for a picture, a request he happily honoured.
Then, our photographer said “can I get one, too?” and handed me the camera.
Of course, Lafleur obliged.
After he left, I asked the veteran photog if he’d ever done anything like that before.
“No, never,” he said. “But I mean, c’mon – that was Guy Lafleur.”
When a childhood hero passes, there’s a certain feeling of melancholy, an awareness of your own mortality.
But those memories can still instantly transport you back to a time of innocence and wonderment and for those memories, I’m eternally grateful.
Merci pour tout, No. 10.
VI Free Daily/PQB News editor Philip Wolf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-905-0029.
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