He was tabbed as “The Next One”. He ended up being all of that, and more. Much more.
As a diehard Habs’ fan from my earliest memories, I was fortunate enough to witness Jean Beliveau’s final season when he netted his 500th goal and led Montreal to a huge upset of the Bruins in a playoff run that culminated in Beliveau winning his tenth Stanley Cup, an NHL record that would only be surpassed by Henri Richard.
The day “Le Gros Bill” announced his retirement was a sad one indeed but Habs fans were assured that the Canadiens’ future was in good hands because the Canadiens had the first pick in the 1971 NHL Draft, and the player they were certain to select was destined for superstardom.
I was an avid hockey card collector in 1971 at the age of seven, and I will never forget the thrill of opening up a pack and feasting my eyes on my first-ever Guy Lafleur card. The caption under the cartoon said it all…and it was the first and only time a trading card company was so bold as to declare that a player who had never played a single NHL game would be a superstar. I didn’t doubt it for a moment:
It took Guy three seasons to properly find his footing in the NHL. He was by no means below average, scoring 55+ points each season, but he failed to hit the 30-goal mark, and that simply wasn’t good enough for a demanding fanbase. Lafleur was a 130-goal scorer in his last year of junior with the Quebec Remparts…surely he would one day be a 50-goal scorer for the Canadiens?
It all came together in 1974-75 after Le Demon Blond ditched his Stan Mikita Northland helmet and looked like a new man both figuratively and literally. We all saw the long blond mane flowing as he tore down the wing and made special play after special play in his breakthrough campaign. We knew by December that he was not only going to break the 30-goal mark for the first time in his career, but he was also going to shatter it. His 53 goals, 66 assists and 119 points all broke club records, and the superstar torch had indeed been passed from Big Jean to Guy.
Habs fans knew we were in for a special season in 1975-76 when Guy opened the campaign with ten goals and 14 assists in his first nine games as the Canadiens and the big line with Steve Shutt, Lafleur and Peter Mahovlich stormed out of the gates. What followed was the most prolific five-year period by an NHL forward in NHL history up until that point. Five consecutive seasons with 50 goals and 125 points and first All-Star team honours; three straight Art Ross trophies and Ted Lindsay Awards; back-to-back Hart Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy and four Stanley Cup rings.
Lafleur wasn’t just a perennial 100-point scorer in his prime – he was a perennial 120-point scorer. That’s like the difference between a 40-goal scorer and a 50-goal scorer. One is elite, the other is incredible. . Only two players in NHL history scored 119 points in six consecutive seasons. Guy was one of them.
My most prevalent childhood hockey memory was listening to the blooming of The Flower in the mid-’70s on the radio with Dick Irvin on a beaten-up transistor radio under the blankets so that I wasn’t told to turn it off. Trying to stay up to listen to games that started at 11 pm in California, and never being able to make it past the second intermission before dozing off, then hearing on the radio the following morning that I’d miss yet another great comeback thanks to a goal and an assist from the Flower.
Back in those days, you saw Montreal games on television on Saturday night, and the occasional Wednesday, so radio was our main link to the Canadiens, and Irvin made it so exciting. Actually; it was Guy.; Dick was just the messenger. You saw with your own eyes how The Flower was blossoming but Dick made it seem magical when you tuned in on the radio. Dick’s voice often changed when The Flower, and only The Flower, got the puck in the offensive zone. It would go up another octave as we all anticipated a terrific play, and Guy rarely disappointed.
Saturday nights at the Forum were, of course, the most special, as you got to see the phenom in red, white and blue. The blond locks flowing and the sweater fluttering as he sped down the wing with the puck and either unleashed a rocket shot or made a play even his teammates weren’t anticipating. You had no idea what Flower was going to do because he and his linemates had no idea either – he was all about instinct, spontaneity…and unparalleled skill.
Home games were especially precious as The Flower had the crowd in the palm of his hands. The roar of anticipation every time he got the puck, the boisterous “ooohs” when he barely missed, the cacophony of cheers when he scored yet again, followed by the chants of “Guy, Guy, Guy.” For every Habs fan between the ages of 55 and 60, there is not a more special hockey memory. No others come close.
It’s difficult to put into words how wonderful it was to have such a gifted player to idolize as an adolescent. I would take my hockey card collection out of the old tin breadbox mom gave me….each card sorted by teams with a thick elastic band around them. Montreal’s stack was always easily accessible, and the elastic had a knot in it because it had broken from being stretched so many times.
One of Guy’s cards was always at the very top of the Canadiens’ stack, and I would alternate them. I would take Guy’s card out of the pile, read the back of it for the millionth time, and gaze in wonderment at his photograph for hours on end. To me, Guy was not from this planet…he was an extraterrestrial sent down to Earth to bring joy to my life. Guy was smiling at me…and only me…when I stared at his card.
The most underrated part of Lafleur’s game was his playmaking. Only one right winger in NHL history had consecutive 70 assist seasons, and Guy did it for four straight seasons. Lafleur had four of the nine greatest assist totals by a right winger in a season, and Jaromir Jagr is the only other with more than one. He was the greatest playmaking right winger ever and my first, and only, true hockey hero.
What made Guy’s magical six-year domination of the NHL all the more remarkable was the fact that he played as hard off the ice as on it. NHL players got in shape at training camp back in the ’70s, and Guy was no exception. He partied hard, smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, and yet still put together one of the most consistently productive stretches in NHL history. There was no greater hockey player on the planet from 1975 until 1980 – the second half of the 1970s was the Lafleur Era, plain and simple.
Flower paid the ultimate price for his smoking habit, having passed away this morning due to lung cancer. He died far too soon, and that makes his passing all the more sad.
Yet today – all I remember are the great times, and there were oh so many. His first scoring title; his first Hart Trophy. The four consecutive Stanley Cups and Conn Smythe Trophy win. The three-goal, three-assist night versus St. Louis in the playoffs, and of course, the magical game-tying goal late versus Boston in Game 7 in 1979 when all seemed lost.
All of those moments stand out for me but there were hundreds of others. Any Habs fan over the age of 55 has their own special memories of the Flower, and today, they are all flooding back for all of us.
I had an inkling yesterday that Guy was going to leave us soon, and even though it was expected, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
Rest in precious peace, Guy Damien Lafleur. You made me a lifelong hockey and Canadiens fan, and for that, I am eternally grateful.