From the archive: Born to wear a Habs jersey
The Flower continued line of pre-eminent French-Canadian superstars (First published Jan. 20, 2009)
Several of hockey's greatest right-wingers have worn the Canadiens jersey. I covered Maurice Richard, arguably the greatest at that position in NHL history not only for his accomplishments on the ice, but what he meant to the people, his people, off it.
I covered Richard only for the last five of his 18 seasons with the team. By that time, he had put on weight, had lost a step and even some of his fire.
It's why, after scoring four goals in a training camp morning practice preparing for the 1960-61 season, he was asked to report to general manager Frank Selke. I happened to be sitting outside Selke's second-floor office at the Forum when a grim-faced Richard, accompanied by an advisor, strode in. Thirty minutes later, an angry-looking Richard, the colour high in his cheeks, stormed out of the office.
"What's happening, Rocket?" he was asked.
"They want me to retire," he snapped ... and kept on walking.
Selke had pointed out to the 39-year-old Richard that in his last three seasons, injuries had sidelined him for 89 of 210 games. It's true, Selke told him, that he had played an important role in the five consecutive Stanley Cups the Canadiens had won, but pointed out that if the Canadiens were to continue winning, they needed more young players. It was time, he told Richard, time for the torch to be passed.
Richard's 544 regular-season goals are the most in Canadiens history for a right-winger. He was the first NHLer to score 50 goals in 50 games. He was also this historic franchise's most revered player. Others could skate faster than Richard. Some could shoot harder and pass better. Nobody, however, approached his intensity from the blue line in. Nobody wanted to win more. Not Gordie Howe. Not Wayne Gretzky. Not Mario Lemieux. Not anybody.
He inflamed his people on and off the ice.
He stirred their souls like no other player before him or since. So let's agree the throne for the team's best right-winger of the century belongs to Richard. But he wasn't the best I've seen, only because in the five years I saw him the flame was flickering.
The best, clearly, was Guy Lafleur, who ranks No. 2 behind Richard with 518 goals. Lafleur, who lifted people everywhere with speed and flair, racing from end to end, golden mane flying.
The buzz about Lafleur started when, at only 16 in his first season with the junior Quebec Aces, he scored 30 goals in 43 games. The next year, 50 goals, 60 assists in 49 games. At 18, the team now named the Remparts, he scored 103 goals in 56 games. His final junior season in 1970-71 saw 130 goals and 79 assists in 62 games.
The young Lafleur was one of those rare talents who was a man even while he was a boy. His speed, his quickness, his shot and matinée-idol good looks had a deeply rooted French flavour to it. Night after night, game after game, he would electrify audiences everywhere. He was junior hockey's royalty. Every NHL team wanted him, but it appeared that the mediocre Los Angeles Kings, who were to finish dead-last in the 12-team NHL with a 14-52-10 record in 1970, were virtual certainties to get Lafleur in the 1971 amateur draft.
Canadiens GM Sam Pollock had other ideas.
One year before Lafleur was eligible for the draft, Pollock somehow managed to convince Oakland Seals management - whose team had finished fourth in the West Division, 20 points ahead of the Kings - to agree to a trade that sent fringe forward Ernie Hicke and the Canadiens' first- round draft choice in 1970 to the Seals for defenceman François Lacombe, cash and the Seals' first-round pick in '71.
Sam didn't stop there. On Jan. 26, 1971, he sent his talented centreman Ralph Backstrom to the struggling Kings with only one idea in mind: to strengthen the Kings sufficiently so that they would at least finish ahead of the Seals in Lafleur's draft year.
California finished last with a meagre 45 points in what now had become a 14-team league. The Canadiens got Lafleur, who was to become hockey's finest and most exciting player. He transformed ordinary games into things of beauty.
He won the scoring title three times. He was the NHL's most valuable player twice. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy once. He scored 50 goals or more in six consecutive seasons. He was the best of his time.
He was born to wear the Canadiens jersey ... to continue the line of pre-eminent French-Canadian superstars.
When he gathered his legs beneath him deep in his zone for the start of one of his rink-length rushes, he conjured up visions of the best and most exciting players in NHL history. Nobody handled the puck as well. When he danced into the opposition's zone and released his marvelous shot, he was a composite of all the great shooters who had ever worn the Canadiens sweater.
He was uniquely Lafleur. The Flower. He pulled people out of their seats more often than any forward of his time.
Lafleur's world started to fall apart on Nov. 24, 1984, after scoring only twice in the season's first 19 games. His relations with former teammate and now head coach Jacques Lemaire were strained. After a game at home on a Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, he wasn't among the Canadiens who travelled to Boston. Groin injury, the Canadiens announced.
"Is Lafleur hurt?" I asked Lemaire the next day.
"Check it out," Lemaire said with a broad smile. "You could have a hell of a story."
Nobody answered the telephone at Lafleur's home.
The next day, The Gazette carried my column announcing Lafleur had played his last game with the Canadiens. It promptly raised a firestorm of derision from media outlets. Criticism stopped when the Canadiens announced a major press conference would be held at 4 p.m.
When Lafleur entered the room, he walked over to me and said quietly:
"My wife cried when she read your column this morning. I cried a little, too."
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