From the archives 2005: Top 10 Habs - No. 3 Guy Lafleur: Born to wear the CH on his chest
Editor's note: This story was originally published in January 2005.
When the NHL lockout finally ends, Red Fisher will begin his 50th season on the Canadiens beat. In this feature series, which concludes today, Red picks his Top 10 Habs from the last half-century.
MONTREAL - When the NHL lockout finally ends, Red Fisher will begin his 50th season on the Canadiens beat. In this continuing feature series, Red picks his Top 10 Canadiens from the last half-century.
In any determination of who ranks as the best of the NHL right-wingers, don't look beyond Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe - for all of the right reasons. Where, though, does Guy Lafleur rate insofar as the Canadiens are concerned?
I saw Richard only during his last five seasons. I saw only flashes of greatness of the man who had been the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 50 games. So answer this: during the last half-century, was there a more exciting right-winger than Lafleur, golden mane flying, skipping and dancing beyond one man and then another? Does it get better than Lafleur, in one motion, releasing that wonderfully accurate shot which had stirred the souls of so many fans for so many seasons?
At his best - in 961 regular-season and 124 playoff games with the Canadiens - Lafleur was not merely hockey's finest and most exciting player. He was its artist and its sculptor.
His speed and shot had produced 518 regular-season goals, only 26 fewer than Richard had produced in 978 games. He could transform ordinary games into things of beauty.
He won the scoring title three times - a distinction Richard never reached. He was the NHL's most valuable player twice. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy once, and was on the NHL's first all-star team six times. He scored 50 goals or more in six consecutive seasons. He was the best of his time.
Lafleur was one of those rare talents who was a man even while he was a boy. His speed, his quickness, his shot and matinee idol good looks had a deeply rooted French flavour to them. He was outgoing from the start, and remains that way today. Ask him a question, and there's always an answer - almost always laced with controversy.
Most of his talking, however, was on the ice. Night after night, game after game, he would electrify his audience. Some people called it a magic quality, but that scratched only the surface. He was hockey's royalty, its sweet prince. At 14, he was a full-blown celebrity with the junior Quebec Remparts. Teams schemed and would happily rob to get him, as GM Sam Pollock surely did when the Canadiens traded Ernie Hicke and their first-round choice for Francois Lacombe, cash and the California Seals' first-round pick in the 1971 draft.
Lafleur was born to wear the CH. It was written in the stars. Destiny. What could be better: a poor boy from a pulp and paper town continuing the line of pre-eminent French-Canadian superstars who had worn the jersey.
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 with a spray of ice into the opposition's zone and released his marvellous shot, he was a composite of all the great shooters who had ever worn the Canadiens sweater.
He was all of them - but most of all, he was uniquely Lafleur. The Flower. Delicate, yet indestructible. Lafleur pulled people out of their seats more often than any player of his time.
He was speed. He was unflinching dedication to winning. He was the game-breaker who scored the winning goal in regulation time and overtime. Lafleur wasn't merely the most exciting Canadiens player of his time. He was right for the time, for the team and for the game, and like most of us, he also could be wrong.
On the ice, his decisions were things of beauty. Off it, now and then, he had a talent for talking when he should have been listening. Nobody was surprised when he was the first of the old-time elite players to condemn both sides in this season's lockout.
However, it's Lafleur, the player, who endures. It's the player who showed us new and greater moves after we thought we'd seen them all. It's Lafleur, the player, who left us giddy with excitement over his on-ice accomplishments.
He was - and is - one of a kind.
In this business, restraint is your right arm. You don't write a story without a confirmation from at least two sources, but once in a long time, for one reason or another, you go for it.
I went for it, starting the day after 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. And so it was that after a game at home on a Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, Lafleur wasn't among the Canadiens who travelled to Boston for a game the following night.
Chris Nilan had a question after the game against the Red Wings: "Did you hear about The Flower?"
"What about him?"
"He's not making the trip to Boston."
"Groin injury. I'm driving him home before going to the airport."
Groin injury? He was on the ice two minutes before the end of the game and skating faster coming off the ice after a long shift than most of the Canadiens starting one. Groin injury?
The next afternoon, Lemaire was tracked down in the team's Boston hotel.
"One question," he was told. "Is Lafleur hurt?"
"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 reason, I later learned, was that on Sunday morning the Lafleurs had left for his home town of Thurso to discuss his future with his parents. I learned later he didn't return home until 10 p.m. - his mind made up. Lemaire didn't say it, but everything about the way he suggested that Lafleur's absence be "checked out" raised all kinds of red flags.
A groin injury wouldn't stop a Lafleur from travelling with the team to Boston, even if he knew he couldn't play. He liked being with the boys. He liked Boston.
In other words, Lemaire's suggestion that "you could have a hell of a story" was as good as admitting the groin injury story was as phony as a three-dollar bill. Lafleur was unavailable. Lemaire would say nothing more on instructions from top management. So ... go for it.
The next day, The Gazette carried my column saying that Lafleur had played his last game with the Canadiens - which promptly raised a firestorm of doubt and derision from other media outlets. The message: what does he know? How does he know? The finger-pointing continued until early afternoon, when the Canadiens announced a major news conference would be held at 4 o'clock.
At 4:05, Lafleur entered the room with GM Serge Savard and president Ronald Corey. He walked over to me and said quietly: "My wife cried when she read your column this morning. I think I cried a little, too."
At 4:06, Savard started: "This is a sad day for all of us, because I must announce the retirement of Guy Lafleur. His contribution to the Canadiens has been unbelievable," a shaken Savard said.
You should know that Savard also was somewhat a tad incensed that the Lafleur retirement appeared in The Gazette before the team announced it. He suspected that someone within the organization had spilled the beans. He thought that a team trainer or a player was the snitch. He put coach Lemaire on the case.
"Serge wants to know where you got the Lafleur story," Lemaire told me a few days later.
"Really? You mean you don't know?" he was asked.
"No," he said.
"Check it out," I said. "You could have a hell of a story."
Lafleur's Claim to Fame
Stanley Cup five-time winner
Art Ross Trophy 1976, 1977, 1978
Lester B. Pearson Award 1976, 1977, 1978
Hart Trophy 1977, 1978
Conn Smythe Trophy 1977
Inducted into Hall of Fame 1988
Red Fisher's Top 10 Canadiens
Red's Top 10 Canadiens combined to win 71 Stanley Cups. Here's a look at the players profiled in this feature series:
No. 10: Serge Savard won eight Stanley Cups and was a member of the Big Three on defence with Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson.
No. 9: Dickie Moore, a six-time Stanley Cup champion, won back-to-back scoring titles during the 1950s.
No. 8: Bob Gainey won five Stanley Cups and was one of the best defensive forwards in NHL history.
No. 7: Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, a member of six Stanley Cup teams, was the second NHL player to score 50 goals in a season.
No. 6: Defenceman Larry Robinson could do it all - skate, score and fight - en route to six Stanley Cups.
No. 5: Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups, an NHL record.
No. 4: Doug Harvey was the best defenceman of his time and played a key role on six Stanley Cup teams.
No. 3: Guy Lafleur, who won three NHL scoring titles, could electrify an audience like no other player with his speed and shot and was on five Stanley Cup teams.
No. 2: The legendary Maurice (Rocket) Richard was more than just a hockey player to Canadiens fans while winning eight Stanley Cups.
No. 1: Jean Beliveau spent 18 seasons with the Canadiens, winning 10 Stanley Cups while displaying unmatched class on and off the ice.
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