Panache was the word for Guy Lafleur, a towering figure in Montreal hockey history who swooped down the right wing for the Canadians in the 1970s, golden locks flowing behind, before freezing many a goaltender with his deadly slapshot.
Lafleur, often described as a rock star on the NHL’s most glamorous team of the era, died after three years of undergoing treatment for lung cancer, his sister Lise Lafleur announced on Friday. He was 70 years old.
In Lafleur’s prime, the Montreal Canadiens were arguably the greatest team in league history. They won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979 with the 1976-77 team losing just eight of 80 games in the regular season. Fans still argue whether that version of the Canadians or the one in the 1950s that won five consecutive Cups is the best.
There was never an argument over who was the greatest star on the 1970s Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. Not only was Lafleur a prolific goal-scorer, but he also played hockey the way French Canadian fans loved to see it played, with style. Fans around the NHL knew him as The Flower, the literal translation of Lafleur, but in Quebec his nickname was the more fitting Le Démon Blond.
He combined the best traits of his predecessors, the Quebec hockey icons Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Jean Béliveau. While Lafleur did not have Richard’s sheer power on his skates, he did have an assassin’s eyes as he neared the net with the puck on his stick. His grace and elegance were a closer match with the stately Béliveau, as Lafleur was a gifted playmaker as well as a scorer.
For six consecutive seasons, from 1974-75 through 1979-80, Lafleur scored at least 50 goals. He played 961 games for the Canadians from 1971 to 1984, finishing with 1,246 points, which is still the franchise record.
Lafleur’s playing days with the Canadians did not end well. By 1984, his former linemate Jacques Lemaire was the head coach, and they clashed over how the game should be played. Lafleur retired early in the 1984-85 season but came back four years later – after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame – to play three more seasons with the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques.
“He was a great player,” said Scotty Bowman, who was the head coach of the Canadians from 1971 to 1979. “I don’t know if any player in history had the pressure he did. When he got drafted by Montreal in ’71, they had just won the Cup, Béliveau had just retired.
“Those were big shoes to fill, coming into Montreal to replace a player that you can’t replace.”
Lafleur was the lineal successor to Béliveau, and before him, Richard, as the Canadiens’ French superstar. This was no easy position in hockey-mad Montreal. Immediate success was demanded.
On top of that, Canadian general manager Sam Pollock had used all of his infamous wiles to Lafleur land, who grew up in the small Quebec paper-mill town of Thurso. He decided the California Golden Seals were the best bet to finish last in the 1970-71 season, thus getting the first pick in the amateur draft. Pollock persuaded the Seals to trade the pick, and later, when it looked like the Los Angeles Kings might fall below the Seals in the standings, Pollock traded veteran center Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles. Backstrom ran up 27 points in 33 games, and the Kings stayed ahead of the Seals, which allowed Pollock to take Lafleur first overall.
But the Canadians had lots of talent, and even a prodigy like Lafleur had to earn his spot in the lineup. This did not mollify the fans, especially when two French Canadian players took just after Lafleur in the 1971 draft, Marcel Dionne (Detroit Red Wings) and Richard Martin (Buffalo Sabers), started scoring immediately.
“Of course, everybody in Montreal was comparing Lafleur to both Dionne and Martin,” Bowman said. “They were playing regular minutes, and he wasn’t. He had a lot to overcome. It took a while.
“He was a quiet guy – never complained about his lot. There was a lot of pressure on him, but he kept it to himself, ”he said.
The breakthrough came in the 1974-75 season, when he was paired with left-winger Steve Shutt and scored 53 goals. For much of the next 10 years, they were one of the most feared duos in the league.
Lafleur’s most famous goal came on May 10, 1979, when the Canadians were on the verge of losing their chance for a fourth consecutive Stanley Cup. With two minutes left in the third period, they were down 4-3 to the Boston Bruins in the seventh and deciding game of the Cup semifinal.
But the Bruins took that famous too-many-men penalty, and then came the quintessential Lafleur goal with 74 seconds left. He picked up the puck in his own end, circled and then streaked up on the right side. Lafleur sent the puck to Lemaire, who carried it into the Boston zone with Lafleur behind him. Lemaire left a drop pass, and Lafleur, in full flight with his dirty-blond mane streaming, stepped into a slapshot that left Boston goaltender Gilles Gilbert sprawled on his back.
The goal sent the game into overtime, and Yvon Lambert scored to win it for the Canadians. The New York Rangers were dispatched in five games, and the Canadians, and Lafleur, had a fourth championship.