Guy Lapointe was gardening in his front yard last week when Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson pulled up to his house for an unannounced visit.
Lapointe didn’t know what was in store for him. As it turned out, the former Canadiens defenceman was about to receive an unexpected honour.
From Lapointe’s kitchen in Saint-Lazare, Que., Molson announced that the Hall-of-Famer will become the 18th player in Canadiens history to have his jersey retired by the team. The retirement ceremony will occur during the course of this coming National Hockey League season.
“It’s extraordinary,” Lapointe said Thursday at the Canadiens Hall of Fame, located at the Bell Centre. “With the people I’ll be next to — Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard — I just can’t stop thinking about it. I was happy with just looking up at those jerseys. I never thought, in all sincerity, that my number would be retired. It never crossed my mind.”
On Thursday, the Canadiens organization made official the decision to retire Lapointe’s No. 5, the first jersey to be honoured since 2009 when Elmer Lach and Emile (Butch) Bouchard received what’s considered one of the most prestigious honours in sports.
Lapointe, 66, will finally be reunited with his Big Three teammates — Savard and Robinson — in the Bell Centre rafters. Savard’s No. 18 was retired in 2006, and Robinson’s No. 19 joined the following year.
Known as much for their staunch defending and offensive prowess, the Big Three were instrumental in Montreal’s six Stanley Cup victories in the 1970s. And the three defencemen were on hand at the Bell Centre on Thursday to celebrate Lapointe’s big day.
“I’m happy to see you both here,” the Montreal native Lapointe told his former teammates before pointing to the rafters. “But I’ll be even happier to see you up there when my jersey is going to be retired.”
Between 1968 and 1984, Lapointe played 16 seasons in the NHL — 12 of them with the Canadiens before brief stints with the St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins.
Always a threat on the power play, Lapointe was known for his explosive speed, his inspired bouts of offence, and his rocket of a slapshot. He recorded 622 points in 894 career games, and ranks second in goals by a Canadiens defenceman with 166.
Nicknamed Pointu, Lapointe had three consecutive 20-goal seasons, and still holds the Canadiens record for most goals in a year by a defenceman with 28. In his first complete season with the Habs in 1970-71, Lapointe’s 15 goals set a franchise record for a rookie defenceman. The record still stands today.
“A lot of minutes in a lot of situations — that’s the way he was,” said Robinson of Lapointe, whom he compared to Montreal’s P.K. Subban. “Guy could hold his own against anybody. He could play in all situations, play a lot of minutes. That’s the reason he’s in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s very fitting to have his sweater up there. I’m glad I got mine up there first — I finally beat him at something.”
Lapointe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993, two years before Robinson. He won six Stanley Cups — all with the Canadiens — including four consecutive championships between 1976 and 1979.
“I grew up with this excellent organization,” said Lapointe, who also pointed to the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow and 1976 Canada Cup — both memorable victories for Canada — as exceptional moments in his career. “The Canadiens helped me become a better hockey player and a better person. The team allowed me to reach goals I didn’t even think were possible.
“Winning was always our goal. That paid dividends throughout my career. I was a lucky person to make the team. I owe a lot to the Montreal Canadiens. They’ve been very good to me.”
Off the ice, Lapointe was known as a prankster, notorious for shaking hands with former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau with a palm covered in Vaseline.
After Lach and Bouchard had their jerseys retired in 2009 — the ninth and 10th such commemorative event in the five years leading up to the Canadiens’ centennial anniversary — the team’s organization put the process on hold.
Fans clamoured for Lapointe to join the Canadiens legends in the rafters, including the defenceman’s daughter Stephanie, who started a petition last year to have her father’s jersey retired.
“Dreams really do come true!” Stephanie Lapointe tweeted on Wednesday when the news was announced. “Never give up! I am beyond proud of my dad! Finally he is being awarded this honour!”
Molson says the Canadiens organization’s focus over the last five years has been rebuilding the team on the ice. On Thursday, he said the time was finally right to give Lapointe his long-awaited recompense.
“It’s a name that kept resurfacing when we bought the team in 2009,” said Molson of the final Big Three defenceman. “We were in the process of retiring a lot of jerseys at that time.
“I feel good about the organization (now). I feel good about the development of our players, the general manager, and our support staff. We’re well on our way to having a winning organization year after year. The fans have had a break from the centennial celebrations. And it’s a nice surprise for Lapointe.”
Notes: Lapointe is currently the Minnesota Wild’s amateur scouting co-ordinator. a Robinson flew up from San Jose, Calif., on two days’ notice for the event. a Howie Morenz’s No. 7 was the first jersey retired by the Canadiens, in 1937. a Lapointe’s is the second No. 5 to be retired by the Canadiens. He joins Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, whose jersey was raised to the rafters in 2006.