In the year before he was put on the path to hockey sainthood in Montreal, Guy Lafleur was just another generational prospect trying to figure out how to keep his favourite hobby from becoming a job.
It was obvious the Canadiens wanted him, but Lafleur had reservations. The Canadiens were awfully good. What if he never played? What if he got sent to the minors?
“I see what Gilbert Perrault is doing in Buffalo and I want a chance like him,” the-then 19-year-old told Sports Illustrated. “You know, I would not hate Buffalo myself.”
That made one of him.
In sports, that’s how little difference there is between poetry and prose. Lafleur would have been great wherever he went, but he wouldn’t have been Lafleur without Montreal.
The roughage of statistics tells one story about him. Playing on arguably the best team of all time, Lafleur stacked goals like cord wood. He won five Stanley Cups (a modest haul by Montreal all-timer standards). He led the league in scoring a few times and won the Hart Trophy as league MVP twice.
If the greatest compliment you can pay any professional is that there is nothing they can’t do well, Lafleur was a professional. He could score goals from anywhere on anyone, including from the gondola and banked off the scoreboard from the parking lot.
“That kid has more moves than a monkey on a mile of vine,” one admirer said of Lafleur back when he was still thinking about buying a nice semi in Cheektowaga, N.Y.
But Lafleur’s greatest contribution to hockey history was aesthetic.
When he arrived in the NHL, it was staffed largely by lumberjacks, amateur boxing enthusiasts and guys straight off the farm (most of whom went straight back to the farm in the off-season).
Lafleur wasn’t posh. He was raised in a small French town just over the provincial border from Ottawa. His father was a welder.
So he was as working class as the rest of them. But Lafleur had what Italians call sprezzatura – effortless chic. You can’t acquire sprezzatura. Like Lafleur, you must be born with it.
At a time when hockey’s idea of fashion was Gordie Howe pomading his side-part on the bench after breaking someone’s nose, Lafleur brought glamour to the game. That he managed it only briefly now makes it seem even more remarkable.
What was it about him exactly that made him special?
The look, certainly. He was handsome, but so are most pro hockey players.
The quality, absolutely. With the puck at his skates, Lafleur was Michelangelo staring up at a blank ceiling. But he played with several guys – Larry Robinson, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri Richard – who were, in their own ways, at or near his level.
Before all sports developed a Presbyterian obsession with self-improvement, Lafleur was a famous workaholic.
“He was strange,” linemate Steve Shutt said on reflection. “I mean, any guy who would be in his hockey uniform, skates tied tight, sweater on and a stick beside him at 4 o’clock for an 8 o’clock game has to be a little strange.”
The public persona was also part of it. In that courtly Québécois way, Lafleur could be soft and hard at the same time. Shy, but not retiring. Cocky, without being offensive. He was a man who enjoyed a night out, and brought that flirty sensibility to his interviews as well.
But most of all it was probably the hair. If you knew nothing about the sport and had been dropped into a seat at the Forum in the seventies, that hair was your gateway drug to hockey mania. Even as a little kid – and you didn’t see him all that often on Anglo Night in Canada – you got a load of him and thought, ‘That guy for sure has a girlfriend.’
Had he played any other sport, or had he started played hockey in the eighties and beyond, that great head of hair wouldn’t have mattered so much. But back when no one wore a helmet, Lafleur picking up speed with his flow trailing out behind him had a Light Brigade quality. He made the sport appear iconic in a way no one had before and, let’s face it, no one really has since.
Others tried to copy him – New York Ranger Ron Duguay leaps to mind – but they couldn’t replicate what Lafleur meant to Montreal.
If you wanted to understand why Montreal was in Canada, but not exactly of Canada, that was visually represented by Lafleur slaloming downhill toward net, looking like a great, magnificent beast. In Toronto at the time, they would have made him wear a hairnet.
Like all gifted offensive players in any sport, Lafleur was able to create his own space. But very few have carried their own spotlight as they did it. Lafleur was one of those.
Lafleur was meant to stay in Montreal forever, but no story is perfect. He wound down his career in New York and finished it with the Quebec Nordiques.
If he’d helped make hockey a sort of boom-times artists’ colony everyone wanted to visit, he also encouraged the corporate interests. They were moving in to gentrify as he was leaving.
Lafleur and his generation shut out the lights on hockey as a game whose highest calling was playing for the team your father supported.
His relations with the Canadiens weren’t always cordial. They gave him a job after he was done, but he quit in a huff, blaming it on being offered “an office clerk’s pay.” That prompted Quebec premier René Lévesque to go on a harangue about spoiled athletes.
But like all great love affairs, that passion would mellow with age. By the end, Lafleur had assumed a place in Montreal’s Holy Québécois Trinity with Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard. He was the modern incarnation of the Canadiens’ timeless appeal in their home country.
For the rest of us, it was less an affair of the heart, and more about a new way of seeing. Lafleur was the on-ice free spirit who briefly broke through the hard boundaries of hockey’s conservatism, and showed us what giddy possibilities lay beyond.