If you think that Connor McDavid, Artemi Panarin, Trevor Zegras, Jack Hughes and the like are electrifying, then you should have seen Guy Lafleur, because there has never quite been anything like it and there’s never been anyone quite like The Demon Blond.
That was part of Lafleur’s magnetism and dynamism. His long blonde hair waving in the wind, racing up the right side with the puck on his stick until he would unleash that lethal slap shot of his that would, as often as not, hit the back of the net.
You don’t have that anymore. The players wear helmets and there aren’t the wide open spaces of the 1970s on the ice. More’s the pity. And you can’t even quite fully experience the Lafleur Sensation by watching YouTube clips of the Habs’ beloved No. 10, because you cannot quite share the communal excitement and anticipatory buzz that built in one arena after another accompanying those rushes.
That is what they were, and that is what Lafleur provided: a rush.
But Lafleur, whom we lost on Friday to cancer at age 70, was larger than hockey. He was larger than his numbers, which featured six straight 50-goal and 100-point seasons and a career total of 560 goals and 1,353 points. He was more than his two straight Hart Trophies and three Art Ross scoring titles. He was more than his five Stanley Cup championships.
Lafleur was a cultural icon in Montreal and throughout the province of Quebec. He held on high the torch that had been passed to him by legendary forebearers Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau as seamlessly as Jacques Lemaire passed him the puck on the ice. He handled life under the searing spotlight with a manner of grace and appreciation that did him proud.
As it happens, I was at The Forum when Lafleur made his NHL debut in the opening game of the 1971-72 season against the Rangers, after having been the first-overall choice of the previous draft by dint of Canadiens general manager Sam Pollock’s deal of a lifetime with the California Golden Seals for that top pick. Lafleur wore a helmet, as he did for the first two seasons of his career, which helped put a lid on his charisma.
I watched him as a fan for the first five years of his career and later got to know him professionally, covering a fair amount of Montreal’s playoff games in the late 1970s. He was always approachable, friendly and cooperative. I was working for the Devils when he came out of a three-season retirement to join the Rangers for the 1988-89 season and scored 18 goals in 67 games at age 37.
It kind of reminded me when Bernie “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion came out of a two-year retirement in 1966-67 and scored 17 goals at age 35 playing for the Blueshirts. Lafleur as a Ranger, now that was cool.
How would you rank the most memorable goals in hockey history? Paul Henderson in Moscow of Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series would be first by acclamation, correct? Then, and largely because of Ray Lussier’s iconic photo, perhaps Bobby Orr flying through the air after scoring the 1970 Cup winner, at No. 2? Maybe you’d rank Sidney Crosby’s Golden Goal against Team USA to win the Gold Medal in the 2010 Olympics at No. 3.
But there has never been a more dramatic goal in Stanley Cup playoff history than the one scored by Lafleur on a drop pass from Lemaire that tied the Too Many Men Game 7 against the Bruins in the 1979 semifinals. Slap shot, low, far side against Gilles Gilbert. That was a prime example of a marquee athlete meeting a marquee moment and owning it.
Lafleur played with flair. He was about playing looking-good hockey. He took your breath away on those dashes down the boards as a member of one of the great lines in hockey history, which had Lemaire at center and Steve Shutt on the left. He lifted you out of your seat. He was Salvador Dali on the ice, an artist who blended dream and reality. Off the ice, he was a rock star, acclaimed as such and reveling in living that life.
But Lafleur was even larger than that. Both throughout his career and after his retirement, following 1991-92 and two final seasons playing for the Nordiques, he represented a lifeline to Beliveau and Richard, and the time when Montreal was the center of the hockey universe and Quebecers dominated the league. He always was aware of who he was and what he represented.
At the time Lafleur had a quadruple-bypass in September 2019, I talked about him with Mike Bossy, who began his career with the Islanders six years into No. 10’s career, before succeeding him as the NHL’s preeminent right wing.
“I never looked at him as a rival,” Bossy, who passed one week to the day before Lafleur, told me. “He was a model.”
After Lafleur, they broke the mold. May he rest in peace.