Two great players with linked destinies

Two great players with linked destinies

Mario Lemieux has always had boundless admiration for Guy Lafleur. And the two could well have been reunited at the Penguins in the 1980s.

Posted at 6:00 a.m.

Simon Olivier Lorange

Simon Olivier Lorange
The Press

“He wants Lafleur as a gift: Lemieux puts pressure. »

The cuff is not lacking in panache. On the front page of the Sports tabloid of The Press, 1er October 1985, the news strikes the imagination: in Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux goes out of his way to convince his general manager to acquire the services of Guy Lafleur, who prematurely announced his retirement the previous season.

We learn, in these same pages, that the GM of the Penguins, Eddie Johnston, has already met Serge Savard to discuss a transaction – the rights of Lafleur still belonged to the Canadian. A priori, the tense relations between Lafleur and coach Bob Berry, formerly of the Habs, could represent an obstacle. However, “Berry would be ready to make concessions”, assures the young Lemieux, who is about to celebrate his 20th birthday.

This exchange, history has taught us, never took place… much to Lemieux’s dismay.

However, it was neither the first nor the last time that the fate of these two players would be linked.

Fourteen years his compatriot’s senior, Lafleur had the best seasons of his NHL career as Lemieux dominated minor hockey in his neighborhood.

The Magnificent only had eyes for Lafleur when he grew up in Ville-Émard, in the southwest of the island of Montreal, not far from the Forum. “He was the best in the world”, he would sum up years later*.

On March 4, 1981, Lafleur collected the 1000and point of his career. In the very first row of the Forum, a tall teenager in his Sunday best applauds, hypnotized by his idol who waves to the crowd. A future legend salutes a legend at the top of his game.

The moment is immortalized by a photographer from The Canadian Press. “This is a photo I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Lemieux told us in an email.

Our colleague Guillaume Lefrançois also traced the story behind this shot in 2019.

In his second season with the Voisins de Laval, in the QMJHL, it is Guy Lafleur’s presumed unbeatable record that Lemieux is attacking: that of 130 goals in one season.

On his record about to be broken by Lemieux, Lafleur says the Canadiens need a guy like him to replace him. “A player of his caliber should spend his entire career in Montreal. I wish him good luck, ”* he adds.


PHOTO FROM TWITTER ACCOUNT @LAVALHOCKEY

Mario Lemieux scored 133 goals in 1983-84.

Lafleur’s wish would not be granted, but Lemieux nevertheless scored six goals against the weak Longueuil Knights on March 14, 1984 to take the record alone. With the Voisins, he then won the President’s Cup, and it was Lafleur himself who presented him with the trophy – bearing his name – which rewards the most useful player of the playoffs.

The 66 was however far from suspecting that less than a year and a half later, his dream of playing on the same line as his idol would come close to being realized.

Postponed

Nothing happens, finally, in 1985. After having severed all his ties with the Habs in September, Lafleur affirms that he intends to “seriously study the possibility of a return to the game” which, as we know, will not materialize. .

However, it was only a postponement.

On August 17, 1988, on the cover of The Press, the title “Maybe in Pittsburgh” caps a photo of Lafleur. In the Sports book, we learn the Detroit Red Wings and the Los Angeles Kings, who had just acquired Wayne Gretzky the previous week, withdrew from the race to attract the blond Demon.

The Penguins would still be in the game, and Lemieux isn’t losing hope.

Guy would be better off in Pittsburgh with me…and the Penguins are definitely interested. We need a veteran of his caliber to stimulate us, to inspire the young people. He has already won Stanley Cups. He has always been an athlete hungry for victory.

Mario Lemieux, to journalists waiting for him at the exit of a Dorval golf club, in 1988

Two days later, Lafleur signed a one-year contract with the New York Rangers, conditional on his performance at their training camp.

In The Press from 1er October, Lemieux does not hide his sadness. To journalist Tom Lapointe, he recalls having “taken the necessary steps” for number 10 to be invited to the Penguins camp. “The Rangers were faster than the rest of us. It disappoints me. »

Candid like his childhood hero, he recalls having called his CEO, Tony Esposito, as soon as he learned from Yves Tremblay, adviser to Lafleur, that the former Canadian was preparing his return.

“Tony told me he would take care of the file, except that he didn’t try too hard,” laments Lemieux. “Really, it disappoints me,” he repeats once again.

Retreat and return

The 1990s passed. Lafleur completed his last lap with the Rangers and then the Quebec Nordiques, and Lemieux, in a state of grace, won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. Remaining dominant despite injuries and illness, he nevertheless announced his retirement in 1997, at the age of 31.

Then, becoming the owner of the team, he shook up the hockey world at the end of 2000 by announcing that he too would put on the skates again.

In a book written following his return, his biographers Chrystian Goyens and Frank Orr recall that Lafleur and his “missed retirement” influenced Lemieux in his decision.

Both withdrew for reasons unrelated to their ability to play, they recall. Lafleur felt handcuffed by the defensive style imposed by his coach and ex-teammate Jacques Lemaire. And Lemieux said he was disgusted to find that the NHL and its commissioner Gary Bettman had not acted to stop the clash. “Both players had questions to empty and will only return after making peace,” the authors write.

At the grown-ups

Without being relatives, Lafleur and Lemieux, considered two of the greatest Quebec hockey players – two of the greatest, in fact – have always granted each other respect and admiration.

And it was they who, in April 2019, topped the list of the top 10 players in QMJHL history. “Oh! It sure is Guy! exclaimed Lemieux a few moments before the announcement of the first position.


PHOTO FROM NHL WEBSITE

Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux in April 2019

His prediction came true. The student willingly conceded victory to the master, who had remained his model despite the years that had passed.

Mario Lemieux did not wish to grant us an interview for this report.

In a short written statement sent to us through the management of the Pittsburgh Penguins, he said that playing against Guy Lafleur and “getting to know him has been among the greatest honors of [sa] life “.

“He was one of the best players in the history of the NHL and has always remained a great ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens and for hockey in Quebec. »

“My family and I send our thoughts to Guy and his family,” he concluded.

*Excerpt from Mario Lemieux, the magnificent, Trécarré, 2001, by Chrystian Goyens and Frank Orr

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