When Maurice Richard passed away, a vigil was held in his humble bungalow in Montreal’s modest Ahuntsic neighborhood, on the city’s northern edge. His lawn was covered with flowers and tributes. People too young to have seen The Rocket play stood on the sidewalk and cried, in the middle of the day, on a weekday.
When Jean Béliveau passed away, his state funeral was held in the middle of a heavy snowstorm, even by Montreal standards. It was unpleasant, with what felt like big balls of slush being dropped from the sky. Outside the church, a large screen was set up for the public to view the proceedings. And they did. Crowds of them, standing in that filth, being thrown around by great balls of slush.
It’s hard to explain what people like Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau meant to the people of Québec, their people, because it’s not a typical relationship between sports superstars and a fan base. It is more than that, much more. It has to do with a population’s sense of identity, its ultimate potential, its place in the world at large.
Guy Lafleur did not play in the same era as The Rocket and benefited from Béliveau’s guidance and leadership. But what he represented to generations of Québec’s population was much the same. If there was a Mount Rushmore of Canadians greatness, with all due respect to Howie Morenz, there should have been a chiseled cane on the mountain that passed from Richard in the 1940s and 1950s, to Béliveau in the 1950s and 60s, to Lafleur in the 1970s and 1980s , to Patrick Roy in the ’80s and ’90s. An almost unbroken line of Quebecois superstars who play in Montreal for the Canadiens, once a social institution much more than a hockey team.
There are many legends who have played for the Canadiens. There are so many players who once wore the Canadiens uniform at the Hockey Hall of Fame that one side of their locker room is littered with portraits of them, and they’ve run out of space, needing a second row.
But this is different. Lafleur, who died early Friday at age 70, was different. The term “icon” is thrown around too loosely, but with Lafleur, it really fits.
What Richard, Béliveau and Lafleur had in common was how well they understood their responsibility as pillars of Canadian suffrage, pillars of Québec society in general. Richard was more of a shy man who might not have fully embraced that role, but he understood. However, Béliveau and Lafleur understood and accepted it, and Béliveau showed Lafleur why it was so important.
It was because of what they meant to the people, their people.
“I think the Montreal Canadiens are an integral part of the Québec community, and always have been,” said Canadiens owner Geoff Molson. “No matter what corner of the province you’re from, the feeling is that Quebecers own this team and it belongs to them.
“Guy Lafleur represented that perfectly, because no matter where he went, he represented the people who love this team. And he was very appreciated that he was like that, and obviously there were others that were like that, but today, we’re talking about Guy, and he was one of the best.”
Lafleur’s impact on the game was almost as great as the impact on his home province. It came in 1971-72, the season after Béliveau retired, and everyone understood that it was a very real passing of the torch. The pressure on him was enormous, and it took Lafleur a few years to rise to the occasion.
But then he did.
It was a time when bullying and intimidation threatened to take over hockey. The Big Bad Bruins. The Broad Street thugs.
The Canadiens won the Stanley Cup six times in the decade, but it was their run of four in a row from 1976 to 1979 that was really fueled by Lafleur’s greatness and a style of play that exuded grace, skill and beauty, his blonde hair billowing to the wind. him as he ran across the ice. He was the antithesis of the hockey bully who seemed to be taking over.
Those Canadiens teams proved that hockey can be played, and won, beautifully. For the last half of the decade, Guy Lafleur was the best hockey player on the best hockey team in the world.
“When the frills won back-to-back years (in 1974 and 1975), a lot of teams tried to play like the Flyers,” former Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden told host Mitch Melnick on TSN 690. “The Canadiens, sure, we had a couple of guys hard on the team, but the decision was made (it would have been made by Sam Pollock, and Scotty Bowman, and the players) that we didn’t want to play that way and we didn’t have to play that way. way, and that we might win our way.”
Dryden said the 1976 Stanley Cup championship was his favorite because it ended the reign of those Broad Street Bullies teams, but also because it showed that the way the Canadiens played the game could produce results, produce success. That was worth copying.
And Lafleur was instrumental in that influence in the big game.
“Guy, as the best player on the best team, that made a big difference, because it’s not easy being the best player on the best team,” Dryden continued. “Especially when you’re on the Canadiens when, during one period of those 25 years from the mid-’50s to the late ’70s, they won the Stanley Cup two out of three years. And that you, as Guy, know, and everyone knows, that you are the next in line from Richard and Béliveau and that you have to be that next because the team has to be what it has been.
“That was an immense weight for anyone to carry. And that is what he carried with him.”
Off the ice, Lafleur was Québec’s biggest rock star and lived like one. But he was always close to people, accessible, generous with his time, he never said no to an autograph request or a photo or an appearance at a charity event. And in ballrooms across the province—and, indeed, across the country—every Saturday night, boys and girls watched in awe as Lafleur dazzled on the ice.
And inspired greatness.
Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis was born in 1975, making him only 4 years old in 1979 when Lafleur last won the Stanley Cup. But the memories of him are fresh. He called Lafleur his first hero.
“He would take the puck and you could see he was going to score a goal. He had that authority, that confidence, and the whole building was on its feet,” St. Louis said. “Even us at home: When I was young, I went to see the Canadiens live twice, but I watched every game on TV.
“So even us in the living room, when you saw Guy take off, you also stood up because you knew something exciting was about to happen.”
In retirement, Lafleur walked away from the Canadiens, but when Molson led a group that acquired the team in 2009, one of his first acts was to sign Lafleur to a 10-year contract as a team ambassador, a role he filled with his typical energy until his deteriorating health no longer allowed it. Lafleur was legendary for his work ethic, often arriving at the rink for practice hours in advance and spending time alone on the ice, working on his game before his teammates arrived. Molson said he was like an ambassador, often arriving at events 90 minutes early and just sitting in Molson’s office, waiting for the event to start.
“He was dedicated,” Molson said. “He did things the right way all the time.”
A week before Lafleur’s death, Molson visited him and says they spent half the time talking about the team. Because Lafleur cared, to the end.
Sometimes, that passion for the team could come out quite blunt, like in 2016 when Lafleur claimed that the Canadians had neither a front row nor a second row, but four fourth rows up front.
He was still employed as an ambassador for Canadiens at the time. That was Guy Lafleur.
“He’s a man who was very direct in his responses to questions, and I think Quebecers appreciate that as well,” Molson said. “I don’t think Guy Lafleur had clichés in his head. I think he was direct, and I think our fans loved that about him.”
Québec Premier François Legault announced Friday that the provincial government was talking to Lafleur’s family about holding a state funeral, as was done for Béliveau in 2014 and Richard in 2000.
“Guy Lafleur is the Montreal Canadiens,” St. Louis said. “You had great legends that played here, but there are three or four guys that were the Montreal Canadiens. Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard.
“Guy Lafleur is part of that, the greatest of the greats.”
(Guy Lafleur 1983 photo: Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios / Getty Images)