Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, April 22, 2022 8:32 am EDT
Last updated Friday, April 22nd, 2022 4:28 PM EDT
Guy Lafleur was passed the torch on to the Montreal Canadiens as the next great Quebec-born player.
Maurice (Rocket) Richard was still respected in the province, while recently retired Jean Beliveau cast a long, influential shadow when Thurso’s child was first selected in the 1971 NHL Draft.
A dynamic forward with golden locks waving in the wind as the ice rolled uphill before removing one of his bullet shots, Lafleur was expected to fill the void and become hockey’s new French Canadian icon. .
It just took him a while to get there.
“There was a lot of pressure,” former Montreal head coach Scotty Bowman said on Friday.
“But he worked under pressure and he became a player of his own.”
And who inspired a generation.
Lafleur, one of the sport’s all-time greats, died at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer. The team confirmed the passing of the Hall of Famer and five-time Stanley Cup champion.
“A special person,” Canadiens alternate captain Brendan Gallagher told reporters in Brossard, Ky. “We’re really proud to be wearing this Montreal Canadiens logo in large part because of individuals like Guy Lafleur.”
“The Flower” was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019 after doctors performed emergency quadruple bypass heart surgery to spot tumors.
Lafleur went under the knife again a few months later to remove both upper lobes of his lung and lymph nodes, but in October 2020 it was discovered the cancer had returned.
“It’s chemotherapy that gives you really bad pain,” Lafleur said in an interview with The Canadian Press in November.
Canadiens legend Serge Savard said on Friday that even though Lafleur’s health challenges were well known, the death of his former teammate came as a shock.
Yvonne Cournoir, who also played with Lafleur, found it difficult to control her emotions.
“Man, that was a fighter,” said Cournoir, trembling in his voice. “He didn’t let go.
“He never gave up in his fight.”
Quebec Premier Francois Legault paid tribute to Lafleur on Twitter.
“Quebec has lost a giant,” he wrote. “He made us dream.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a famous Canadian fan, also remembered Lafleur.
Trudeau said in Winnipeg, “a hero to many of us.” “I remember meeting him as a kid and being so overwhelmed that meeting presidents and queens wasn’t necessary.”
Lafleur’s death comes as the hockey world continues to mourn Mike Bossi, as the New York Islanders legend and fellow Quebecer died last week at the age of 65 following his battle with cancer.
“An honor to play with both,” Wayne Gretzky posted on his social media channels. “My thoughts and prayers are with their families.”
Lafleur, who recorded a high-water mark of 64 in his first three NHL seasons before averaging 128 in the next six, had a distinctive style that attracted fans in Quebec and around the league.
“When ‘The Flower’ had the puck, you didn’t need to see Guy LaFleur’s name and number on his sweater,” NHL commissioner Gary Bateman said in a statement.
“LaFleur cut a flamboyant and unmistakable figure.”
The family recently thanked fans for their “mutilation of love,” adding Lafleur was being closely monitored by doctors and the occasional hospital checkup, but was at home.
Lafleur recorded 518 goals and 728 assists for 1,246 points in 14 seasons with Montreal. He added 133 points (57 goals, 76 assists) in 124 playoff competitions, helping the Canadiens win the Cup in 1973, and then again four more times from 1976 to 1979.
LaFleur, who initially retired in 1985, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988. But he returned later that year—his number 10 was retired by the Canadiens in 1985—with the New York Rangers and played two more seasons with the Quebec Nordics before hanging up his skates for good in 1991.
Bowman said his favorite LaFleur memory came in the 1979 semi-finals when the winger tied the score late in game 7 regulation and drew a memento from the crowd after Don Cherry’s badmouthing the Boston Bruins to too many men on the ice. There was an explosion.
“Jacques Lemire dropped a pass to Lafleur and hit a 45-, 50-foot one-time shot into the corner,” said the 88-year-old Bowman, whose team would go on to a 5-4 overtime win.
“Promoted us to the finals and allowed Montreal to win their fourth cup in a row.”
Future teammate and massive Bruins fan Chris Neelan told a story about Lafleur, Lemire and Gilles Lupien running into the series outside the Boston Garden on Friday as they waited for a taxi.
After being drafted by the Canadiens from Northeastern University last year, Nilan informed the trio that he would soon be joining the team.
“He said, ‘What round did you draft?’ And I said, ’19th,'” Nilan, who had taken the players to their hotel in his car with a friend, recalled with a laugh.
“The three of them started laughing their asses off… all I knew was a chance.”
Following training camp, Neelan was placed on Lafleur’s side during a scuffle.
“He kept looking at me and staring at me before leaving, ‘It’s you! You’re a Boston kid. I remember that!'” Nilan said.
“I said, ‘I told you I was going to stay here!'”
Neelan would start the season in the minors, but called and found himself at an empty practice rink with Lafleur on a quiet Monday morning.
“It was just Guy and me… the guy I hated for so many years,” Neelan said. “He was cooking me, he was shooting, he was giving me some tips.
“I can’t believe it… Last year I was in the Northeast and here I am in Montreal, alone on the ice, undoubtedly one of the greatest players of all time.”
The honor became official in 2017, when LaFleur was named one of the NHL’s top-100 players of all time. He scored a total of 560 goals in 1,126 games in his 17 seasons and scored 1,353 points with 793 assists.
Lafleur holds the Canadiens’ record for assists and points, tied Steve Schutt for most goals scored in a campaign with 60, and scored at least 50 times in six straight seasons.
He won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer on three occasions, the Hart Trophy as league MVP twice, and the Conn Smith Trophy as playoff MVP once.
A three-time holder of the Ted Lindsay Award – known as the Lester B. Pearson Award – voted by members of the NHL Players Association as the league MVP, Lafleur was also part of the Canadian team that hoisted the 1976 Canada Cup.
“He could score goals and he could make plays,” Bowman said. “There are a lot of great players, I wouldn’t say one-dimensional, but some of them are better scorers and some are better playmakers.
“He had the ability to do both.”
Lafleur underwent surgery on her heart in September 2019, after it was discovered that four coronary arteries were completely blocked – and a fifth was nearly 90-percent filled – during a routine medical exam.
Once the cancer was detected, doctors removed a third of his right lung.
A chain smoker until those health scares last, Lafleur was partnering with Merck Canada to raise awareness about lung cancer detection as part of their “Be the MVP” campaign.
“There are miracles out there,” Lafleur said in his November interview with CP. “There are people who are alive.”
He hasn’t been out in public much because of his cancer diagnosis and the COVID-19 pandemic, but last season’s finals in Montreal received thunderous applause at Bell Center during the impossible race.
Lafleur also had his number retired by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in October and was named to Hockey Canada’s order the previous month.
“I’ve been stuck at home for most of 2019,” Lafleur said in the fall. “Mentally, it is tough. Hopefully I will overcome this and come out of it with a win.
“This is hope for everyone who has cancer.”
He also saw his career in red, white and blue.
“Montreal is the best city to play in the world, if you win,” Lafleur said. “If you don’t win, it’s hell.”
The Canadiens’ darling No. 10 did a lot in the past—and left a lasting legacy like the greats they followed.
“A true icon and hero in this province forever,” Nilan said. “You see Bellevue, Rocket in front of him.
“The respect in which they are passionate French Canadians … it is unbelievable.”
-With files from Alexis Belanger-Champagne.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on April 22, 2022.