Saturday, 23 April 2022

A FAN’S NOTES


Guy Lafleur 1951 - 2022


The last time I saw Guy Lafleur play a National Hockey League (NHL) game, number 10 was him, but it wasn’t. Sort of a Schrodinger’s cat winger. He was the only player on Edmonton’s Northlands ice not wearing a helmet. His uniform was wrong, Quebec Nordiques powder blue. There was one fleeting, shining moment of another time and another place: Guy led a rush and once inside the Oilers zone he half spun and made a blind backhand pass, tape to tape; an assist for a legend who was already in hockey’s Hall of Fame and who used to score at will.


The NHL was formed in Montreal in 1917. Le Club Athletique Canadien was formed in 1909. The team was a stroke of marketing genius, a Quebecois antithesis to the existing Anglo Maroons and Wanderers. The Montreal Canadiens eventually came to dominate the NHL for three consecutive decades, the fifties, the sixties and the seventies. Those teams had tremendous depth but their identities were singular, each era featured a Quebecois superstar. “Rocket” Richard was the first NHLer to score 50 goals in 50 games. He is a myth now but during the fifties he was a veritable psychopath from the blue line in. Jean Beliveau exemplified the sixties, an elegant, rangy centre, a gentleman who later in life respectfully declined an offer to act as Canada’s Governor-General, our ceremonial head of state.


I came of age in the seventies, for better or worse. I think of Guy, “the Flower” in the English press and “le demon blond” in the French press, as a rocker. Like Jagger and other great front men during rock’s pop culture hegemony, he was all flash and all substance, utterly electrifying. The most exciting hockey player I have ever seen. Ken Dryden, the erudite goaltender of those phenomenal seventies Canadiens teams, wrote in his seminal book The Game that their best player whose game was built for speed was always destined to burn out rather than gracefully fade away.


It didn’t help that Guy tended to live like a rock star too. The sporting press in those days wasn’t tame but nor was it prurient. Beat writers and columnists kept their copy to performance, to shifts, to final scores: off ice was off limits. It was an open secret that Guy enjoyed a couple cigarettes between periods. When he nearly decapitated himself in a single vehicle accident after the bars had closed, well, hadn’t he played hard that night and subsequently grown tired driving the speed limit along a notoriously dark stretch of highway?


I’d rather watch old footage of Guy than regurgitate his statistics, but some are telling. He notched 1000 points in just 720 games. The goals and assists, reliably combining to more than 100 through six consecutive winters, were registered against every team in the league. Cleveland Barons, Kansas City Scouts, Colorado Rockies, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, bad teams, good teams, the opposition didn’t matter. And when it really mattered 134 points in 128 playoff games, including 58 goals. One glorious slap shot in one series ended the coaching career of Bruin buffoon and blowhard Don Cherry. Guy played another series aware that he might be sniped at or his family kidnapped. That’s why his name has been engraved on the Stanley Cup five times.


Hockey fans know the eighties heralded a changing of the guard. The Canadiens were getting older and the New York Islanders were getting good. When the Islanders got old, which didn’t take long, the Edmonton Oilers were getting good. The Canadiens began to play boring, defensive hockey. The neutral zone trap did not suit Guy, there was no space for √©lan, panache, fun. Of course, he’d lost half a step or so by that time. Still, he complained. The team awkwardly engineered his bitter retirement in 1985. It had all been so fleeting. It must have galled him that the Canadiens managed to steal the 1986 Stanley Cup without him skating on the right wing of the power play and the first or second forward lines.


Guy had been a god in the hockey capital of the world. The Theology Department of the Universite de Montreal now teaches a course on the Montreal Canadiens. The Shroud of Turin’s got nothing on the bleu, blanc et rouge sweaters. The old Forum on Ste-Catherine, since ineptly repurposed, remains something of a shrine. This is now. In 1988 Guy came out of retirement at age 37 to play for the New York Rangers and the Nords. He managed 107 points in 165 games thereby reducing his points per game average to a mere 1.20. C’mon. Wow. At least those clubs let him play what was left of his style of game.


The Montreal Canadiens ultimately made up with Guy because all the team had to market for its centenary was the past. The reluctant ambassador stumped for the club that had cut him loose years before. The Canadiens have always displayed a bland corporate mentality in that the organization is ruthless in ridding itself of what it perceives as difficult or diminishing assets. Trouble is the club has seldom got it right as flamboyant individuals do not fit easily into slots and they tend to thrive in less cloistered climes.


Guy’s life on the other side of the rinkboards was all a bit bizarre. He recorded a disco album. He plugged his scalp with implants and so when he flew on skates his blond hair no longer fluttered so much as sat through his velocity like some perfectly combed helmet. He touted Viagra on television. He tried to sway the legal proceedings surrounding one of his two sons only to find his godlike status in Quebec was confined to the Montreal Forum. Right wing, right thing, maybe he hadn’t been the world’s best father. He could not effect change in court, only on the ice. His restaurant business was, frankly, a bit of a boring drag: a mere greeter, a man like him. Heart problems followed for a star who’d played every game with every ounce of his own. Lung cancer too.


Unlike Beliveau, Guy was never a diplomat. And so when the Canadiens presented their presumedly rehabilitated goodwill Guy to the sports media to promote the team, he had no qualms going off message, revealing why he thought the current incarnation of the team sucked. I always sensed a certain glee, fire wagon hockey schadenfreude. Because, you know, when he played the game… I loved watching him. He moved like Jagger.         


meGeoff has been your most unreliable, unbalanced and inaccurate alternative source of hard-hitting, insightful sports coverage since 2013. My novella Of Course You Did is my latest book. Visit www.megeoff.com to find your preferred format and retailer.

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