The collective memory particularly remembers, for good reason, Guy Lafleur’s most prolific years and also his outstanding public personality. However, his success in the NHL was not immediate. Ken Dryden and Scotty Bowman describe the rise of a unique athlete who is fully aware of his responsibility to the organization and his supporters.
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Simon-Olivier Lorange Print
He just filled the QMJHL record book. He was the first choice in the draft. He had everything to succeed.
It is underestimated that Guy Lafleur’s arrival in the Canadiens was eagerly awaited in the fall of 1971. Since the team had just won the Stanley Cup, the 20-year-old striker was not invested in a mission to “save” his club. But by arriving at the exact moment his childish idol Jean Béliveau hung up his skates, he inherited the inevitable pressure.
But Lafleur’s explosion in the NHL took some time. Don’t get us wrong: with the harvest of 64, 55 and 56 points, his first three seasons were not disastrous. But in each of the following six seasons, he scored 50 to 60 goals and 119 to 136 points.
The Canadian from the turn of the 70’s is still a superpower of the then NHL of 14 teams. But he still moves between the legendary team of the late 50’s and the invincible hockey machine of the late 70’s.
The formation is gradually younger. In 1971, it took three names.
Montrealer Scotty Bowman, 38, returns home from behind the bench after starting as a coach in St. Louis. Louis. Goalkeeper Ken Dryden, although an instant star last spring, is entering his first full season in the NHL. And the young miracle guy Guy Lafleur barely emerges from the junior ranks.
In an interview with La Presse, Dryden and Bowman talk about a discreet, even shy young man. “He didn’t say much,” Bowman, eighty-eight, recalls today. He didn’t ask. He was primarily a team player who never stood in front of others. »
“One of the things that surprised me most about Guy was that no matter how good he was in the junior, and even though we were sure he would be successful, he always wanted to prove to himself that he could play in the NHL. “Dryden explains.
PHOTO ROBERT SKINNER, PRESS ARCHIVE
He never demanded privileges. He felt he had to take his place, break through his own trail. In his early years, when he was not yet a star, we thought: he is as good as we think. But he had to figure it out and make sure it was true. Once that happened, he never stopped.
From his first season, the one who, as a center player, was outraged by QMJHL was transferred to the wing. The Canadian, who was counting on Pete Mahovlich, Jacques Lemair and Henri Richard at the time, did not have room for a newcomer on Wednesday, especially given the quality of the opposition at the time. Scotty Bowman features: Phil Esposito in Boston, Stan Mikita in Chicago, Jean Ratelle in New York, Bobby Clarke in Philadelphia.
“It was not easy to play against this type of player, emphasizes the most winning coach in the history of the circuit. As he moved to the right wing, it began to hatch. This made it easier for him to move to the NHL, especially when he could not only score goals but also play. Two years later, his trio took off with Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemair. »
Best in the world
An explosion will actually occur. The success is monumental and above all lasting. We talk about him as the best player in the world.
Many of the honors he was awarded on Friday after his death spoke of his work ethic. Executioners on the ice largely preceded their teammates and led the charges.
I didn’t really have any training, he liked to train! He wanted and loved to be the best. He always worked to improve.
Due to the circumstances, his teammates had no choice but to speed up the pace, notes Ken Dryden.
However, the former goalkeeper offers a finer reading of the character. If Lafleur arrived on the ice 45 minutes earlier than everyone else, it wasn’t just a desire to overtake.
“It was a time when he had to be alone and have had different experiences,” explains the man, who was a Liberal member of the House of Commons from 2004 to 2011.
“He had to try things out and come up with them himself, imagine them. Once the whole team arrived, in training or in a match, he could realize what he had created in his head. »
This necessary loneliness contrasts with his public image. In the 1970s, his fashionable taste and his natural magnetism turned their heads. After his retirement, the crowds ran everywhere he went.
He looked like a superstar, but he didn’t act like a superstar. He came from a small town [small town kid] and he always remained faithful to himself. He didn’t need a spotlight. He was better alone.
To illustrate his point of view, the lawyer recalls his own reaction when he learned that Guy Lafleur had obtained a helicopter pilot’s license. “I asked him: Where does it come from?” Laughs.
According to him, this passion was completely in line with his deep nature.
“It was his chance to get in the air, to see the whole picture, to have a moment alone, to think, to absorb what he saw.” It was perfect for him. As a metaphor, in height, its unique routines tested on the Ice Forum.
The name Lafleur has long been associated with the names of Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau. In his rich history, the Canadian has placed dozens of players in the Hockey Hall of Fame today. But its three main pillars, in an almost unanimous opinion, are they.
At the beginning of the course, the pressure on the success of these two giants was enormous. “It was not possible to replace Jean Béliveau, just as it was not possible to replace Maurice Richard,” recalls Scotty Bowman.
It was hard to bear. But he never relinquished his responsibility to his teammates, but also to the Montreal Canadiens and the legacy that was still building.
Dryden inserts a parenthesis here. In the mid-1950s, the Habs were “one of the good teams” in the NHL. The Maple Leafs and Red Wings won more Stanley Cups at the time than Bleu-blanc-rouge. The dynasty led by Maurice Richard changes the course of history. From 1955 to 1979, CH actually won the Stanley Cup 15 times in 25 years. This is where the organization “became legendary,” says Dryden.
“The Rocket understood the responsibility to be the best player on the best team in a city and province where hockey and team mean more than anywhere else in the world. Béliveau took over this responsibility and then Guy. That made him a great leader. This is despite the fact that, unlike his two predecessors, he never wore a “C” on his jersey.
This state of mind, again according to Ken Dryden, has undoubtedly contributed to the intimate relationship the public has had with the Blond Demon for the past 50 years.
He was like his teammates. “Never selfless,” says Scotty Bowman. He got so many goal assists from Steve Shutta… ”
“He did everything,” the coach concludes.