Cover Story

A Flower for all seasons

Roy MacGregor October 16 1978
Cover Story

A Flower for all seasons

Roy MacGregor October 16 1978

A Flower for all seasons

Cover Story

Roy MacGregor

I retired in 1971, the same year Guy arrived and he came to me and asked me what I thought about him taking my sweater number. “If you want it, take it, ”I told him. “But don’t you think you already have enough on you? Why don’t you pick another number and make it famous yourself?”— Jean Béliveau

The new smell of Quebec is known by its trade mark: No. 10. The odor may be appropriately described as flowery as it rises this fall out of pre-shave, after-shave, cologne, deodorant and the true savior of Christmas, soap-on-a-rope. The same number can be found pushing automobiles, skates, sticks and yogurt. No. 10 surfaces on the binders, pencil cases and exercise books the children carry to school. Even the company is called Number 10 Promotions Inc., and the president —for those without programs—is Guy Lafleur. The company he keeps as a hockey player, however, has narrowed down year by year until today there is only himself. While the National Hockey League launches its 62nd season this week there are only the long-shot mutterings of the insane left. Will Lafleur’s team, the Montreal Canadiens, which has already won more than one-third of all NHL championships, somehow fail to win yet another? Will Lafleur himself—most valuable player over the past two seasons, scoring champion over the past three— outdo even his last year’s feat of 60 goals? The answer is already with us, lying in a sealed envelope in a suburban office outside Montreal. Inside is written Guy Lafleur’s annual prediction for his coming season, and the hint is that—despite a broken nose suffered at the end of the exhibition schedule— he will indeed do better.

It is Lafleur’s enormous gift that makes him special, certainly not his walk—the steps too long—nor his face: greaser soft, it is more the look of someone who should be topping up your battery. The eyes, however: brown and

shimmering, they seem to ransack the immediate area about him. Not in fear—though that was once the case when undercover detectives took every step he took—but in simple anticipation. Everywhere, even in the U.S.S.R. where customs agents asked for his autograph, they know the man who, like Bambi’s skunk, is proud to be called “Flower.” Crossing Maisonneuve Boulevard, the eyes intercept a sultry woman who steps sideways just long enough to kiss Lafleur on the lips. Out of a hydro manhole two workmen rise and call his name. A woman brings her son forward for a laying on of his hands. Those who don’t want just to touch would like to give. A man promises a new suit, a girl a present. An unnamed European country this summer offered a butler, a

housekeeper, a villa on the water, a new luxury car and a hockey lord’s ransom, all tax-free. To collect it, he only had to change his sweater.

The man an entire province prayed for when Jean Béliveau moved on has arrived at his full bloom. It is hardly possible to believe today that those same hands that ruffle children as if their imaginations were crops he himself had planted, once struggled to put down his desperate feelings in poetry. It is harder still to realize these same friendly eyes could have spilled tears over the red, white and blue les Canadiens-colored chesterfield in Jean Béliveau’s office as Lafleur sat crying over whatever it was that had gone so wrong with his promised life.

But eyes can also weep for joy. And Antoine Viau, who has waited much of his life for this moment, is dampening slightly as he stands watching his beloved Canadiens skate and shoot and actually breathe. The Montreal Forum is empty of fans, but Guy Lafleur—who

an hour earlier has said “What good is money when you play and lose?”—is skating with Stanley Cup intentions during a $25-per-man pre-season scrimmage. His wispy hair matted with the cream cake his team-mates have used to celebrate his 27th birthday, Lafleur commands his magic to turn a 4-2 deficit into victory. In the dying minutes he scores, sets up the tying goal, then single-handedly wins the game in overtime with a phantom shot from the point. He has served notice against the best hockey team in the world, his own, that Lafleur is ready for the new season. For Antoine Viau, who sweeps floors nights at the American-owned IBM plant, the state of les Canadiens is, in many ways, the state of his own well-being. The team and Lafleur are an unspoken vin-

dication. “Ah, Lafleur,” Viau says, courteously speaking English to the reporter who helped him sneak in, “Lafleur ... Lafleur ... I love it!”

The gender is accidental but telling, for Guy Lafleur is more symbol than human to a great many Québécois. “There is,” says Jerry Petrie, Lafleur’s agent, “probably more pressure on him to perform from the people in this province than there is on René Lévesque.” We may be, as Irving Layton has said, “a dull people enamored of childish games,” but Layton is certainly not speaking for those to whom hockey is a far more mature passion than politics. For them, Lafleur occupies the highest office in the land.

“I think over the last five years Lafleur has proved himself to be the finest player in North America,” says Alan Eagleson. “Guy is the true throwback,” says Ken Dryden, the Canadiens’ goaltender. “I look out sometimes and see the St. Lawrence skater, not the player, and it is a beautiful thing to^ behold.”

Pierre Larouche, who came to Montreal from Pittsburgh last year, says he actually used to cheer for Lafleur when their teams played: “They’d be ahead 6-1 and I’d be on the bench wishing he’d score more, just so I could watch and see how it is done.” The last to recognize this special status has probably been Lafleur himself. In Moscow this summer he was asked by the head of hockey and the director of all Soviet sports to pick his own world all-star team and when he came to right wing he blushed deeply and said “Me!”—quickly covering his embarrassment with a laugh that implied it was merely his own little joke, but the Soviet officials gravely nodded in total agreement.

“The Flower is a very strange person,” says Lafleur’s line mate and good

friend Steve Shutt. It is not for any obvious idiosyncrasy such as his superstitious tap of the goal netting to start each game and period; what is truly odd, in Shutt’s evaluation, is that Lafleur is “the farthest thing from an athlete you’d ever want to see off the ice.” A loyal consumer of Molson’s ale (the brewery owns his team) and a chain smoker who two weeks ago switched to a pipe—Lafleur does little more than work out with suntan oil in the offseason. “He shows up at camp, puts on his skates and it’s the first time he’s been on them since the playoff,” says Larry Robinson of the Canadiens. “And the frightening thing is he just flies by everybody immediately.” For people like Jean Béliveau, who even in retirement runs two to three miles a day, it is a continuing mystery how Lafleur— who hasn’t attended an optional practice in years—remains so fit. “The most

amazing thing about him is his physical resistance,” says Béliveau.

“It’s because he’s so hyper,” says Shutt. “He winds himself up like a coil.” The bad nerves are a mixed blessing: what Lafleur gains in reflex and metabolism he gives up in what it does to his mental fitness. Before particularly important games he has been discovered in the dressing room at three o’clock in the afternoon—his equipment on, his skates tightened—fully five hours before game time. By the time the puck drops he is strained, which partially explains his periodic slumps in critical games. Before the pipe came along he tried to smoke out the devils inside, and there have been games, one team-mate says, when he would begin chain-smoking hours before a game and continue through the intermissions.

The best solution, he has discovered, is to rinse the mind completely of all hockey thought. He spends the jittery pre-game hours reading car magazines, clipping from architectural books for the dream-home file he keeps, or taking bubble baths. On the road he and his room-mate, Shutt, fight over the television, Shutt constantly looking for sports events and Lafleur’s bad nerves making any contest, even tennis, an unbearable agony. He is at his happiest watching reruns of The Three Stooges.

It can be argued that the premium theorizing on most sports has fallen to the journeymen players—the Sheros and Nesterenkos of hockey, baseball’s Jim Bouton—and that the magnificently gifted—Rocket Richard in hockey, Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle in baseball—often appear tobe in lifelong thinking slumps. Lafleur would rather keep things simple. His priorities always place the team and the game first, and either his fans or family second. Only once, when the team was in a rare slump, has Lafleur deliberately tried to inspire by anything but his own standard of play. He moved from his locker to the play blackboard near the showers, picked up the chalk, thought a moment, and then scribbled, “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins.” He then moved back to his locker where

he sat staring up at the approving, legendary faces of les Canadiens of past years, and he read again the lines of poet John McRae that are stenciled just below the ceiling: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.”

“I’ve always heen there when he needed somebody. He knows I’ll always he there. ’’—Jean Béliveau

“I may never be able to play like him,” Lafleur once said of Béliveau. “But I’d like to be the man he is.” It is a hero worship that has been both inspiration and salvation to Guy Lafleur. Twenty years ago in the Ottawa River town of Thurso, Quebec, Lafleur’s parents found him sleeping in his new hockey equipment, and though the dream of that night has long since faded it is not unlikely that Jean Béliveau threaded a breakaway pass to his new young winger, and that the roar of the Forum crowd for Lafleur’s goal sounds yet in whatever dimension wishes retire to.

As Béliveau had before him, Lafleur left the small town for Quebec City and their resulting glory was comparable. As an “amateur” junior, Lafleur made close to $20,000 a year, drove a free Buick and dressed in the finest “gift” clothes. He wore No. 4, Béliveau’s signature in Montreal, and Lafleur made sure he kept a poster of his idol taped to the wall beside his locker.

In Lafleur’s final year—when he scored an astonishing 130 goals—it was arranged that the sensation would come to Montreal. By rights, as the best amateur in the country, he should have gone to the last-place California Golden Seals, but a celebrated sleight of hand by Montreal’s general manager Sam Pollock saw the Canadiens come up with Lafleur.

It was accepted that Lafleur was carrying Béliveau’s torch even before the 1971-72 season began. Ken Dryden remembers an exhibition game against

the Boston Bruins when he overheard Phil Esposito growl to his line mates, “Which one is Lafleur?” The season before, Esposito had scored a record 76 goals, but there was obvious concern in his voice. So much was Guy Lafleur on people’s minds—despite never having played a single professional game—that a manufacturer was rushing production to get a Lafleur-endorsed table-hockey game out in time for Christmas. Its main competition, naturally, would be the Phil Esposito game.

By the third winter, however, the Lafleur game was off the market. Not only had the rookie award gone to his teammate Ken Dryden, but the word around the league was that Lafleur was “yellow.” The junior promise had become a professional deceit. “He’d been somewhat of a bust, you might say,” says Steve Shutt.

“My legs were in Montreal,” Lafleur says, “but my heart was in Quebec City. My mind wasn’t on hockey.” With the press constantly demanding what was wrong, Lafleur took to hiding in his Montreal apartment and writing depressing poetry about the meaninglessness of life and unfairness of death—a melancholia that still surfaces from time to time—and his game deteriorated even further. To give him confidence the Canadiens countered a $465,000 (over three years) lure from the Quebec Nordiques of the WHA with a new contract for Lafleur—$1 million over 10 years, fully guaranteed. He responded with his worst season of all: 21 goals.

The unhappy sessions in Jean Béliveau’s office weren’t providing a solution either. It took a gamble by Béliveau in the spring of 1974 to provide the remedy. Béliveau let it be known that he was less than pleased with the performance of his heir, and he castigated Lafleur for not working hard enough. The

effect, at first devastating, became “a wake-up” for Lafleur and he emerged from his sulk by announcing “I’ll show the bastards.” When training camp opened, he discarded his yellow stigma with his helmet and the new Guy Lafleur suddenly and aggressively emerged as Béliveau reincarnate. A broken finger probably cost him the scoring championship that year, but he has held the title for the three years since. The legendary team that in the past revered such names as “Battleship,” “Boom Boom,” and “Rocket” found itself following the “Flower,” but as Pierre Larouche says, “He’s as gentle as a flower, but plays like Superman. In Quebec, hockey is a religion, and Lafleur is the new god.”

In the four years since the rebirth, there have been times when Lafleur has found himself in his office in Pointe-

Claire looking at the tiny skates with the red laces that now keep the door open, the same skates he began on, and poring over the two massive albums, one a foot thick, that are offered to his glory. “It is like a dream to me,” he says at these times. “Even now it is like a dream.”

There have, however, been darker sides that are not pasted in any album but linger anyway. And this has led him to wonder rather than gloat. In April of 1976, the Montreal police were investigating the holdup of a Brinks truck when they stumbled on a plot to kidnap Lafleur before the playoffs began and hold him for a rumored $250,000 ransom. He will never forget what it was like when Jean Béliveau told him.

“I was at home and the phone rang,” Lafleur recalls, the memory sending his fingers searching for cigarettes. “It was Jean and he said he wanted to see me. I said okay, tomorrow. He said no, right now, and he’d come over because we couldn’t talk about it over the phone. I hung up and my wife said ‘What was that?’ I didn’t know what to say—I thought I’d been traded. Then Jean arrived with two big guys and they’re cops and they tell me I have two choices. I can go to Miami and the club would pay for it and make excuses for me, or I can stay. I said I just wanted to play hockey.”

For a full month Lafleur lived in sight of two detectives. His wife, Lise, and eight-month-old son Martin stayed for a while in a hotel and then with her parents in Quebec City. The Lafleurs had a home in the country at that time—a renovated 200-year-old farmhouse at the end of a long, dark drive, and his nerves, never reliable, erupted. A squirrel would drumroll across the roof and Lafleur would scramble for cover. Night after night he couldn’t sleep and once knelt shaking by the windowsill as a large black car pulled part way up the driveway and sat idling. All he could make out were the glows of four cigarettes, rising, burning brightly, then falling. After a torturous hour the car left, but the reality of the threat stayed. Lafleur’s play disintegrated and when the fans and press squeezed him for answers he had to fight to keep it from pouring out.

The very next year he made up for that small lapse by winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player during the playoffs. But there was a new threat to deal with. One of the Boston Bruin players, John Wensink, whose hockey talent is to Lafleur’s what punk rock is to Beethoven, proudly announced: “If I get on the ice, Lafleur will not come out alive.” Lafleur survived, of course. Wensink, who has trouble catching his own wind, had to make do with Lafleur’s as the Canadiens star

flew by and led his team to its record 20th Stanley Cup. But the incident had its effect on Lafleur. “It’s supposed to be a sport,” he says of his beloved game, “not butchery.”

It is such things as this that cause Lafleur to measure just what it is all worth. Even a simple vacation with his family must now be spent in the south of France, so badly have the adoring fans crippled his freedom in Canada. He turned up at a charity baseball game this summer but was forced to give up in the third inning when the worshippers insisted on running out and playing the field with him. He is now paid—thanks to the team renegotiating his 10-year-contract—approximately $200,000 a year, a sum that is vast only until it is recognized that Lafleur’s salary would not place him in the top 20 of professional hockey. His present contract depresses him to the point where he refers to it as an “iron collar” and is currently pressing the Canadiens for yet another renegotiation.

There are times when he rises in the dead of night and goes into his son Martin’s room and crawls in beside the boy. Martin is only three and though he has seen first-hand what it means to be Guy Lafleur—the fawning attacks at shopping malls, the crowds that wait in the streets—he has already announced to his father that he, too, will be a great hockey player one day. Lafleur, who saw his own youth pummelled by fame, is concerned. “I tell him to sit down and relax,” he says. “I know he’d have even more pressure on him than I had. And that? ... Well.” He shrugs and can say no more.

Little wonder, then, that the heir to Jean Béliveau has thought of abdicating one day. He knows what people like Alan Eagleson say about him—“He has yet to prove he is the best in the world”—and the mysterious European offer of this past summer has more attractions than its tax-free value (possibly $400,000 a year). The freewheeling style of international hockey is where Lafleur’s immense grace on skates would be best served, and playing a short 35-game schedule for one of those countries—Shutt says West Germany, logic says Finland and Lafleur isn’t saying—would leave him both time and places for escape.

“I still haven’t said no,” he says, the chipped tooth adding mischief to the statement (undoubtedly to throw a scare into his present employers). “The offer came too late for this year, but maybe next year.” Lafleur looks out from the comforting shadows of the restaurant and sees those who shortly will be stalking him as he works his way back to the Forum. “The other thing is,” he says as he pushes back his chair, “you have to live sometime.” v>