Guy Lafleur’s Brush with Greatness

If you happened to be a Habs fan between the years 1973 – 1992, Thurso  Quebec was a small mining town that you never visited and possessed only a faint idea of where the town was located. You did know that the village contained an arena with suspect security. A ‘loophole’ in the town’s infrastructure that enabled a young Francophone to sneak in and practice his craft. A young boy who grew into a man. A man who was to become one of the greatest skaters the world of professional hockey would ever see. His name was Guy Damien Lafleur.

Thurso, Quebec

The Flower. Le Demon Blond – The Legend.

Roch Carrier penciled a book entitled ‘The Sweater’. It was the story of a young French-Quebec boy’s idolization of Maurice Richard. The Rocket. The man who led The Montreal Canadiens to five straight Stanley Cups. The player whose legend grew within a single game – a match where M. Richard scored all five goals in a 5 – 1 victory over the team’s enemy – the dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs. The Captain of the team whose suspension caused a riot in downtown Montreal which was quieted only by The Rocket himself taking to the airwaves and demanding calm. If M. Carriere penned the book in the seventies, the number ten of Guy Lafleur would be on the back of the famed ‘sweater’ in lieu of Richard’s number nine.

The ‘ Rocket’

Lafleur’s legend sprouted at the dawn of the 1974 – 75 season after a promising yet disappointing inaugural three years in the league.  Lafleur removed his helmet and in doing so, unleashed his golden locks and scoring prowess on the National Hockey League. It was the beginning of six straight fifty goal seasons and a reign of terror on opposing goalies and flat-footed defencemen. The image of The Flower slowly taking the puck behind his own net as a starting point to one of his rink long rushes is etched into the memories of even the more passive hockey observers. Like a tightly wound spring – that area behind the mesh provided The Flower a launching pad that ccatapulted him up the ice with speed and grace unheard of in the history of hockey. Whatever Lafleur decided to do as he approached his opponent’s zone , a pass, a shot or a deke, all were accomplished without so much as a nod towards decreasing his speed. This is what separated Lafleur from his peers and his successors. Esposito to Bossy. Dionne to Gretzky. Lemieux to Crosby. Lafleur and Lafleur alone owned the ability to remove people from their seats each and every time the puck had the remotest possibility of coming in contact with his stick. Dryden, Savard, Lemaire and Robinson were the Apostles – Lafleur was Jesus and no other Deity could quite skate on water like the famed young man from Thurso, Quebec, Canada.

The Flower in Full Bloom

In 1980, I was fifteen years of age and The Montreal Canadiens were vying for their fifth straight Stanley Cup attempting to match the record set by their ‘Rocket’ powered dynasty of the fifties. Dryden had retired, Scotty Bowman left the coaching position after a disagreement with ownership and the team that had lost only a handful of games (eight in one season alone) had become a shadow of their former selves. Guy Lafleur was hip-checked by Pat Boutette of The Hartford Whalers at the beginning of one of Guy’s spring injected rushes and Lafleur, for the first time in his career was lost to the team with a knee injury for a substantial amount of time. Upon return – Lafleur had lost something. Some say it was his confidence, whatever it was – Guy Lafleur’s goal scoring was in decline and it was the foundation of the completion of Lafleur’s days in a Montreal uniform. It was also the beginning of the end for the Habs ‘ final dynasty.

I was very active in hockey at that time – refereeing, coaching and playing. It was a Saturday morning in early December and I established myself at the local rink to referee a Pee – Wee game. I was in the ref’s room, lacing up my skates and preparing for the match between eleven year old hockey players when I happened to appear at the score sheet. There, in black and white penciled letters was the name that everyone was familiar with. Lafleur. Instead of Guy’s given name next to it was the name Martin. Believe me when I state that being a big Lafleur fan, I knew everything there was to know about The Flower. Where he lived, what car he drove and what foods he ate. You need not be a rocket scientist to discover that he had a son named Martin who was of Pee – Wee age. Trying to remain calm in front of my striped pals, I placed the score sheet down on the table and continued to prepare myself for the upcoming contest. My heart was beating so fast in my chest with the anticipation of seeing Guy Lafleur in the stands  – I thought a cardiac arrest would be my nemesis in my plight to meet my idol.

Several of the Habs’ greats lived in the vicinity of my hometown, Kirkland, Quebec and a few including Bob Gainey,

The ‘Little M’ – Pete Mahovlich

Yvon Lambert and Peter Mahovolich resided in Kirkland. It was commonplace to witness ‘The Little M ‘ walking out of the bank or drugstore. He was a character straight from the movie ‘Slapshot’, big Pete would sport a full length fur coat and a cigar longer than Brian Gionta bulging from his mouth. Approaching him, Gainey or Lambert was relatively easy – nerve wracking yet manageable. Lafleur, on the other hand was never seen and every now and then you wondered if Guy was comparable to Santa Claus.They both blessed you with their favors yet neither shopped at the mall. The prospect of meeting Lafleur made knees wobble and a crying session on Santa’s lap seemed less perilous and more believable.

I employed my night colored helmet in it’s rightful place, committed my whistle to my finger and strode on shaken steps toward the ice surface of the Beaconsfield Arena and a potential sighting of Le Demon Blond. I marched onto the ice and gingerly skated  baby strides toward the space where the parents had grouped to cheer on their ‘jockstrap wearing’ offspring. As I approached the mob of Mommies and Daddies, I peered into the ‘eye’ of the crowd looking for le bleu,blanc et rouge sweater of number ten. It was only on my subsequent pass that I realized Lafleur would be clad in civvies and not the uniform of my favorite hockey team. If Lafleur was present to witness his son – my stupidity was surely to be noticed by the icon. Three or four passes into the game brought me to the realization that my idol was not present and quickly my nerves settled into an absolute concentration of the game at hand. My only distraction became an observation of the younger Lafleur’s abilty and wondering if I were privy to the beginning of another stellar career. Martin was no worse or better than the other skaters and the game was played out uneventfully. One last glance into the crowd was the final operation of my eyeballs as I headed toward the Zamboni’s entranceway along with my fellow referee.

The post game rituals of a referee are relatively the same as a hockey player. Remove your skates, pants and sweater, grab your towel and head to the showers.The main difference is that you have to watch out for only one flicking towel as opposed to the fourteen on a hockey team. Seldom do you get flicked by your refereeing partner as he can’t place the blame on anyone else.

I concluded my shower, dried off and dressed. I put everything into my equipment bag , said my goodbyes to the referee of my game plus the new guys awaiting the start of their game and off I went. In the Beaconsfield arena – the ref’s chamber was at the very end of the corridor far removed from the dressing rooms of the players. A five-minute walk will bring you from one end to another, seven and you are out the front door. I was approximately halfway down the corridor when my heart paid a visit to my mouth. There – fifty paces directly in front of me stood Guy Lafleur – numero dix of The Montreal Canadiens.

Someone should have told my feet that they must follow the forward motion of my torso. Perhaps my feet saw The Flower too and like my brain, could not compute the next move in such a short period of time. My brain kept saying “Go say Hi!” while my body and heart were already on the bus and on my way home. I was like one of those girls in a magician’s box awaiting to be sawed in half. Half of me was real while the other half felt fake. I stood frozen like a Turkey at the grocery store – deep inside I knew that I must approach my hero, say hello and get an autograph. Deep inside I required a diaper…

What…? No Uniform?

Gathering myself – I stepped slowly in Lafleur’s direction as he stood outside his son’s dressing room. He sported a grey overcoat which masked an equally colored suit underneath. He was chatting with another parent presumably about the stupid ref who believed that a professional hockey player would show up in full uniform to watch his son play. One step, two steps was all I could think as my pulse forced the veins in my forehead closer to Lafleur than my nose. Sweat came from places foreign to me. Lafleur’s voice came within earshot. I rehearsed my opening words to him. “Hi Mr. Rick…I am Guy Lafleur…” No – that’s not right said my left brain to my right. “Hi M. Rick Lafleur I am Guy…!”My words were like mice in a blender…all over the place and it was then I decided to maybe just nod at him and get the heck out of Dodge. I hurried my pace and was almost safely past when I made a crucial error in judgment. I looked at his face! His eyes caught mine and suddenly I was like an Irishman at three am…out of time!

I have no idea what I did next aside from turn as quickly as I could and make my way back to where I came from and toward the rear  of the arena and the safe confines of the snowbanks.

To this day I wonder if Guy Lafleur knows just how close he came to a brush with greatness.

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