In any determination of who ranks as the best-ever NHL right wing, don't look beyond Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe. Where, though, does Guy Lafleur rate?
I saw Richard only during his last five seasons. I saw only flashes of greatness of the man who had been the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals in 50 games. So answer this: During the last half-century, was there a more exciting right wing than Lafleur, golden mane flying, skipping and dancing beyond one player and then another? Does it get better than Lafleur in one motion releasing that wonderfully accurate shot which had stirred the souls of so many fans for so many seasons?
At his best -- in 961 regular-season and 124 playoff games with the Canadiens -- Lafleur was not merely hockey's finest and most exciting player. He was its artist and its sculptor. His speed and shot had produced 518 regular-season goals, only 26 fewer than Richard had scored in 978 games.
He could transform ordinary games into things of beauty. He won the scoring title three times -- a distinction Richard never earned. He was the NHL's most valuable player twice. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy once, and was on the NHL's first all-star team six times. He scored at least 50 goals in six consecutive seasons.
The Canadiens' No. 3 all-star of all-time simply was the best of his time. Lafleur was one of those rare talents who was a man even while he was a boy. His speed, his quickness, his shot and his matinee-idol good looks had a deeply rooted French flavor to them. He was outgoing from the start, and remains that way today.
Ask him a question, and there's always an answer -- almost always laced with controversy.
He was hockey's royalty, its sweet prince. At 14 he was a full-blown celebrity with the junior Quebec Remparts. Teams schemed and happily would rob to get him, as GM Sam Pollock surely did when the Canadiens traded Ernie Hicke and a first-round draft choice to the California Seals for Francois Lacombe, cash and the Seals' first-round pick in the 1971 Entry Draft.
Lafleur was born to wear the CH. What could be better? He was a poor boy from a pulp-and-paper town continuing the line of pre-eminent French-Canadian superstars who had worn the jersey.
When Lafleur gathered his legs beneath him deep in his zone for the start of one of his rink-length rushes, he conjured up visions of the best and most exciting players in NHL history. Nobody handled the puck as well. When he danced with a spray of ice into the opposition's zone and released his marvelous shot, he was a composite of all the great shooters who ever had worn the Canadiens sweater.
He was all of them -- but most of all, he was The Flower -- delicate, yet indestructible. Lafleur pulled people out of their seats more often than any player of his time. He was speed. He was unflinching dedication to winning. He was the game-breaker who scored the winning goal in regulation time and overtime.
Lafleur wasn't merely the most exciting Canadiens player of his time. He was right for the time, for the team and for the game, and like most of us, he also could be wrong. On the ice, his decisions were things of beauty. Off it, now and then, he had a talent for talking when he should have been listening. Nobody was surprised when he was the first of the old-time elite players to condemn both sides in the NHL's lockout season.
In this business, restraint is your right arm. You don't write a story without a confirmation from at least two sources, but once in a long time, for one reason or another, you go for it. I went for it, starting the day after Lafleur's world started to fall apart on Nov. 24, 1984, after scoring only twice in the season's first 19 games. His relations with former teammate and now coach Jacques Lemaire were strained. And so it was that after a game at home on a Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings, Lafleur wasn't among the Canadiens who traveled to Boston for a game the following night.
Chris Nilan had a question after the game against the Red Wings: "Did you hear about The Flower?"
"What about him?"
"He's not making the trip to Boston."
Groin injury? He was on the ice two minutes before the end of the game and skating faster coming off the ice after a long shift than most of the Canadiens starting one.
Groin injury? The next afternoon, Lemaire was tracked down in the team's Boston hotel.
"One question," he was asked. "Is Lafleur hurt?"
"Check it out," Lemaire said with a broad smile. "You could have a hell of a story."
Nobody answered the telephone at Lafleur's home. The reason, I later learned, was that on Sunday morning the Lafleurs had left for his home town of Thurso, Que., to discuss his future with his parents. I learned later he didn't return home until 10 p.m. -- his mind made up.
Lemaire didn't say it, but everything about the way he suggested that Lafleur's absence be "checked out" raised all kinds of red flags. A groin injury wouldn't stop Lafleur from traveling with the team to Boston, even if he knew he couldn't play. He liked being with the boys. He liked Boston.
In other words, Lemaire's suggestion that "you could have a hell of a story" was as good as admitting the groin injury story was as phony as a $3 bill. Lafleur was unavailable. Lemaire would say nothing more on instructions from upper management.
So, go for it. The next day, The Gazette carried my column saying that Lafleur had played his last game with the Canadiens -- which promptly raised a firestorm of doubt and derision from other media outlets.
The finger-pointing continued until early afternoon, when the Canadiens announced a major news conference would be held at 4 o'clock. At 4:05, Lafleur entered the room with GM Serge Savard and president Ronald Corey.
Lafleur walked over to me and said quietly: "My wife cried when she read your column this morning. I think I cried a little, too."
At 4:06, Savard started: "This is a sad day for all of us, because I must announce the retirement of Guy Lafleur.”
Savard, one of the Canadiens' all-time all-stars himself, was shaken but continued: “His contribution to the Canadiens has been unbelievable.”
You should know that Savard also was somewhat a tad incensed the Lafleur retirement appeared in The Gazette before the team announced it. He suspected that someone within the organization had spilled the beans. He thought that a team trainer or a player was the snitch.
He put Lemaire on the case.
"Serge wants to know where you got the Lafleur story," Lemaire told me a few days later.
"Really? You mean you don't know?"
"No," said Lemaire.
"Check it out," I said. "You could have a hell of a story."
Reprinted with permission from the Montreal Gazette, this Red Fisher column originally ran in early 2005. For more insights about the Canadiens, check out the Gazette's hockey blog, www.habsinsideout.com.