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Canadiens retire Hall of Famer Lapointe's No. 5

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The Big Three is together again.

The Montreal Canadiens retired the No. 5 of Hall of Fame defenseman Guy Lapointe prior to the game against the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, allowing him to join the No. 18 of Serge Savard and No. 19 of Larry Robinson in the rafters of Bell Centre.

An emotional Lapointe, who has been the Wild's chief of amateur scouting since Minnesota was awarded an expansion franchise in 1999, struggled to control his emotions as he watched his No. 5 Lapointe banner raised between those of his fellow Big Three members on either side of him.

"I was a lot more comfortable in a pair of skates than I am in my shoes right now," Lapointe told the Bell Centre crowd.

The NHL is not likely to see anything like the famed Big Three on the blue line of the powerhouse Canadiens teams of the 1970s again, with Savard, Robinson and Lapointe all honored in the Hockey Hall of Fame after playing on the same blue line.

The Montreal Canadiens applaud as Guy Lapointe stands with his wife and watches his No. 5 jersey get raised to the rafters of Bell Centre on November 8, 2014. (Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI) WATCH THE FULL CEREMONY ›

Lapointe was a member of six Stanley Cup-winning teams with the Canadiens and is the franchise's second-leading scorer among defensemen, behind only Robinson. His 28 goals scored in 1974-75 remains a team single-season record for a defenseman, and his 15 goals in 1970-71 is still a team record for a rookie defenseman.

Lapointe was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1993.

Savard and Robinson each addressed the crowd before Lapointe came on to give an emotional speech, thanking everyone who helped his career, particularly his late father.

"It was very emotional," Lapointe said after the ceremony. "I was thinking of my father, my parents. I could still see my father telling me to go to Canadiens training camp, that it's a once in a lifetime opportunity, that no matter what happens one day you can tell your grandchildren that you took part in training camp with the Canadiens, you skated with Jean Beliveau, Henri [Richard], Serge Savard, Jean-Claude Tremblay, Jacques Laperriere. And as I said in my speech, I'm glad I listened to him. I never would have known what I missed."

Alternate captains Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban then brought the No. 5 banner out to Lapointe and were joined by the rest of the Canadiens' defense corps to watch it being raised between the banners of his two longtime teammates.

Lapointe said afterwards he missed the moment.

"I didn't really look," he said. "I had too much water in my eyes."

An infamous prankster, Lapointe's hijinks have taken on legendary status, with everyone he ever played with in Montreal having a favorite prank he pulled on them. Savard likes telling the story of a time in Los Angeles when coach Scotty Bowman was unhappy with the Canadiens' performance and planned an 8 a.m. practice for the next day.

As the team waited outside for the bus to arrive, it never did, because Lapointe had called the bus company and, claiming to be Bowman, canceled it.

"So we didn't have practice that day," Savard recalled with a laugh.

But there was one prank that was unknown until now.

During the video tribute to Lapointe, there was footage shot in the Bell Centre dressing room during the team's centennial celebrations in 2009, when practically all of the team's legendary alumni gathered for a pregame skate.

The footage showed the mayor of Montreal at the time, Gerald Tremblay, going through the legends room. Once the mayor had gone past him, Lapointe got up and dumped baby powder on the back of Tremblay's suit jacket and quickly sat back down. Tremblay had no idea what hit him and continued down the line shaking the legends' hands.

Lapointe, now 66, has not given up his pranking ways. As a long-serving member of the Wild's scouting staff, Lapointe remains someone who keeps the atmosphere light while preying on unwitting victims.

"We work hard during the meetings, but it's inevitable at some point, either during the meeting or during the dinner, something's going to happen, and he'll be a part of it," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "It's remarkable how many times he can shoe-check some of our guys without them figuring it out. It's a combination I think of a couple of our guys being oblivious and Guy being so adept at pulling the same prank over and over. He's got a lot of great moves, let's put it that way.

"He's a beauty."

Fletcher went to dinner with Lapointe and his wife Louise on Friday, and it was clear that Saturday's ceremony was on his mind.

"I think last night was the first dinner we've had where nothing happened," Fletcher said with a laugh.

Lapointe's pranking ways have tended to overshadow just how dominant he was on the ice, and that's a disservice to a player who was an offensive force from the blue line.

Lapointe scored at least 10 goals in each of his first nine seasons and had 20 or more in three straight seasons. That streak ended in 1977-78 when he had 13 goals in 49 games.

But despite the dominant offensive numbers, Lapointe always lived in the shadow of Robinson and Savard. That was something he apparently had no problem with.

"For me, they were the Big Two," Lapointe said in his speech, turning to face Savard and Robinson standing behind him. "Thank you guys. You were the best."

Afterwards, Savard and Robinson were given a chance to respond to Lapointe's assertion, and they showed how the camaraderie the three of them had 40 years ago is just as strong today.

"Well," Robinson replied, "we are a bit taller than him."

Lapointe's impact on the Canadiens was massive, but it could easily be argued his greatest impact has been on the Wild. He was one of the first people hired in Minnesota's hockey operations department when the Wild was awarded an expansion franchise in 1999 and has overseen every NHL Draft in franchise history.

There were nine players in uniform for the Wild on Saturday drafted on Lapointe's watch, but his most impressive work has come since 2010. Center Mikael Granlund (drafted No. 9 in 2010), left wing Jason Zucker (No. 59, 2010), defenseman Jonas Brodin (No. 10, 2011) and defenseman Matt Dumba (No. 7, 2012) are among the talented young players helping to support veterans such as defenseman Ryan Suter and forwards Zach Parise, Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville.

"A good number of the players that we have here, he's had a very big influence in bringing these players here," coach Mike Yeo said before the game Saturday. "You look at the young players we have on our roster. In many ways, the face of our team is a Mikko [Koivu], it's a Zach [Parise], a [Ryan Suter], it's a [Jason Pominville]. But in a lot of ways a huge part of our team is this youth, and he's had such big part influence in bringing these people here."

Fletcher made it clear just how big Lapointe's influence is at the draft table.

"You don't get high on our [draft] board without Guy liking you," he said, "let's put it that way."

Lapointe's eye for identifying talent on the blue line is what is most evident, with Brodin thriving as Suter's partner ever since he was drafted and Dumba now starting to make an impact.

Dumba remembers vividly the first time he met Lapointe.

"Yeah, I do. Which is kind of cool," Dumba said Saturday. "One of the first games I saw him at was in my draft year; he came to talk to me after my game. It was pretty cool to be able to say I met Guy Lapointe. Then at the draft, during my meetings with the Wild, he did a lot of the talking. Just a great man. When I got called up on stage, he was the first hand I shook. I actually have a picture of me and Guy, it's my draft picture, and he's the first guy to my right. It's a pretty cool picture."

Lapointe took another pretty cool picture Saturday night, posing at the end of his press conference with Savard to his right and Robinson to his left.

The Big Three. Reunited at last.

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