Skip to main content
100 Greatest Players

Guy Lafleur: 100 Greatest NHL Players

'The Flower' won Stanley Cup five times with Canadiens, was first to score at least 50 goals, 100 points in six straight seasons

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Guy Lafleur's life would change forever when he was 10 years old, filling the net with ridiculous ease at Quebec City's renowned international peewee tournament against boys a couple of years his senior. It was then, in 1962, after another game in which Lafleur had dazzled, that the forward met both an idol and a hockey icon, Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, who stopped by the dressing room at Le Colisee to meet the young, starstruck team.

The arena in the provincial capital was known as "The House that Beliveau Built" for his heroics with the junior Quebec Citadelles and the senior-league Quebec Aces in the late 1940s and early '50s. On this rink from 1969-71 with the Quebec Remparts, Lafleur would score 233 goals and 379 points and lead his Remparts to the Memorial Cup in '70-71 as Canada's top major-junior team.

 

Video: Guy Lafleur won Cup five times in Montreal

 

"I'd scored a hat trick in the peewee tournament game that day and Jean put a hat on my head for a picture, the way photographers in Montreal would put one on his after he'd scored three," Lafleur said decades later.

"Imagine. You're 10 years old, you've been watching this man on TV, reading about him, worshipping him, pretending that you're him, and now here he is in in front of you in the dressing room, reporters and photographers all around, and he's telling you that he liked the way you'd played."

The meeting is burned forever in Lafleur's mind, and more than a half-century later, he still shakes his head at the memory. 

 

GUY LAFLEUR CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,126 | Goals: 560 | Assists: 793 | Points: 1,353

 

Twenty-six years later, Lafleur would be inducted into the Hall of Fame as one of the most prodigious scorers and most exciting players of his generation, or any other. He began his NHL career with the Canadiens in 1971-72, the season after the great Beliveau retired, and ended it in 1990-91 after 14 seasons in Montreal, a nearly four-year-retirement, one season with the New York Rangers and two with the Quebec Nordiques.

Lafleur won five Stanley Cup championships with the Canadiens, the Hart Trophy twice as the NHL's most valuable player and the Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer three times. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1977 as the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Lafleur also was honored with the Lester B. Pearson Award (now called the Ted Lindsay Award) three times as the NHL MVP, as voted by the players.

The first NHL player to score at least 50 goals and 100 points in six consecutive seasons, Lafleur remains atop a number of Canadiens all-time lists. He is the leader in regular-season points (1,246), assists (728) and single-season points (136, holding the first through sixth places in that category). He has the most 40-goal, 50-goal and 100-point seasons (six each), shares the lead in single-season goals (60, with Steve Shutt) and game-winning goals in a season (12, with Yvan Cournoyer) and leads in game-winning goals overall (93).

The statistics are impressive in their own right. But there was something magical and brilliantly uncalculated about Lafleur in his glorious prime. He was a flamboyant artist who many nights, on a thoroughly dominant team, was worth the price of admission alone. If Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman scrupulously crafted game plans, Lafleur played by his own rules, finding ice where none existed, weaving through the opposition with moves he invented as he went.

"He's not the easiest player to play with because he's all over the ice," Shutt said of Lafleur, who theoretically played on the right side. "He doesn't know what he's going to do, so how can I know?"

The opposition would batter him mercilessly, clutching and grabbing and hooking and slashing, and none of that really mattered.

"He is constantly being hammered and fouled," Canadiens defenseman Larry Robinson said. "But he never lets it bother him, he never tries to retaliate and just keeps on going. It's as if he's saying, 'You want to foul me? Well, that's your problem, not mine.' "

His longtime coach in Montreal, like everyone else, just shrugged in awe.

"Besides his enormous ability and great desire, Guy had extraordinary charisma," Bowman said. "He had the ability to bring spectators to the rink and then show them something unusual."

Harry Sinden, the general manager whose Boston Bruins were often burned by Lafleur, said, "He is the most 'goal-dangerous' player I've ever seen."

And Beliveau, whose inspiring 1962 visit to a peewee dressing room put a fire in a young boy's soul that would not be extinguished, merely said of Lafleur in his prime: "He is the most complete player in the game today."

Sports writer Red Fisher covered Lafleur, Beliveau and Maurice "Rocket" Richard, the three elite French-Canadian forwards in Montreal history.

"Lafleur didn't do what the Rocket could do, and that's carry people on his back," Fisher said. "Lafleur was too fast, too tricky, too creative. Both he and Jean Beliveau were winners, and they and the Rocket could all get you the big goal. When Beliveau would score it, you'd say, 'What else did you expect?' When Lafleur would score it, he'd pull you out of your seat. And pulled me out of my seat more than any other Canadien."

The native of Thurso, Quebec, arrived in Montreal with unthinkable pressure bearing down on him. His two brilliant junior seasons had set impossibly high expectations, and fans viewed him as the next great, can't-miss French-Canadian star.

It had taken some fast footwork by Canadiens GM Sam Pollock to land him in the 1971 NHL Draft; he traded with the hapless California Golden Seals to get the No. 1 pick. Montreal could have chosen the flashy junior Marcel Dionne, another star francophone, but selected Lafleur.

"The Flower," as he'd be nicknamed (the English translation of his surname), never imagined playing anywhere else. When he skated onto Montreal Forum ice for his first game in 1971, he was wearing the No. 10 that trainer Eddy Palchak had tossed to him, no matter that some had suggested he take Beliveau's No. 4 as heir to the legend's throne.

"Don't try to be a second Jean Beliveau. Be the first Guy Lafleur. Take a number and make it your own," his idol told him, as quoted in author Georges-Hebert Germain's 1990 Lafleur biography "Overtime."

Lafleur saw limited ice time as a rookie in 1971-72; the Canadiens were stocked with excellent, veteran forwards. His 29 goals and 35 assists left him only the fifth-highest scorer on Montreal and 28th in the League -- and 13 points behind Dionne, who had been drafted at No. 2 by the Detroit Red Wings.

Rumblings began among notoriously impatient fans, who questioned Pollock's savvy at the draft table and Lafleur's skill. Two months into the rookie's career, he was hearing boos at the Forum.

The ice time would come, gradually, as his linemates would be juggled. In his second and third seasons, Lafleur scored 28 and 21 goals with 55 and 56 points, respectively, with the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup -- the first of his five championships -- in 1973.

He silenced his critics into a stone silence in his fourth season, 1974-75, with a 119-point breakout season (53 goals, 66 assists) and 19 points in 11 playoff games. That would be Lafleur's first of six consecutive seasons of 50 or more goals; he scored 60 in 1977-78, winning the Art Ross Trophy in '76, '77 and '78.

By now he was every bit the superstar that the fire-breathing Richard and the stately Beliveau had been, though Lafleur's electrifying rushes, instinctive view of the ice and unscripted routes around the rink with his hair flying behind him made him truly unique, a huge part of the Canadiens' four straight championships from 1976-79.

But Montreal's landscape was changing in the early to mid-1980s, with defensive-minded coach Jacques Lemaire, a former Lafleur teammate, running the show. His ice time sharply reduced, his pride stung during a long, bitter slide, and the Canadiens unwilling to trade him -- "You don't trade the columns of your temple," GM Serge Savard told a Montreal newspaper -- Lafleur stunned the hockey world on Nov. 26, 1984, by announcing his retirement.

If he walked away from the NHL, he didn't quit hockey. For the next three years, Lafleur played with the Canadiens alumni team for charity games across Canada. And then the yearning grew too strong to resist.

New York Rangers GM Phil Esposito came calling, dangling a few of Lafleur's old Quebec friends -- coach Michel Bergeron and players Dionne and Chris Nilan.

And so Lafleur came out of retirement in 1988-89, the only player besides Gordie Howe to have returned to hockey after being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

He followed that with two final years in his native province with the Quebec Nordiques and then, following the 1990-91 season, he retired for good.

"I'm retiring because I want to retire," Lafleur said. "I'm ready. I'll always regret that I can't keep the great days with me forever, that I can't go on forever scoring 50 goals a season, that my feet do not forever have wings, that my muscles never get tired. You hear the cheers and a light shines so brightly that it can blind you forever. But also, so brightly that it can light you the rest of your days."

For the past two decades, Lafleur has officially served as a Canadiens ambassador, making scheduled and impromptu appearances at events far and wide. There is nowhere he can go in the city and the province, and very few places in Canada, that he is not recognized, where a photo, autograph or opinion is not sought.

Lafleur remains true to himself, sometimes speaking critically of the team that pays him handsomely to spread the good word. But the Canadiens and their fans would expect nothing less from one of the most glittering, outspoken stars in franchise history.

Thrilling and sometimes unpredictable as a player, Lafleur has mellowed, a little, through the years, and today he shows many of the qualities that his idol, Beliveau, did every day of the latter's life in the Canadiens family.

During a visit in October of 2016 to St. John's, Newfoundland, where he watched the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate play, Lafleur hung out of an arena suite for 90 minutes afterward, meeting every fan who flocked to his side.

"My night is over," he said that evening, "when there is nothing more to sign and there are no more photos to be taken."

Although Lafleur has long since traded in his uniform for a Hall of Fame blazer, the legend of one of the Canadiens' most radiant stars burns brightly to this day.

 

For more, see all 100 Greatest Players

View More