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Lafleur nearly joined Gretzky with Kings 30 years ago

Canadiens legend had contract talks with Los Angeles after trade for Great One

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

The Montreal Canadiens' all-time points leader had been retired for about four years, but for Guy Lafleur, the magnetic pull of Wayne Gretzky was undeniable.

In August of 1988, a week after the Los Angeles Kings shocked the hockey world by acquiring Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers, Lafleur loved the idea of suiting up again, this time as a teammate of The Great One.

 

[RELATED: Gretzky trade anniversary to be celebrated by NHL Network]

 

It wouldn't come to pass, and Lafleur signed a one-year contract with the New York Rangers with a one-year option before the forward finished his jump-started career by playing two more seasons with the Quebec Nordiques. But the idea of playing with Gretzky, his teammate with Canada at the 1981 Canada Cup, was of huge appeal to Lafleur and the Kings.

The tremors were still being felt in hockey a week after the Aug. 9 trade brought Gretzky to Los Angeles, where the center would almost singlehandedly popularize hockey in Southern California and lay the groundwork for the NHL's expansion there and beyond.

The dust not yet settled, Rogie Vachon, then the Kings general manager, was in quiet talks with Lafleur about signing with Los Angeles.

"It came pretty close," Vachon, 72, said recently. "It was a matter of how far we were going to go.

"Guy was retired (for three seasons) and we didn't know when he came back how sharp he would have been or how much speed he would have lost. It was a little bit of a gamble for us but I think it was worth a try to get him out here. He was a fun player to watch, he was very exciting, but it just didn't happen."

Lafleur said the Kings offered him a one-year contract, a year fewer than he was seeking, especially if it meant relocating across the continent. But still …

"I was thinking about having a chance to go to L.A. and if not play on Wayne's line, then play on his team," said the 66-year-old Lafleur, who signed with the Rangers on Aug. 19, 1988, 31 days before turning 37. "We were good friends and he was such a great hockey player."

The two were linemates with Gilbert Perreault of the Buffalo Sabres to start the 1981 Canada Cup, a dream come true for Lafleur until Perreault broke his ankle in the fourth game of the round-robin tournament in a freak collision with Gretzky.

"Not to take anything away from Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire, Peter Mahovlich or Pierre Larouche," Lafleur said of four of his 1970s Canadiens linemates, "but it was very special having the moment to play with Wayne and Gilbert."

And then, with a laugh:

"The three of us sat down together, looked at each other and said, 'Who's going to carry the puck?' Wayne said, 'I'll be standing between the blue line and the red line, so I told Gilbert, 'You wind up behind the net and I'll come from behind.' We didn't have to look for each other. It was unreal. Too bad I didn't play with them my whole career."

Of course, Lafleur didn't fare badly with those he did play with. One of the most exciting, charismatic and creative players of his generation, the Hockey Hall of Fame forward had 1,246 points (518 goals, 728 assists) for the Canadiens before retiring early in 1984-85, his 14th NHL season, all with Montreal. And he remembers often beating Vachon after the Canadiens traded the goalie to the Kings early in the 1971-72 season, something the Los Angeles GM didn't hold a grudge over years later.

"Imagine having Guy Lafleur on the right [wing] and Wayne in the middle," Vachon said. "And somebody -- anybody -- on the left."

Lafleur had a suggestion for that.

"Rogie could have brought back Gilbert Perreault for our line," he said.

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