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Gordie Howe

Lafleur, Cournoyer share Mr. Hockey stories

Game's greats represent Canadiens at Howe's funeral, tell tales of his legend

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

DETROIT -- Guy Lafleur doesn't remember the precise year, but he remembers the event like it was yesterday.

"It was an NHL old-timers game in Saskatoon, against a team from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police," Lafleur said Wednesday. "One of our guys got hit really bad by a young RCMP guy.

"Gordie Howe was sitting on our bench and he said to whoever was coaching us, 'Let me go on.' He jumped on before he heard an answer, and then he turned to the bench and said, 'Watch what's going to happen.'

"Gordie lines up across from the guy for the faceoff and drops him with an elbow to the jaw. Knocks him out, cold. And then he skates back to our bench and says, 'Well, he won't be touching one of our guys again.'"

Classic Howe, of course. Stories like this have been flowing like wine the past two days at the Tuesday visitation and Wednesday funeral of Mr. Hockey, who died on Friday at age 88.

It seemed like a good idea to arrange time with Lafleur and fellow Canadiens legend Yvan Cournoyer off the busy church steps, given that much of the hockey universe would be coming to Detroit for Howe's funeral.

So before dawn on Wednesday, I headed out to Metro Detroit Airport to meet the two who were arriving on a flight that left Montreal at 5:40 a.m. ET. Walking through the exit doors maybe one minute ahead of them was Los Angeles King president Luc Robitaille, who had flown in on a red-eye from the West Coast.

It meant a wake-up call at around 3 a.m. for Cournoyer and Lafleur, but both couldn't say yes quickly enough when Canadiens alumni president Réjean Houle asked them whether they'd represent the team at Howe's funeral.

They gave up a day of golf, in Cournoyer's case, and, for Lafleur, a morning of chainsawing branches with a Special Olympics event later in the day.

In the past week, the Canadiens re-signed Cournoyer and Lafleur to multi-year deals to continue their work as ambassadors, taking them about 25 times per year into the community to spread the good team word and sign autographs.

Like all of the NHL legends in attendance at Howe's funeral, the two Canadiens icons had Mr. Hockey stories in abundance, some even suitable to relate.

"My first game in the NHL was in Detroit," Cournoyer said, making his debut six days after his 20th birthday at the end of November 1963. "I was in junior and got a call Saturday night, telling me to get to the game Sunday in Detroit. I'm thinking, 'Gordie plays for them. And Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio. They've won Stanley Cups… so welcome to the NHL.'"

The Canadiens won 7-3, Cournoyer scoring Montreal's final goal.

"I remember it as the winning goal," he said, laughing. "That was a very good experience, your first game in the NHL a win against Gordie Howe. It's something you remember forever."

Lafleur, about seven years Cournoyer's junior, knew about Howe years before he played against him, the latter by then a member of the Hartford Whalers.

"I was 10 years old when my dad bought me a Gordie Howe book," he said. "It was about how to get a stronger wrist shot, a harder slap shot. My dad was a welder and he attached a heavy weight to a string on a piece of wood for me to roll up to strengthen my wrists.

"I met Gordie a few times at different events and I found him to be a really, really nice guy. He was very down to earth, a special man. Gordie was passionate about the game, playing it not for the money, and that reflected to the kids looking up at him, hoping that one day they'd make it to the NHL."

Video: Gretzky reminisces about Howe at public visitation

Like Jean Béliveau, the Canadiens captain he would grow to worship, Cournoyer can't recall ever having heard a bad word about Howe.

"Gordie was there for so many years. Try to find something wrong about the guy and I don't think you can," he said. "People like Gordie and Jean are special. Hockey, without a few guys like that, may have been in trouble back then."

Like most of his contemporaries, Cournoyer believes that Howe would have flourished in any era, no matter the modern rules that might restrict his style of play.

"The best players are always going to make it," he said. "Today, later, yesterday. Somebody asked me how many goals I'd score today and I said maybe 10. 'Only 10?' they said. Well, remember, I'm 72 years old."

Chimed Lafleur: "Better to have Gordie Howe on the ice than a (expletive) plumber."

Cournoyer won 10 Stanley Cup championships in his career, the same amount as Béliveau, one fewer than the record held by former teammate Henri Richard. Lafleur won five, his name still all over the team record books for his offensive prowess.

Cournoyer vividly recalls the 1965-66 Stanley Cup Final, the Canadiens falling behind to the Detroit Red Wings 2-0 with losses in Montreal.

"We were practicing the day after losing Game 2, sweating as we were sprinting back and forth across the ice," he said. "The Red Wings came back to the Forum to get their equipment and they came out of their dressing room smoking cigars. I think that was a mistake."

The Canadiens rattled off four straight victories to win the championship, Cournoyer's second in as many years with the team.

He and Lafleur happily renewed acquaintances with former foes both at Howe's funeral and for a couple hours at a by-invitation affair organized for the Howe family and special guests at Comerica Park.

Video: Gordie Howe's life eulogized by son Dr. Murray Howe

They were a little weary heading back to the airport mid-afternoon for their evening flight home, the early alarm and the emotion of the day having taken its toll.

"I'm very glad we came, we wouldn't have missed it," Lafleur said.

And then his grin spread.

"But I never thought I'd see the day that Gordie Howe would wake me up at 3 a.m."

In the church a couple hours earlier, Mr. Hockey's coffin was already at the altar when guests were shown to their seats. It was a departure from most funerals the Canadiens legends attend, the casket arriving from the rear of the church after everyone is seated.

"Just like Gordie," Cournoyer said, smiling as he leaned closer. "He always wanted to be first. And here I thought they called me the Roadrunner."

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