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Lafleur eager to get on with life after surgeries

Canadiens icon back at work following quadruple bypass, lung operation

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- Guy Lafleur still has the Montreal Canadiens' CH logo tattooed on his heart, nearly 30 years after his final NHL game. "The Flower" still bleeds the team's bleu-blanc-rouge -- its blue, white and red.

But beneath his suit jacket and shirt, Lafleur wears two symbols of what literally was a brush with death last fall, dramatic back-to-back medical emergencies that laid him flat.

There is a long scar down Lafleur's chest where on Sept. 26 he underwent quadruple bypass surgery after doctors found four of his coronary arteries fully blocked and a fifth clogged at nearly 90 percent.

The 68-year-old Hockey Hall of Famer was back in a Montreal hospital two months later for the removal of one-third of his right lung after doctors discovered cancerous tumors when his heart condition was being diagnosed. The lung surgery left another scar, this one down his back. It was a reminder of where surgeons entered his body to remove the tumor-spotted upper lobe.

On Monday, Lafleur was back at Bell Centre in his first visit to the arena since the fall. Twenty-five pounds lighter, a long-absent healthy color back in his cheeks since quitting his lifelong habit of chain-smoking, he sat in the Canadiens alumni lounge and took inventory of the surgeries he had undergone during a 17-season, 1,126-game NHL career.

"Well, I had my tonsils out," he said with a laugh.

For Montreal fans, Lafleur is an enduring reminder of the Canadiens' glorious 1970s dynasty, an enormously popular figure who can't walk 10 feet in this city, and far beyond, without being stopped for a photo or an autograph.

He won five Stanley Cup championships with the Canadiens that decade, scoring a team-record 518 goals between 1971-85. He scored 42 more for the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques from 1988-91, returning to the NHL following a four-year retirement, by then having been elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

So it was like an earthquake that the hockey world -- especially the Canadiens and their fans -- felt Lafleur's medical crisis last fall, a legend who forever was viewed as being indestructible now in very fragile health.

Long a helicopter pilot, Lafleur went to his doctor on Sept. 23 for a routine checkup, standard procedure to have his license renewed.

"The doctor looked at my echocardiogram and said, 'You're sick,' "Lafleur said. "I replied, 'No.' And he said, 'Yes, you are. Do you know a cardiologist?' I said, 'Yes, one of my good friends,' and he told me, 'Call him right away.'

"I said, 'What for?' and he repeated, 'Call him right away.' I sent a photo of his notes by phone to Benoit (Coutu, his cardiologist). He called me and said, 'Be at the hospital at 6 o'clock tomorrow morning.'"

In hindsight, Lafleur recalls the warning signs. When his suburban Montreal home was threatened by spring floods last April, he had a burning sensation in his chest while hauling sandbags. He also remembers bouts of breathlessness.

"I thought that maybe I was out of shape," he said, shrugging.

Famously active, forever on the go, Lafleur reported back to the hospital -- and didn't last three minutes on the treadmill.

"Benoit told me, 'Call your wife. You're not leaving.' "

Lafleur had just returned to Montreal from a trip to Newfoundland's remote region of Labrador, having flown north in his helicopter more for the sightseeing than to fish for the area's salmon and Arctic char.

"If this happens while I'm up there, in the middle of nowhere," Lafleur said, "I'd be dead."

He was discharged from hospital three weeks after his bypass surgery, preparing mentally and psychologically for the lung operation that would follow when his strength permitted it, a minimum of two months. Specialists chose not to do a biopsy, instead opting to remove the upper lobe of his right lung.

Video: Guy Lafleur won Cup five times in Montreal

It would take six weeks before Lafleur would know results of tests on the tumors. And it would be a month before he could keep his food down; he dropped from 235 pounds to 195. He's back up to 210, where he wants to stay.

"They phoned me after six weeks and told me, 'You won't need any chemo or radiation therapy. You're clear.' I was happy to hear that."

Lafleur smoked his last cigarette on Sept. 23, quitting a vice he's had for longer than he can remember.

"That's it, no more," he said. "I don't miss it. Life is too short."

Messages of good wishes poured in during his two rehabilitations, including notes from people whose lives have flourished after similar operations.

"It's unbelievable, the support I've had. It's been so encouraging, I can't thank people enough," Lafleur said. "I've been told by so many, 'Don't worry, things will turn out well, take it one day at a time.' "

Lafleur went to Toronto on Saturday for a card signing, then returned to Bell Centre on Monday, his first day back at work, eager to get on with his life that he's never appreciated more. He says his pace will be slower, and he apologizes for speaking in shorter sentences; his breath is a little shorter than it was.

Lafleur was probably inches from death in 1981 when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car at high speed and crashed into a chain-link fence, a steel pole ripping through his windshield and grazing his ear, his head having nodded to the side as he slept.

He remembers that, and two surgeries that are freshly behind him, and he smiles again.

"My wife, Lise, told me not long ago, 'This is the second time you've been close to death. Please, we don't need a third time.' "

Photo courtesy Vitor Munhoz, Montreal Canadiens

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