ROBERVAL, Quebec – With each step he took closer to the table where he’d be signing autographs, the chant grew louder.
“GUY! GUY! GUY!”
Yes indeed, Hockey Hall-of-Famer Guy Lafleur was in Roberval – a small town that’s roughly six hours north of Montreal, where Lafleur shined from 1971-85. To this day, the 57-year-old remains the Canadiens’ all-time leading scorer.
Lafleur arrived in Hockeyville on Sunday afternoon, alongside former teammate Rejean Houle, just in time to participate at the Stanley Cup Jamboree, where hockey’s Holy Grail was on display for thousands of people who thought they’d never see it in front of their own eyes.
“Some of them are living in the past,” Lafleur joked when asked about the cheers he drew from the phenomenal crowd. “It’s always nice and it keeps you alive. For us to be able to do that and have the opportunity of doing that, I think it’s very special. People are remembering the years that you played, and they’re happy that you came and spent time with them, signing autographs and taking pictures. It’s fantastic.”
Hockeyville is certainly no stranger to Houle, as the Canadiens’ Alumni Association President was in Salmon River for Hockeyville’s inaugural year in 2006. A native of Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, Houle grew up a Canadiens fan – much like the thousands in attendance at the jamboree on Sunday.
“The people are happy to see the Stanley Cup here,” Houle told NHL.com. “They’re so enthusiastic about the game. There’s a lot of hockey fans here, like anywhere in Canada. For us, it’s a big day and we’re happy to be able to see the fans smiling and loving the game. This is why it’s such a big happening.”
For fans who lined up to receive autographs from Lafleur and Houle – along with former Buffalo Sabres forwards Richard Martin and Donald Audette – the fun was just beginning. Roughly 20 yards from the autograph tables was the most prestigious trophy in all of sports. Around these parts, it’s called la Coupe Stanley.
One fan who greeted Lafleur and Houle was wearing a Quebec Nordiques jersey. While Lafleur and Houle played most of their days in Montreal, they also spent some time in Quebec. As far as 28-year-old Sebastien Menard was concerned, he had just had the jersey signed by two Nordique greats.
“Now I have two more Nordiques autographs on this,” Menard gushed. “I’m just trying to get as many former NHL players to sign this as possible. One day, hopefully I’ll have signatures all over this thing.”
For Menard, it was chicken soup for the soul. Thirteen years after his favorite team left for Colorado, he still hasn’t fully converted into a Canadiens fan.
“I still can’t be a complete fan for the Canadiens, so I cheer for Ottawa,” Menard said. “When the Nordiques left, I almost cried.”
Some fans nearly broke into tears as they received the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet Lafleur and Houle, who were their heroes growing up. Decked out in Canadiens gear from head to toe, 52-year-old Christian Lavoie had Lafleur sign a handful of books that were at least 30 years old. Each book sported Lafleur on the cover.
Lavoie doesn’t have a ticket for Tuesday night’s game, but that won’t stop him from heading to Benoit Levesque Arena to watch the game on the big screen in the parking lot.
“I went about 15 times to the Forum, and then I went to the opening of the Bell Centre,” said Lavoie, a Roberval native. “I’m going to watch Tuesday’s game from the tent outside (the arena). I couldn’t get tickets … it’s not big enough.”
The line to see Lord Stanley was certainly big enough, as fans waited patiently to have their picture taken with it. Grown men. Grown women. Families. Children. You name it, every walk of life was in attendance to participate in something that many in this town never thought was possible.
"Roberval is kind of starting to get popular. It’s a dream. All of a sudden, we’re the ‘it’ town." -- Roberval resident Christian Lavoie
“It’s a special event,” Lafleur said. “It’s just fantastic to be able to come to an event like this, meeting all the fans – especially the youngsters, who dream about playing in the NHL one day. For the NHL to bring the Montreal Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres here, I just think it’s something very, very special for the people around here.”
Given the tremendous amount of success it has enjoyed over the past three years now, it appears that the Hockeyville competition will become a staple in Canada. What better way for the NHL to give back to the small Canadian communities than by giving them the opportunity to meet some great players of the past and present – and to host a game?
“I was in Salmon River two years ago, and I was impressed at the presentation they had there,” Houle said. “That concept is a great concept. It makes people that are not living around big cities, it makes it possible to see the players and to see a game. It’s very nice and very well done. I have to say salut to the NHL.”
It’s not everyday that a small town like Roberval can become the envy of an entire nation. But for the next couple of days, there’s no place most Canadians would rather be.
“Roberval is kind of starting to get popular,” Lavoie said. “It’s a dream. All of a sudden, we’re the ‘it’ town.”
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.