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#10 Guy Lafleur

The heartbeat of hockey in montreal

By Shaun McMahon

Phone your wife, you’re not getting out of here,” said Dr. Benoît Coutu.

That’s exactly when Guy Lafleur knew something was terribly wrong. “I knew that it was really, really bad. I didn't know what it was, but I knew it was bad,” recounted Lafleur of the moments following an early-morning exam at the Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM) with Coutu, his cardiologist and  longtime friend, who he met on a fishing trip many years ago.

Montreal’s most beloved #10 would need quadruple-bypass heart surgery and the hard work was about to begin.

Growing up in the tiny town of Thurso, Quebec in the 1950s and 60s, Lafleur was never a stranger to hard work or sacrifice. “When I was nine or 10 years old, I was jogging 10 miles a day. I was working on the railroad track with my grandfather. I worked on a farm for five years, making five bucks a week,” Lafleur reminisced. “I didn’t do it for the money. I was doing it just to get in shape and put some of the chances on my side, without knowing that I would succeed.”

Succeed he did. That fierce determination eventually carried him to the NHL, where his smooth skating and electrifying style brought Montreal Canadiens fans to the edge of their seats year after year. Along the way, the man more affectionately known as “The Flower” and “Le Démon Blond” collected five Stanley Cup
rings and an undisputed spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame as the all-time points leader for hockey’s most-storied franchise with 518 goals and 728 assists.

“I don’t look back. All the records were not really important for me in my career. I was just passionate about playing hockey and tried to do my best to win as many games as possible with my team,” said Lafleur.

Although, his legendary game-tying playoff goal against Boston in 1979 still stands out in his mind. The tally came on the power play in the dying moments of the third period after the Bruins were called for too many men on the ice. “Even Don Cherry remembers it,” chuckled Lafleur, whose club went on to win that Game 7 in overtime and eventually defeat the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup final.

Back then, an entire generation of young hockey fans couldn’t wait to get home from school, grab their whittled down Sher-Woods, run outside to meet their friends in driving snow and sub-zero temperatures… and pretend to be Guy. Lafleur is the stuff legends are made of, but even idols have idols. “I was Jean Beliveau, I was Rocket Richard, I was Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull,” Lafleur recalled of his own street hockey days. 

Those pioneers traced a path for players like Lafleur, especially those within the Habs organization who truly understood the importance of being close to the fanbase. That’s why Lafleur takes such pride in his role as a Montreal Canadiens Ambassador now that his playing days are behind him.

“It keeps us alive in peoples’ minds and it gives us an opportunity to do all kinds of events and give back. When you play, you don’t realize the impact you have on the fans,” said Lafleur. 

One shining example of that impact was felt at a banquet this past September in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. A fan approached Lafleur and proudly handed him a tie bar with the image of an airplane on it. When asked what it represented, the fan explained that it was given to him as a young boy by the legendary Doug Harvey. The man knew that Lafleur’s birthday was coming up and wanted him to have it. “I’m going to keep that for the rest of my life,” recounted Lafleur.

Lafleur’s dedicated involvement with the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation is but another example of his community-first philosophy. “I really like the Foundation because they’re helping out all kinds of kids across the province of Quebec,” said Lafleur. Since its inception in 2000, the Foundation has donated more than $30 million to more than 800 charitable endeavors throughout the province for the well-being of underprivileged children.

As if that isn’t enough, Lafleur continues to give back with the prestigious “Guy Lafleur Award of Excellence”, a scholarship given out annually to a university player that combines strong on-ice play with academic performance. “I think kids are realizing more and more that if they don’t have any education, it's going to be a lot tougher for them,” said Lafleur, who’s delighted that there are more educational support tools and awareness compared to when he was growing up.

Even in his wildest dreams, that little boy from Thurso probably never envisioned what life would eventually have in store for him. An illustrious career filled with goals and glory, followed by the opportunity to criss-cross an entire nation in an effort to give back to the adoring public that has given him so much.

For now, though, that’s all on hold. Doctor’s orders. That’s a tough pill to swallow for someone who’s used to constantly being on the move. “You want to go, go, go and then suddenly you’re told you can’t go at all, until we tell you that it’s OK again,” said Lafleur, anxious for his life to once again take flight.

Since the mid-90s, Lafleur’s true passion has been flying helicopters. Never did he imagine that a routine medical for his license eligibility would be what revealed the sudden need for open-heart surgery. Yet there he was, facing the biggest challenge of his life.

Despite the gravity of the situation, the Hall of Famer remained positive, staying true to the fighting spirit that got him this far. “I was not worried. With the technology, the medicine we have today, it’s not like 40 years ago. 40 years ago you would be dead,” said Lafleur, rather matter-of-factly.

The surgery was a success. When asked if he remembered the faces he saw when he first opened his eyes in the recovery room, Lafleur responded, “My wife and my son,” with a noticeable quiver to his already weakened voice.

It was an admittedly exhausting stretch for Lafleur, but visits from old friends like Réjean Houle, Yvan Cournoyer and Pierre Bouchard meant the world to him. The doctors also made sure to tell him about the outpouring of love and support from the fans. “I really appreciate that. It’s something that gives you a boost, to see that people care,” said Lafleur.

Speaking of care, Lafleur remains eternally grateful to Dr. Simon Malthais, Dr. Nicolas Noiseux and the entire medical staff at the CHUM for giving him a second lease on life, a life that he’s prepared to preserve at all costs. “No more smoking for me. That’s it. That’s the end of it. Life is too short,” said Lafleur, his voice trailing off.

“I’m getting better every day,” said Lafleur. “I find it kind of slow, but the doctors said it’s going to take time.”

Expected to make a full recovery after several months of convalescence, Lafleur can at least pass the time cheering on some of his current-day favourites like Carey Price, Shea Weber, Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher. “I like Gallagher, he has a heart the size of the Bell Centre,” said Lafleur.

If anyone knows heart, it’s Guy Lafleur.

 

Winter 2020, Vol 12 N°1

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Winter 2020
Vol 12 N°1

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