The Last of the “Flying Frenchmen”: Montreal Canadiens Great Guy Lafleur Dies at 70
Hockey legend Guy Lafleur, seen here in 1980, passed away at age 70 following a battle with lung cancer. Photo: Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Guy Lafleur, one the most iconic hockey players of the 1970s and a hero to all Quebecers, has passed away from lung cancer. Lafleur was 70.
For those who remember the great Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup teams of that era, Lafleur’s scoring exploits and flashy style resonated with fans in the hockey-mad province.
There were many great players on those five Stanley Cup teams in the 1970s — including Larry Robinson, Ken Dryden and Serge Savard — but Lafleur stood out. He had a certain style that appealed to fans but, more importantly, he was the last of the true “Flying Frenchmen” — Quebec-born hockey players like Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Jean Béliveau, who have became quasi-religious symbols in a province that celebrates its hockey heroes.
Born in Thurso, Que., Lafleur grew up loving the Habs.
“When I was a kid,” he said once, “all we saw on TV was the Canadiens, and all I wanted to be was Béliveau. We had one bleu, blanc and rouge Canadiens sweater and I fought the others for the right to wear it. I dreaded to be drafted by any team but Canadiens and when they took me, I was so happy.”
And for the next decade and a half “The Flower,” with his goal-scoring exploits and charismatic style, became the biggest celebrity in Quebec.
“He was an amalgam of everything that was good and great in hockey because of his speed, his thunderclap of a shot and his matinee-idol good looks,” wrote Red Fisher, a Montreal sportswriter who covered all the greats who have worn the bleu, blanc et rouge sweater, including Richard and Béliveau.
“Besides his enormous ability and great desire, Guy had extraordinary charisma,” said one of his former coaches, Scotty Bowman. “He had the ability to bring spectators to the rink and then show them something unusual.”
The spectators in the old Montreal Forum would rise out of their seats as No. 10 gathered up the puck, speeding down the ice with his long hair flowing behind him. They knew something great was coming and Lafleur always seemed to deliver, either deftly passing off to an open teammate or simply overpowering the goalie with what play-by-play man Danny Gallivan often referred to as a “cannonading” shot. He had to invent a word to describe it.
Then the Forum would erupt and chants of “Guy” would rain down from the rafters. Lafleur would lift his glove to celebrate in his typical muted fashion, a cagey smile spreading across his Gallic face, as if he himself couldn’t quite fathom the wondrous feat he’d just performed.
Lafleur’s goal-scoring prowess thrilled Montreal fans for the 14 years he played there, between 1971 and 1985 (after returning from his first retirement, he played for the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques). In his career, he ended up with 570 goals and, in 1979, authored what might be the most memorable moment in franchise history, with a last-minute goal to salvage a win against hated rivals the Boston Bruins.
As his time with the Habs was winding down, Lafleur requested that he be traded to another team. Then-general manager and former teammate Serge Savard turned down the trade, making the argument that “Hockey is a religion here … you don’t trade priests.”
Lafleur retired but later came back to play three seasons for the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques. It wasn’t the same as before — the speed was missing, the hair was thinning — but Lafleur got one more standing ovation from Habs fans as he scored two goals in his return to the Forum as a member of the Rangers.
In 1991 Lafleur grudgingly retired from hockey, running a number of businesses before taking on a role as ambassador for his beloved Canadiens. He is still the team’s all-time leading scorer and, in 2019, was named to the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players. He is an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Knight of the National Order of Quebec.
Upon retiring, he summed up his magnificent career, which stands as a fitting epitaph for a brilliant career.
“I’ll always regret that I can’t keep the great days with me forever, that I can’t go on forever scoring 50 goals a season, that my feet do not forever have wings, that my muscles never get tired. You hear the cheers and a light shines so brightly that it can blind you forever. But also, so brightly that it can light you the rest of your days.”