Guy Lafleur was in Edmonton last week for an autograph signing at Pro AM Sports. I was fortunate enought to have the opportunity to speak with the Hall of Famer and get his thoughts on a variety of topics. My thoughts are in italics.
Gregor: I was going through some of your stats today and I was amazed at your final year in junior with the Quebec Remparts when you had 130 goals, basically two goals a game and 3.5 points a game, it’s mind numbing. Did you go into games thinking, I’m going to score two goals tonight.
Lafleur: Well first of all, we had a hell of a good team at the time and it was just fantastic to be able to go out there and to win as many games and to score as many goals. The goalies at the time, I think that they were very weak [laughs].
**The goalies weren’t as polished as they are today, but neither were the scorers. Lafleur was being very humble. He was ridicously talented.
Gregor: I like your honesty. You had four 50-goal scorers that year and one of your teammates went on to score 50 goals in the NHL; Jacques Richard who was a hell of a scorer himself.
Lafleur: Yeah, Jacques was an unbelievable hockey player as you know he got drafted by the Atlanta Flames and he did very well there. He played in the WHA with the Nordiques and he scored 50 goals plus. Buffalo was the same thing. We had so many great players on the Remparts at the time in junior, so that’s why we had so much success.
**The Remparts defeated the Edmonton Oil Kings 2-0 to win the 1971 Memorial Cup. The Remparts had four 50-goal scorers that year. Lafleur had 130, Richard had 53, Michel Briere had 51 and Andre Savard had 50. Lafleur added 35 points in 14 playoff games, while Richard had 35. They were an offensive powerhouse.
REPLACING A LEGEND…
Gregor: When you came out of junior there was so much pressure and expectations. You had 209 points your final year of junior and then you had to go into the Forum in Montreal where everyone breathes hockey. You had 64 points the first year, then 55 and then 56 and some people said you weren’t living up to expectations. How did you deal with that kind of pressure?
Lafleur: [Laughs} I didn’t feel good at all. When I was drafted, the year I came up, Jean Beliveau retired and everybody really believed that I was replacing Jean Beliveau and you don’t replace a guy like that. He had such a great career and me I was coming up with no experience, and maybe that’s why with the 130 goals my last year in junior people were expecting me to score so many goals. But I was not playing regularly and it was tough for me, for the adaptation, the change of city from Quebec to Montreal, Quebec to Montreal but it took me a few years to really get going.
Lafleur scored 29, 28 and 21 goals in his first three seasons, but then he became an elite scorer. For the next six seasons he tallied at least 50 goals and 100 points, becoming the first player to ever accomplish that. Only Mike Bossy (6) and Wayne Gretzky (8) have tied or beat Lafleur’s record.
Gregor: You still put up big numbers Guy, how were you able to not let it get you down? We have seen a lot of players come out of junior with great offensive numbers, then have a bad year in the NHL and never could regain their confidence.
Lafleur: Yeah, well for me, it was just a question of time. I knew that if I would get the ice time, I would be okay. But, you look at the players today and think it’s worse because they are drafting players younger and a lot of teams, they draft them at 18 then they’re going to training camp, they send the players to junior and then to the minors, sometimes one or two years if they’re not ready to jump up and a lot of times the players they are going to get discouraged. They don’t get their confidence back. Then they quit playing in the NHL, but a lot of times they go and play in Europe. So it’s a lot of pressure on the kids today because there are 30 teams in the league and you have to be in shape 12 months a year. You can’t have a let down when you are playing because there’s somebody waiting for your job and you better be ready.
Gregor: You wore a helmet when you came into the league, but then you took it off. How come?
Lafleur: Because other guys didn’t wear helmets at the time and in practice I was not wearing it. In my mind I was on the ice and it seems like I was getting my confidence back and I was playing a lot better in the practice than I was in the games. So that’s why I decided to take the helmet off.
But the only reason why I started to have success was because of the amount of ice time I was getting. I was playing more, I was playing on a regular shift, sometimes double shifted and playing on the power play and that’s where it started. The more ice time you get, the better you get.
**Interesting that he practiced without a helmet, but wore it games, but then changed for comfort. I’m guessing there was a bit of pressure to play without one as well.
Gregor: You played on one of the most dynamic lines in the league at the time with Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire. Lemaire was a dynamic two-way player but he was such a defensive minded coach in the NHL. Was he always the defensive minded guy on your line?
Lafleur: Yeah, he was an excellent player, but he always thought defence first. I remember one year, me and Steve scored 50 goals, and Jacques, I think he had 41or 42 goals and we said it would be nice to have the whole line score 50 goals. We had about 10 games left and we used to pass him the puck, and I think that he shot it wide on purpose. He didn’t want to score 50 goals and he said at the end that ‘if I had scored 50 goals, then the next year I would have had to score 55 and I can’t take that pressure.’ But it would have been nice as a linemate to have three guys score 50 goals [laughs].
Gregor: When you played there wasn’t as much of an onus on defense. Did coaches only tell you to focus on defence when the playoffs started?
Lafleur: It only happened in playoffs. When I was playing with Lemaire as a centremen he knew that me and Steve would be the offense all of the way, so that’s why he always stayed back, but in the playoffs we thought more about playing defensive as a line. But our main focus was to score goals and to win the game, if you don’t score any goals in the playoffs or in any games, you can’t win the game. My main job was to score.
*Most of the great scorers could play defence in the playoffs, but Lafleur like all of them preferred to score goals. I’d love it if the NHL wasn’t so focused on two-way play during the regular season now. It would make the games more entertaining, which is what fans want. In the playoffs, teams and players can be more aware defensively, but I’d love to see a more free wheeling game in the regular season.
Gregor: When you watch the offensive players today, is it unrealistic to expect a player to score 35 goals, but also be great in his own zone?
Lafleur: They should be able to do both because there is no more grabbing and hooking anymore compared to our old days [laughs]. Today it’s more a wide open game and it’s a different game so they get to the red line, they dump it in and they chase after the puck all of the time. It’s different.
Gregor: Guy, it is hard to separate myths from true stories. Did you actually smoke during intermission when you played?
Lafleur: Yeah, well I was not the only one. There were about ten guys. But yes we did. We were not allowed to smoke in the room so we used to hide because Scotty (Bowman), he didn’t want us to smoke in the room. But if you look back at those days, the Islanders were smoking in their room and the dressing room. That’s how it was back then. Now they drink milk and they drink it with a straw. [laughs]
*Great line by Lafleur. The game, and society has changed regarding smoking, which is good, but it is nice to hear stories from the past and how different things were.
Gregor: (laughs) The game has definitely changed. When you played more guys were willing to drop the gloves and fight, but there were no guys who were just pure goons. Guys who fought a lot, like Dave Tiger Williams, could also score. Could the game ever get back to where you have team toughness without one guy whose only role was to fight?
Lafleur: I don’t think so. I don’t think that they will be able to go back like it was when we played. Some people want to get the fights out of the game, so I doubt we will see more. However, I don’t think that they will be able to get rid of fighting because hockey is an emotional game and you can’t really tell what’s going to happen without it. If they take it (fighting) out of the game, I don’t think that hockey would be the same anymore.
BOSSY VS. LAFLEUR
Gregor: You were considered one of the greatest goal scorers to play and you were the first player to ever have six straight seasons with 50 goals and 100 points. Give me your thoughts on Mike Bossy as a goal scorer. If you had to compare you in your prime to Mike Bossy in his prime, who was the better goal scorer?
Lafleur: Well I think that Mike was better because that guy was a sharp shooter and he was playing on a great line with Brian Trottier and Clarke Gillies. That guy was amazing. Mike was a deceiving player. When you played against him, or watch him play from the bench you didn’t see much, he was not a fast hockey player skating wise, but he had an incredible compass, he could score from any angle. I never saw a guy who could score from so many angles and Mike was an unbelievable goal scorer.
*Bossy was a pure goal scorer. Lafleur made a great point about scoring from every angle. When you watch highlights of Bossy’s goals, many of them came on shots that no one else could make, or even try.
Gregor: I read a story that early in your career you were close to signing with Quebec of the WHA, were you seriously close to signing with them?
Lafleur: I was really close to sign with the, because my father-in-law was the co-owner of the Nordiques at the time and he was coming down to Montreal with an offer, a millions dollars for five years. Montreal was offering me a million dollars for 10 years.
We were in the playoffs at the time and we were playing against the Flyers and Sam Pollock brought me into his office one day and he said ‘well you’re going to have to sign this contract’ he knew what was really going on because the agent at the time used to work for the players and they used to work for the owners, so they were collecting cheques from both side I think.
I said, ‘I can’t sign today because we’re in the playoffs and I want to concentrate on the game.’ And he knew, he said, ‘listen Guy, you won’t get out of my office before you sign this contract.’ So I was 21 years old and I tried to reach my father-in-law, I couldn’t reach him. When things like that happen, you can’t reach anybody. I signed a deal, it was on the weekend, it was a Saturday and Sam Pollock was telling me that there was no problem because we can’t register the contract until the opening of the week on Monday. He said the contract could be cancelled it at any time. But, that wasn’t the case. Once I signed it was too late. But I don’t regret it. That day, I was very happy about signing with the Montreal Canadiens.
*Interesting to hear Lafleur’s view on agents back then, but also how close he was to going to the WHA. If he had left, you wonder if the Canadiens would have won four straight Cups without him?
Gregor: You had an outstanding career. I’m sure your career and all of your Stanley Cups led to a lot of other successes after hockey, so you definitely wouldn’t change it.
Lafleur: For sure. Things worked out well for me in my career.
Gregor: When the WHA folded and came back to the NHL, did you notice a significant improvement in the league? Was that the best thing for hockey?
Lafleur: I think so. I think that it was the best hockey ever in the NHL at its time and they didn’t have the room for two leagues. Short term, a lot of players took advantage of if (WHA and more money), but long term I think that it was better off to come back into the NHL
Gregor: You retired when you were only 33. How come you retired so young and what brought you back at age 36.
Lafleur: Well at 33 I was not playing much. Lemaire was coaching and the game was really really defensive at the time, and I was unhappy with the amount of ice time that I was getting. It was reaching 5-6 minutes a game and I could feel the pressure from the fans that I was not producing and I asked the organization to trade me at that time. They said ‘no, we can’t trade you. You’re part of the organization,’ so I told them that if I am a part of the organization, you had better play me. It didn’t happen and that’s why I retired.
I was unhappy and I ended up playing old timers games for the next three years across Canada, and I was in really good shape. One day a guy came up to me and said, “Why don’t you try to make a comeback with the Rangers. I have two teams you can try out for the Rangers, or the Kings in Los Angeles.’ I choose the Rangers because it’s close to Montreal and I knew Michel Bergeron and Phil Esposito, so that’s how it happened.
Lafleur is a colourful character, and even though I never cheered for the Canadiens, Lafleur was one of my favourite players to watch. He was a dynamic scorer, and I can only imagine how much pressure he felt when people expected him to replace the great Jean Beliveau. Lafleur is a true legend of the game, and he was great to chat with. I thought a conversation with Lafleur would be a nice break from the Oilers. It isn’t often you get to speak with one of the greatest players to ever skate in the NHL.