Guy Lafleur, Hockey's Faded Flower, Blooms Anew in New York
02/06/1989 at 01:00 AM EST
Flying down the ice with the puck on his stick and his blond hair flowing, Guy Lafleur was the most dangerous hockey player of the '70s. He moved like a guy in spangled tights, shot like a rodeo cowboy and made a very good team—the Montreal Canadiens—into a dynasty, leading it to five National Hockey League championships in a decade. In French his name means "the flower," and it befit his style. At right wing, Lafleur was an artist who dominated with grace rather than with his power. "He was totally instinctive," recalls his former roommate, Steve Shutt. "Everybody watched to see what he'd do with the puck. He didn't know, so nobody knew."
Lafleur was the first player to routinely score 50 or more goals in a season, and he was twice the league's most valuable player. Whenever he carried the puck, the ice seemed to part before him, as opposing players backpedaled frantically to stay between him and the goal. Then in 1984, at the age of 33, he abruptly retired. He made the decision between periods of a game, fed up with a coach who tried to rein him in while substantially—some might say insultingly—reducing his playing time. All of Quebec mourned. "Sports are a life within a life," says Shutt. "You come in young, mature and die right in front of your fans. That's the worst part."
And that, it seemed, was the end of Guy Lafleur. But it was not.
This Saturday, Lafleur will play hockey at the Montreal Forum again, for the first time in nearly five years. A few things have changed. The creases in his face are deeper. The hair on his head is thinner. And now he plays for the New York Rangers, a team he has scored more goals against than for (he has 10 as a Ranger so far). He returned as an active player after the Canadiens retired his number (10) and after he was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. "At first I didn't think it was such a great idea, him coming to training camp," says Brian Leetch, 20, a Rangers rookie, "but then I saw him in the first practice skate faster than me and most of the other guys, and I realized, 'Christ, this guy has something the rest of us don't have.' "
What Lafleur certainly does have is indifference to the immensity of his accomplishment—Gordie Howe is the only other man to come back after making the Hall of Fame. Asked what he found most startling about his return, Lafleur replied, "The referees told me they were glad I was back and wished me luck. They said it made them feel young." At 37, he is now competing against players 15 years younger after spending four years playing mostly in old-timers' games for such teams as the Purolator Rams. He hasn't even given up smoking as a concession to age. "But it was never three packs a day, the way the press always said," he points out.
When he decided to return to the NHL, he knew it would not be with the Canadiens. Shortly after quitting as a player, he accepted a position with the team in marketing and public relations for about $75,000 a year. He wasn't impressed by either the work or the money, and he couldn't keep his mouth shut about the team's leadership. "Guy was fired," says his wife, Lise, 38. "To look good, he had to say he was quitting. It was very hard for him. He was very quiet. He was lost, because what he had done with his life was to play for the Canadiens. It took two years for the wounds to heal." The break was so painful that Lafleur wouldn't even return to the Forum to watch a game. When Guy decided he wanted to play again, he and Lise were eager to try life in the States, and his personal manager, Yves Tremblay, contacted only U.S. teams. "I came back to prove something to myself," Lafleur says. "I didn't want to wake up when I was 50 and be second-guessing myself, telling myself I should have given it another shot."
In perhaps no other professional sport except tennis do young men do so well so quickly. Typically, NHL players leave home and school in their mid-teens in order to play junior hockey, the stepping-stone to the NHL. Lafleur, who grew up in Thurso, Quebec (pop. 3,000), the son of a welder who never played the game, left for the big city of Quebec when he was 15, although he remained in school into the 12th grade. By 17, he was the leading scorer in junior hockey with the Quebec Remparts. He met Lise when he went to her father's General Motors dealership to pick out a Corvette.
"I wasn't interested in him," says Lise. "When you are 18, you do not look at a 17-year-old boy."
Time passed. The boy became a Montreal Canadien. The girl became a flight attendant. By chance they both moved into the same apartment building, where they were reintroduced by the janitor.
"Guy asked if I was busy. I said, 'Yes, I am,' " recalls Lise.
"Anyway, she was kind of big," says Guy. "Not really fat, but a big girl."
"He has a big mouth," says Lise. "He's changed. He was the shy boy who never said a word. What happened to him?"
Perhaps she wasn't all that big. A few weeks after they met she returned home past midnight to find him sitting in her living room. The janitor had given him the key, because for Guy Lafleur all things were possible in Montreal. "I think he served himself my cognac," complains Lise.
One year later, they were living together. A year after that, they were married. It was not a perfect marriage. "A young hockey player doing well is spoiled and difficult," Lise says.
And an old hockey player?
"He's getting old in a beautiful way," she says. "Before, he couldn't wait to put his foot out the door. Friends would call at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning and he'd walk out the door, go to a bar. Now he will come home, look at me and say, 'Boy, I'm glad you're in the house.' If he has problems, he will talk about them, not just sit in front of the TV in a bad mood."
The Lafleurs have two children, Martin, 13, and Mark, 4, and on the subject of comebacks, Lise would like this said: A nine-year layoff between babies is surely as difficult as a four-year layoff from hockey. The four of them live in suburban Rye, N.Y., where they rent a house for $5,000 a month and furniture for $1,200 a month (on a modest Rangers salary estimated to be about $200,000 a year). "In Canada you're recognized because of hockey," she says. "I love it here, the way people are so open and easy. I go to a store and they say, 'Hi, hon, how are you?' They don't know I'm the wife of Guy Lafleur. It's too bad he's getting old and can't play here another 10 years."
By all indications, he can play a few seasons more, though not at the old pace. He plays fewer minutes, shoots less and has more of a defensive role than he did with the Canadiens. "We all know he can't score 50 goals again," says the coach of the Rangers, Michel Bergeron. "To score 50 means playing 20 minutes a game, and I don't think he'll play 20 a game ever." Red Fisher, a hockey writer in Montreal for the past 35 years, watched Lafleur play against the Canadiens at Madison Square Garden last November and said, "He was one of the best players on the ice. He got a goal, and he was as fast as when he left."
Last December, when the Rangers played at the Forum in Montreal, Lafleur had suffered a minor bone fracture in his foot and could not play, disappointing fans who had paid scalpers as much as $300 a ticket. But he did participate in a ceremony commemorating his entry into the Hall of Fame. Wearing street clothes, Lafleur hobbled out onto the carpeted ice and was greeted with two minutes of handclapping, foot stomping and cries of "Guy! Guy! Guy!" When he donned a Rangers shirt, the ovation rose in volume and lasted another full minute, not for love of the Rangers but for the joy of seeing the Flower in uniform again. "It was unbelievable," said the Rangers' Brian Mullen, 26, who skates on the same line as Lafleur. "It was so emotional. More than half our team was ready to cry, just being there."
Even if he is no longer hockey's preeminent showpiece, the old Lafleur is more than just a memory. In a game just after his return from the foot injury, he faked his way past one New Jersey Devils player, cut between two others and was taking the puck in for a score when a fourth player hooked him from behind, sending him crashing to the ice. "If I had scored, on a scale of 1 to 10 that would have been a 10," Lafleur said. He is playing consistently well in a system that discourages free-lancing, and there have been few such plays for fans to savor—the ones that bring them to their feet chanting "Guy! Guy! Guy!"
Rangers rookie Tony Granato says those moments "lift everyone on the team, everyone in the building, regardless of what building We're playing in," but Lafleur is reluctant to make much of them. He says that just playing for the Rangers has made him happier than anything else he has done over the past five years, and he will accept any role.
So he doesn't really miss it at all, eh, taking the puck at his own end and rushing up the ice, his teammates fanning out behind him and his eyes boring cross hairs in the goalie's chest? He looks up, and a shy smiles flickers across the scarred but still boyish face.
"Yes," he says, "I do."