What the Puck: Guy Lafleur defined the golden age of Canadians

If you weren’t in Montreal during the 1970s, it’s impossible to help you understand just how important Lafleur is.

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There will never be another Jay Lafleur.

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There will undoubtedly be other great players in the Montreal Canadiens, men who light up the arena by scoring amazing goals when the team needs them most. Youngster Cole Caufield has already scored a few of those kinds of goals and he could become the acne champ of this generation.

But Coffield will never be LaFleur. If you weren’t in Montreal during the 1970s, it’s impossible to help you understand just how important Lafleur is. He was, of course, the greatest player of that era. Scored 50 or more goals in six consecutive seasons. He was the best hockey player in the history of the sport. He won five Stanley Cups.

When I say Caufield won’t be LaFleur, it’s not a hit on Caufield. It’s just a reflection of how the world has changed here in the nearly four decades since Lafleur hung on his skis as a Montreal Canadian. During the 1970s, the Hab defined the definition of culture here. At the time, they were called Flying Frenchmen, and as has been the case since the team’s founding in 1909, there was a strong group of French-speaking players on the roster, notably Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Serge Savard, Yvon Lambert, Mario Tremblay Regian Hall and Guy Lapointe.

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The club was created during the early 1900s specifically to cater to French-Canadian fans, just as the Scottish football team Glasgow Celtic was created to bring together the Irish Catholic community of Glasgow. Until the last Canadian Cup win in 1993, that Francophone identity was central to the Habs identity.

This was a big part of the reason the team was so important to Quebecers until the 1980s. But it wasn’t just that. The Canadians were also, without a doubt, the greatest team in hockey. They’ve won far more championships than any team and this ’70s team was simply one of the most exciting in all of professional sports.

Lafleur was the heart and soul of the team. He can do things on the ice that no one else can do. Some later called Alex Kovalev the artist, but he was more of a pedestrian painter than Lafleur. It didn’t hurt that Lafleur had the look, too, with his long blonde hair flowing in the breeze as he darted into the right wing to unload one of his patented slap shots.

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Nor did it hurt that he was French-speaking in Quebec. That was part of Lafleur’s legendary strength. Prime Minister François Legault threw a few feathers last week when he said LaFleur was important because he was a winner, spurring big hockey into Legault’s nationalist political view of the world. But he was right.

For better or for worse, the conquest of New France is central to French-speaking Quebec identity, so French-speaking Quebecers really love seeing people from Quebec conquer the world, whether it’s Georges Saint-Pierre, Celine Dion, or Guy Lafleur.

Canadian legend Guy LaFleur waves to the crowd during celebrations marking the team's centenary in Montreal on December 4, 2009.
Canadian legend Guy LaFleur waves to the crowd during celebrations marking the team’s centenary in Montreal on December 4, 2009. Photo by Allen McInnes /Newspaper

But the other thing is that Canadians got everyone’s attention during the 1970s. Sure, there were Alouettes and Expos, but this was a hockey town – The Hockey City.

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This is no longer the case. In the decades since LaFleur left the team, sports fans have wandered elsewhere. Of course, the Hab still occupies a large place in our consciousness, but it is different. My son Kane, 21, and his generation care as much about the NBA and the UFC as they do the Moon. This wasn’t true when I was growing up during the ’70s.

This change came because people’s attention shifted everywhere. There are more things that occupy us today. But it also happened because the Canadians have been a very humble team for a good part of the years since winning the epic cup in 1993.

And Lafleur’s sad exit from the team, too late 20/20, was the first sign of poor performance ahead. It was in the first half of the ’80s and it wasn’t as great as it used to be. Former teammate Jacques Lemerre was coaching the team and Lemerre had a defense first philosophy, a boring conservative approach to the game that has been the stock of Canadians ever since.

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You’d think you’d obviously not force Venus to play defense first, but that’s exactly what Lemerre did and Lafleur was so upset, he switched off his ski boots and went home. The crazy thing is, the Canadians haven’t had a real attack star anywhere near Lafleur’s caliber since. I hope Caufield is that guy.

This is a big part of why people of a certain age have been so emotional since Lafleur’s death. It’s flashbacks to the time Canadians marked Montreal, when the mayor said the trophy parade would follow the usual route.

More innocent time. We were the heroes. No time for losers. At the time, the Habs earned their first draft pick – which in 1971 was Lafleur – by making smart deals, not by being the worst team in the NHL.

bkelly@postmedia.com

twitter.com/brendanshowbiz

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