Many hockey players work hard or demonstrate great skills, but only a select few can pull you out of your seat. Especially in the 1970s, Guy Lafleur brought incomparable joy to fans of the Montreal Canadiens and lovers of skillful hockey worldwide.
His name is invariably mentioned alongside Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Maurice Richard, and Bobby Orr when it comes to Canadian hockey’s all-time legends. Lafleur’s 560 career goals and 793 assists currently rank him 26th in the NHL’s all-time points parade, and he won two Hart Trophies, three Art Ross Trophies, and one Conn Smythe Trophy.
But it wasn’t just about the numbers for this native of Thurso, Quebec. Known as the “Blonde Demon” in his playing days, the right winger was renowned for his lightning speed, stickhandling, and shots, like the third period, right-side blast that famously tied Game Seven of the 1979 Stanley Cup semi-finals at 4-4 and ultimately doomed Don Cherry’s Boston Bruins that year.
Lafleur, 61, sat down for an exclusive, candid IIHF.com interview with Lucas Aykroyd on February 8 when he visited the Richmond Olympic Oval, just outside the 2010 Olympic hockey host city of Vancouver, to promote CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada. This celebration each February sees CBC televising all seven Canadian NHL teams in action and also includes community hockey events nation-wide.
Talk about your involvement with Hockey Day in Canada.
Hockey Day in Canada is a great event. It’s a family thing. For me to be invited and to participate here with the alumni is very nice. The Canucks alumni are going to play a game. I won’t play – I’m going to drop the puck. [laughs] So I’ll meet with the kids and families and take pictures. And I’ll play ball hockey tomorrow.
In the 1970s, you were the guy who was expected to score 50 goals every year. Up until 2010, that guy was Alexander Ovechkin. If Ovechkin asked you for advice on how to regain his scoring touch, what would you tell him?
I would tell him to take the game more seriously. I think before he signed his big contract, he was playing very well. Along with Sidney Crosby, he was the number one player. After he signed his contract, it seemed like he started going downhill and couldn’t produce as much. I don’t know if he takes the game as seriously as he used to take it before.
That’s the problem with a lot of players sometimes. They sign a $10-million contract and they sit on it and they’re having fun.
Do the huge salaries drive you nuts sometimes? You renegotiated your contract in 1978 and what you got – $325,000 a year – wouldn’t even be the league minimum today.
[laughs] That’s the way it is today. I’m very happy for the players to get that type of money, but they have to produce too. For a team where they’re signing players for five or seven million dollars a year, they have to produce and make sure they’re bringing some money into the building.
What are your thoughts on the NHL in general?
Most of the teams I see on TV, it’s a great game. But the conferences are not the same. I’d say the Western Conference is stronger. It’s a lot tougher than out East, and it’s a more wide-open game. They’re up and down. But most of the time, it’s great games.
The Canadiens are working two young former World Junior stars into the lineup this year, the USA’s Alex Galchenyuk and Canada’s Brendan Gallagher. What do you think of them?
They’re very, very good. That’s what I told [Canadiens owner] Geoff Molson at the beginning of the season. When these guys were playing, I said, “I hope you won’t send these guys to the minors, because you have to keep them. They are so good.” They bring so much life into the team and the organization.
The atmosphere has changed this year with the Montreal Canadiens, I would say, in the dressing room. It shows on the ice. So that’s good. They have a great coaching staff too. They’ve brought some new guys and so far it seems like everything’s working well. So far, so good.
You were famous for skating down the ice at top speed – without wearing a helmet. When you see great players like Crosby, Eric Lindros, and Paul Kariya either having their careers jeopardized or cut short due to concussions, what do you think about it?
I think today there is a big lack of respect. Today, if a guy skates with his head down, they’re not just going to try to take him out of the play, but take him out of the rink. So that’s the difference, I would say, if I compare it to hockey in my day. The players then would respect each other a lot more.
The game, maybe, was not as fast too. Today, they get to the red line and they dump it in. It’s a chasing game all the time, so the guys are moving all the time. In my day, if we had the puck, we kept it as much as we could to make the right play, instead of getting rid of it and chasing it.
And the guys are bigger. They’re in better shape too overall. They’re training 12 months a year. Us, we’d go to training camp to get in shape! [laughs]
Back then, you admired the top Soviet line of Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, and Boris Mikhailov.
These guys were just amazing to watch and play against. We [Montreal] went up against them in the 3-3 tie on New Year’s Eve in 1975, and they were just in great shape. They changed hockey, I think, when the Russians came over in 1972 and played Canada in the Summit Series.
After that, the Red Army would come over and play against us and the Flyers, and we know what happened with the Flyers [a controversial 4-1 Philadelphia win in 1976]. Shape-wise, skating-wise, handling the puck, they were amazing. And you see some of the players who come over from Russia to the NHL now, these guys, they are good hockey players.
Your first big international experience was winning the 1976 Canada Cup. What was it like rooming with Bobby Orr?
It was great. He was my idol when I was playing junior. I had a big poster right over my head where I used to dress in the dressing room in Quebec. He was a very nice guy. He was playing on one knee because he was injured. A great guy to be with.
We talked about the game, from when he first started up to the Canada Cup. How much he loved to play for Boston. How much he loved to play against Gordie Howe and Jean Beliveau, who was at that time at the end of his career.
In Part Two, Lafleur talks about his experiences at the 1979 Challenge Cup, 1981 Canada Cup, and 1981 IIHF World Championship, and looks forward to the Sochi Olympics and his future plans in retirement.