MONTREAL — When Guy Lafleur was selected by Montreal with the No. 1 pick in the 1971 NHL draft, he was billed as the Canadiens’ next great Quebec-born player.
A dynamic forward with blonde locks that rippled in the wind as he glided up the ice before unleashing one of his bullet shots, Lafleur was expected to become hockey’s new French Canadian icon.
It just took him a while to get there.
“There was a lot of pressure,” former Montreal coach Scotty Bowman said Friday. “But he worked through the pressure and he became a player of his own.”
Inspiring a generation along the way.
Lafleur, a Hall of Fame forward who helped Montreal win five Stanley Cup titles in the 1970s, has died at age 70 following a battle with lung cancer.
“A special person,” Canadiens alternate captain Brendan Gallagher told reporters in Brossard. “We’re really proud to wear this Montreal Canadiens logo in large part because of individuals like Guy Lafleur.”
Lafleur registered 518 goals and 728 assists in 14 seasons with Montreal. With the flashy forward leading the way, the Canadiens won it all in 1973, and then four more times from 1976 to 1979.
Canadiens President Geoff Molson said the organization was devastated.
“Guy Lafleur had an exceptional career and always remained simple, accessible, and close to the Habs and hockey fans in Quebec, Canada and around the world,” Molson said in a statement. “Throughout his career, he allowed us to experience great moments of collective pride. He was one of the greatest players in our organization while becoming an extraordinary ambassador for our sport.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a noted Canadiens fan, also glowingly remembered Lafleur.
“A hero to so many of us,” Trudeau said in Winnipeg. “I remember meeting him as a kid and being overwhelmed in a way that meeting presidents and queens didn’t necessarily overwhelm me.”
Lafleur’s death came as the hockey world continues to mourn Mike Bossy after the former New York Islanders forward and fellow Quebecer died last week at age 65 following his own battle with cancer.
“An honor to play with both,” Wayne Gretzky posted on his social media channels. “My thoughts and prayers are with their families.”
Nicknamed “The Flower,” LaFleur was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2019 when tumors were discovered by doctors performing emergency quadruple bypass heart surgery.
Lafleur went under the knife again to remove both the upper lobe of his lung and lymph nodes a few months later, but learned in October 2020 the cancer was back.
“It’s the chemotherapy that really hurts you badly,” Lafleur said in an interview with The Canadian Press in November.
Yvan Cournoyer, who played alongside Lafleur, had difficulty containing his emotions.
“Guy, he was a fighter,” Cournoyer said with a tremble in his voice. “He wouldn’t let go.
“He never gave up in his fight.”
Lafleur, who retired from the NHL in 1985 after Montreal denied his request for a trade, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988. But he made a comeback later that year with the New York Rangers and then played two more seasons with the Quebec Nordiques before hanging up his skates for good in 1991.
“You didn’t need to see Guy Lafleur’s name and number on his sweater when ‘The Flower’ had the puck on his stick,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “As distinctively stylish as he was remarkably talented, Lafleur cut a dashing and unmistakable figure whenever he blazed down the ice of the Montreal Forum.”
Named one of the NHL’s 100 greatest players of all-time in 2017, Lafleur finished with 560 goals and 793 assists in 1,126 games in his 17 seasons.
He holds the Canadiens’ all-time record for assists and points. He scored at least 50 times in six straight campaigns from 1974-75 to 1979-80.
Lafleur won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s leading scorer three straight years from 1976 to 1978, the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1977 and 1978, and the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1977.
“As a boy in Montreal, Guy was larger than life to me,” fellow Hall of Fame forward Mario Lemieux said in a statement. “I idolized him as a player, I respected him as a person, and always cherished him as a friend. He will be missed.”
Lafleur underwent his quadruple bypass surgery in September 2019 after it was discovered four of his coronary arteries were fully blocked, and a fifth was clogged close to 90 percent, during a routine medical exam to have his helicopter pilot’s license renewed.
Once the cancer was discovered, he had one-third of his right lung removed by doctors two months later.
A chain smoker up until those health scares, Lafleur had been partnering with Merck Canada as part of its “Be The MVP” campaign to raise awareness about early lung cancer detection.
“There’s miracles,” Lafleur said in his November interview with CP. “There’s people that are surviving.”
Lafleur, who had his No. 10 sweater retired by the Canadiens in 1985, hadn’t been out in public much in recent years following his cancer diagnosis and the COVID-19 pandemic, but did get a thunderous ovation at the Bell Centre during Montreal’s improbable run to last season’s Cup final.
He also had his number retired by the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in October.
“I’ve been mostly stuck in the house since 2019,” Lafleur said in November. “Mentally, it’s tough. Hopefully I get through this and get out of it with a victory.
“It’s the hope for everybody that has cancer.”