Guy Lafleur, a cornerstone of the Montreal Canadiens dynasty in the 1970s and one of the most electrifying players in NHL history, died Friday following a nearly three-year battle with cancer. He was 70.
Lafleur died in a palliative care center in the suburbs of Montreal, not far from his home.
A sparkling jewel in the Canadiens’ glory-days crown with the late Maurice “Rocket” Richard and the late Jean Beliveau, Lafleur was the top junior player in Canada after scoring 130 goals in his final season with the Quebec Remparts when the Canadiens made him the No. 1 pick in the 1971 NHL Draft. Not since Beliveau 20 years earlier had a young player’s arrival been as eagerly anticipated. That he was viewed as the Canadiens’ next great French-Canadian star only added to the pressure, Beliveau having retired at the end of the 1970-71 season.
It took Lafleur a few seasons to find the form that would make him an NHL legend. After three 20-goal seasons, underwhelming in the eyes of fans who expected him to be the legendary Beliveau and Richard rolled into one, “The Flower” blossomed into the star Montreal fans were anticipating.
From 1974-75 through 1979-80, Lafleur scored at least 50 goals and 119 points and arguably was the most exciting player in the NHL, bringing fans out of their seats with his speed and skill.
“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. “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, his long blond locks flowing in his wake as he prepared to rifle another puck past a helpless goaltender — or set up a linemate for a goal.
“Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, Lafleur was named one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players during the League’s Centennial celebration in 2017. He remained adored in Quebec throughout his post-playing days, signing autographs for hours at countless appearances as a franchise ambassador, having forged a special and enduring bond with the fans of his home province and adopted city. The National Hockey League mourns the passing of the iconic Guy Lafleur and sends its deepest condolences to his wife, Lise; his sons, Martin and Mark; his mother, Pierrette; his granddaughter, Sienna Rose; his four sisters and the entire Lafleur family; and the millions of hockey fans he thrilled.”
Lafleur was born Sept. 20, 1951, in Thurso, Quebec. He began playing hockey at age 5 and became a sensation with the Remparts, scoring 103 and 130 goals in his two seasons and powering Quebec to the Memorial Cup championship in 1971.
Guy Lafleur in a 1970s Canadiens portrait, and wearing his Hall of Fame blazer, a member of the Class of 1988.
Montreal general manager Sam Pollock made a series of trades to obtain the No. 1 pick in the 1971 draft and selected Lafleur, who was expected to succeed Beliveau, immediately ahead of Marcel Dionne, who was chosen No. 2 by the Detroit Red Wings. Lafleur was part of Montreal’s 1973 Stanley Cup-winning team, but starting his NHL career as a center and not getting anywhere near the ice time he had in Quebec, he didn’t meet the expectations of fans until 1974-75, when he had 53 goals and 119 points on right wing and was named a First-Team All-Star for the first of six consecutive seasons.
“We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Guy Lafleur,” Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said. “All members of the Canadiens organization are devastated by his passing. 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. 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.
“Guy Lafleur is part of the Canadiens’ family and the organization will provide all the necessary support to the members of his family and his close circle of friends during this extremely difficult time. On behalf of the Molson family, and all members of the Club de hockey Canadien organization, I extend my deepest sympathies to his wife Lise; his sons, Martin and Mark; his mother, Pierrette Lafleur; his granddaughter, Sienna-Rose; and his sisters, Lise, Gisele, Suzanne and Lucie.”
Lafleur led the NHL in scoring in 1975-76 and repeated in each of the next two. He was voted the Hart Trophy as most valuable player in 1976-77 and 1977-78 and was the leading scorer in Montreal’s run to four consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1976-79.
Perhaps Lafleur’s most famous goal during that stretch was the game-tying power-play goal he scored against the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup Semifinals. It was vintage Lafleur, blond hair flying as he raced up right wing before overpowering goaltender Gilles Gilbert with a slap shot. The Canadiens won the game in overtime, then defeated the New York Rangers in the Final for their fourth straight title.
Guy Lafleur is welcomed back to the Montreal Forum on Feb. 4, 1989 as a member of the New York Rangers. He scored two goals with an assist in a 7-5 loss to the Canadiens.
Lafleur’s last 50-goal, 100-point season was 1979-80; he fell to 27 goals and 70 points the following season, when he missed 29 games. He was still a point-per-game player through 1983-84, but after a slow start in 1984-85, not fitting well into the defensive system of then-coach and former teammate Jacques Lemaire, he announced his retirement at age 33. He received a five-minute standing ovation at the Forum in Montreal when he took one last skate.
“My greatest memory of him was hearing the crowd when he touched the puck and when he started skating down the right wing and the crowd knew something was going to happen,” Molson said. “It was electrifying. He was a flamboyant character on the ice, and I later learned that he was the same off the ice.”
“Le demon blond” — the blonde demon, as he was nicknamed in French — was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988. But he joined Gordie Howe as the only members of the Hall to come back and play in the NHL when he joined the Rangers for the 1988-89 season.
Lafleur played the next two seasons for the Quebec Nordiques before retiring for good in 1991 with 560 goals and 1,353 points in 1,126 NHL games. He is the leading scorer in the history of the Canadiens with 1,246 points, and his 518 goals are second to Richard.
He was voted among the 100 Greatest NHL Players for the NHL Centennial year in 2017.
Guy Lafleur chats with Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Canadiens’ Bell Centre dressing room during 2009 NHL All-Star Weekend.
In retirement, Lafleur became a successful businessman, played with Montreal’s alumni team for years and was a hugely popular ambassador for the Canadiens. He appreciated the latter role enormously, having learned from Beliveau, his idol and role model, the responsibility of embracing and giving back to those who had supported him and his team through the years.
“I got to know him best after I became the owner of the Montreal Canadiens in 2009,” Molson said. “One of the first things I did was to sign him on a 10-year contract to represent us as an ambassador. And that was really important because he’s such an icon in this province and across the country. And that’s when I really got to know Guy, after 2009, because we just spent so much time together at events or just talking … he’s a wonderful person. He has an amazing sense of humor and he’s dedicated to everything he does all the time.”
A routine checkup in September 2019 revealed that Lafleur had four almost fully blocked coronary arteries. During emergency bypass surgery, doctors diagnosed lung cancer. Two months later, when his strength had returned at least in part, they removed one third of his right lung.
Lafleur was on the road back a few months later, slowly returning to the public life he loved, when his cancer reappeared in October 2020, sending him into an aggressive campaign of radiation, chemotherapy and immunotherapy in January 2021.
But even as Lafleur battled cancer, he worked to benefit the lives of fellow patients. In March 2021, he established the Guy Lafleur Fund, a cancer research initiative at the Centre hospitalier de l’Universite de Montreal (CHUM), where his treatment was being done, raising huge sums.
In early June 2021, Lafleur used a visit from the Stanley Cup to kick off the fundraising for the hospital. But ongoing treatment gradually took its toll, Lafleur weakened by the disease that finally would take his life.
NHL.com staff writer John Kreiser and NHL.com independent correspondent Sean Farrell contributed to this report
Photos: Hockey Hall of Fame, Getty Images