Kovalev Return Recalls Lafleur's Forum Comeback

 
  
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There is little doubt - love him or loathe him - that Alex Kovalev has been one the most popular Montreal Canadiens over the past four seasons. This past summer, complicated negotiation breakdowns lead to Kovalev signing with the nearby rival Ottawa Senators club.

It was a moment in recent Canadiens history that left many Habs fans transfixed. The thought of Kovalev, a fan favorite, in any other uniform other than the bleu, blanc rouge was quite hard to imagine. Just days prior to signing with the Senators, a protest of sorts was held outside the Bell Centre, demanding that GM Bob Gainey make a last ditch effort to retain Kovalev in the Canadiens fold.

The show of love seemed to touch Kovalev, and he passed along a note of appreciation to fans in Montreal for the support he felt during his time with the team.


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During a charity golf tournament in Montreal this past summer held in his name, Kovalev, just days after becoming a Senator, seemed transfixed himself. For long stretches of an interview held on the links, he seemed caught up in his Montreal time, discussing the team and his departure at length. At one moment, he even went as far as stating how much it would appeal to him to finish his career in Montreal.

Everyone knew Kovalev could be candid, but this was quite a statement. Evidently, Kovalev was having as much trouble turning the page on Montreal as Canadiens fans were in letting go of Kovalev.

Kovalev, as a Senator, plays his first game in Montreal tonight.

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What had always been special about Kovalev, was the manner in which his offensive artistry captured the imaginations of Habs' fans. An exclusive, and sometimes elusive talent, Kovalev kept fans on the edge of their seats. His allure was always a tease of promises - blink and you could miss that split-second highlight reel moment waiting to happen.

There were many great Kovalev moments during his time. Fans will forever recall his goal against the Rangers - the Canadiens fifth of the game - on February 19, 2008, that sent Montreal into overtime in a 6-5 game they eventually won.

It has been called the most dramatic come from behind win in Habs history, and the memory of it is captured in the vivid image of Kovalev, seconds after unleashing a patented wrister, sliding on his back, all fours kicking into the air in a joyous celebration.

Who can forget the passion Kovalev brought to game against the hated Leafs, and that viscious elbow he served to an unsuspecting Darcy Tucker.

One of my favorite plays involves Kovalev losing a glove, then the puck, behind the Bruins goal one night, before first retrieving the lost disc, then the glove, and spiraling back towards an embarrased Zdeno Chara to make a pass to a player in the Boston goal crease.

There were other great moments, and every fan has their favorite recollection.

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Throughout his Montreal time, Kovalev has been electrifying, charismatic, enigmatic and candid. He has often reminded long time Hab supporters of Guy Lafleur, who in fact also fits the adjectives listed above to a T.

Like Kovalev, Lafleur was outspoken, dramatic, effervescent, and spectacular. He had left the game in 1984, and returned to NHL action in 1988, giving the Forum one of it's most memorable evenings in its history - in the uniform of an opponent.

The legendary Lafleur had abandonned the game in December of 1984 as a Canadien, unable to play in Habs' coach Jacques Lemaire's tight defensive system.

The saddest of times for Habs fans has little in common with the departure of Kovalev on the surface, but it is in the highly anticipated return that the two may share history.

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On February 4, 1989, Lafleur played his first game in Montreal against his former mates and in front of legions of supporters thrilled at the promise of seeing him play one more time. Earlier in the season, on December 17, scalpers had done brisk business leading up to Lafleur's return date. Anticipation had driven up ticket prices for a moment that ultimately failed to materialize. Lafleur had been injured the game before, and history was postponed until the later February date.

All season long, the press filled the Montreal papers recounting Lafleur's each and every exploit in a Ranger uniform. GM Phil Esposito had brought him aboard, at the request and curiosity of coach Michel Bergeron. Many doubted, and few believed that Lafleur could make the team after four seasons away from the game. As hopes held up, fans in Lafleur's corner increased. At camp's end, he made the cut. He was to be united with a peer in center Marcel Dionne, while rejoining former teammates Chris Nilan as a Ranger.

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A shadow of his former self, but still capable of squeezing out sparks, Lafleur was on his way to an 18 goal, 27 assist season, playing on a line with center Kelly Kisio for the better part of 67 games. The peak of his season by the time he had set foot in Montreal, was a three goal effort against the Washington Capitals.

Highlight reels testified that on certain nights, Lafleur still had the stuff!

When February 4 finally rolled around, fans inside the Forum were as lit up as Lafleur could have been, and the anticipation inside the building was like no other evening in Canadiens history.

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Support was clearly in Lafleur's corner, and everyone knew it. The drama was thick as a brick, and the tension could be cut with a knife.

How would Guy play?

What would be the fan's reaction to him?

Would he score?

Could there be an ovation for Guy if he did?

All these questions remained unanswered at game time, but as the evening unravelled, the events of the game were testimony to both the fan's and player's passion for the sport.

Lafleur, as a hockey God in the city of Montreal, had reached and sealed status previously reserved for only the likes of Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Jean Beliveau, neither of whom had ever returned to Montreal in a different jersey.

The Rocket in Leafs' colours - God help us all!

Beliveau as a Bruin - unthinkable!

The night, should Lafleur live up, would be both momentous and revealing.

Come game time, there was the obvious higher than usual anticipation, in the sense that rarely did fans pack the Forum with all on eyes on an opponent.

The Rangers that season were merely a .500 hockey club, while the Canadiens - packed and loaded - for destined for a Stanley Cup final date they would achieve.

In the Habs lineup were a bevy of talents, including former Lafleur mates Gainey and Robinson, as well as stars such as Patrick Roy, Chris Chelios, Claude Lemieux, Stephane Richer and Shayne Corson, to name but a handfull.

The Canadiens at the time, had hit a bit of a rough patch, having tied games against lowly Minnesota and Washington recently among scattered wins. They were coming off a 6-4 loss to the Quebec Nordiques two nights earlier, and coach Pat Burns had been loudly grumbling about team effort.

While the Canadiens were seesawing, fan's expectations were hopeful of a Montreal win with a strong showing from Lafleur.

The contest began with a loud and lengthy ovation for Lafleur the moment he hit the ice for his first shift. In a unique way, it resounded and caught many off guard, including the game's participants.

The unhelmetted Lafleur, streaking mane on a balding head, could still captivate. After registering an assist on a linemate's goal, all eyes in the building were on him.

The announcement of Lafleur's helper generated an unexpected fan response, and the usual calm in the building after an opponent's go ahead goal was replaced by an amplified hum. Inspired by this, the Rangers were taking the play to the Canadiens, and they quickly took hold of the game and the lead.

The Habs were not having a good night. Commentators describing the game noted that Habs players tended to watch Lafleur's every move, in a peculiar sort of way. For a bit, the Canadiens became spectators within their own game. Guilty as they were of watching Lafleur, he soon proved as elusive and slippery as ever.

With this, momentum shifted, and in a distracted moment, Lafleur uncovered by defensemen Chelios and Ludwig, burst towards Roy's goal and popped a rebound past the future legend.

The Forum went beserk. It was a scene many might have imagined, but few could have impactfully felt. Lafleur clearly, still held his mass of fans captive.

Perhaps sensing as much, the Canadiens players let down some. With every Lafleur shift from then on, the Forum faithful, on the dge of their seats, held their collective breath.

Could Guy do it again?

What else did he have reserved for this special evening?

With the Habs playing on their heels, Lafleur was poised to make something happen. His instinctive intuition from past glories seemedly revived, Lafleur sprouted wings. Soon, he was all over. As the Rangers were up, and with Lafleur having threatened to increase the lead with a pair of chances, a moment in time seemed chosen for Lafleur to create some magic.

Accepting a pass at the Canadiens blueline, Lafleur was confronted by Petr Svobado and Rick Green to his left. Sprightly, Lafleur barely handled the feeding pass, instead tipping it past Svoboda, as he elected not to play the body. Lafleur skipped past him and broke loose, nothing but net in his sights.

The Canadiens defensemen gave chase. As Lafleur broke away, they came within a stride of him, when he decided to shoot. With space ahead of him, Lafleur caught Roy off guard with a 20 foot wrister bound for the top corner.

The Forum erupted with unpredictable decible vibration. Fans cheered the goal with as much added verve as one could imagine. It was a though the goal had placed the home team in the playoffs.

While the Lafleur comeback performance became the headline, the byline of the game told that the Habs came back from a 5-2 deficit to win the game 7-5. Burried in the historic night, was a Shayne Corson hat trick that spurred the comeback. Regardless, the Lafleur highlights were the game's most lasting and telling tale.

In the distinct 100 year history of the hockey club, no opponents' goal would ever be cheered as much.

It all had to do with a twisted sort of vindication.

Lafleur had left the Canadiens four seasons earlier, still feeling in his heart that he could play and help the team. Fans did not want him gone, knowing he could still contribute. They felt every shred in Lafleur's soul as the Canadiens decision ate at him. By the time of his comeback, there was hardly a hockey fan not behind him.

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The February 4, 1989 game represented in sorts, a moment of truth for both Lafleur and his fans. This would in essense be the day that fans were assured that Lafleur could have belonged in a Canadiens uniform all along, and that he should never have been forced to retire.

The ovations afforded to Lafleur's performance that evening were a vindication of their beliefs.

It boiled down to Habs fans versus management, with Lafleur in the middle. Habs fans won.

In the days ahead, then GM Serge Savard uncomfortably tiptoed around past actions, kindly offering good wishes to Lafleur, perhaps admitting that the scenario four years prior were unsuitable to the star at that particular career stage.

All told, it was both a unique time in Habs fans' relationship with their team, and a frozen moment in a spectacular player's career. Those witnessing it, will never forget it. 

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Now it should be understood that in all of this recounting, the Lafleur / Kovalev comparisons pale somewhat against one another. Times have changed of course, and with that the obvious should be noted. Yes, Kovalev's hardware cabinet as a Canadien is nowhere near as full as Lafleur's in terms of accomplishments. A listing of such would be futile.

Despite that note, it could be said that between 2005 and 2009, Kovalev meant as much to Habs fans as Lafleur meant in the heyday of the last Canadiens dynasty. The similarities between their persona's have been noted, as were the fans affection for both on those terms.

As Lafleur was in his time, Kovalev is the focal point gone missing presently in Habs fans' hearts.

Will Kovalev's return to the Bell Centre prove to be as captivating?

The possibility is definitely there.

That's why we will all be intently watching as Kovalev returns in those Godawfuls Sens duds.

Maybe you are just like I am, unable to wish that Kovalev plays poorly!

It should be an intereting evening.

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