25 Years Ago Today: The Surprise Retirement Of Guy Lafleur
Robert L note: Francis Bouchard and I collaborated on this piece, that looks back upon the days surrounding Guy Lafleur's retirement. Francis is a fountain of research and resourcefulness when it comes to Canadiens' history. As the owner of videos, books, magazines and newpaper clippings galore, his deep knowlege of all things Habs makes his contribution to this site a real bonus. I'm and pleased and proud to have him aboard as a contributor from this point on.
The photos in this post come from the game program, the night the Canadiens retired his jersey on February 16, 1985. That suggestion, as well as the newspaper articles, were contributed by Francis. The videos I have uploaded to You Tube clips are taken from his vast private collection.
There are events in the course of life, shockingly rising out of nowhere it seems, that tend to grind your world to a standstill.
While it was hardly on the scale of 911 or the John Lennon assassination, I'll always remember where I stood and what I was doing upon hearing that Canadiens' superstar Guy Lafleur was calling it quits.
It was 25 years ago today, on November 26, 1984. I was at my father's print shop, the Cornwall City Press. He handed me a copy of that morning's Montreal Gazette, wherein Red Fisher had scooped the hockey world, deducing that Lafleur had played his last game with Montreal that Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings.
I was in disbelief as I read the article and had doubts such a notion would come to fruition. Then Dad said, "Just heard on the radio that Canadiens have called an afternoon press conference."
My father and I then had a brief discussion about Guy, his play lately, and his role under coach Jacques Lemaire.
"He's still got it, Dad," I argued in Lafleur's defense. "He's still fast as ever, pulls the fans from the seats, gets the 'Guy, Guy, Guy' chant each time he takes off with the puck."
"Yeah, but Robert, it's his quickness he's missing. He's lost that split second timing that made him great. Players of Lafleur's caliber can't settle for just being good or okay, they have to excel."
"I don't know Dad, I suppose you're right on that, but something smells. Like why now, after just 19 games? Couldn't he have kept on, trying to play out of the slump. I'm convinced he can still play in this league and contribute. Couldn't the Canadiens have just traded him then?"
Dad threw me a look.
I watched CFCF 12 Sports that night at 6 O' Clock, the Lafleur retirement leading the news, thinking it was a nightmare. I don't remember, but it's likely my eyes watered up good. What I was seeing and hearing was utterly unbelievable, and I wasn't buying a word of it.
Lafleur was not a quitter, and he certainly didn't seem comfortable saying so. Something was definitely amiss. Deep inside, I knew as everyone did that Lafleur had slowed. He was four years removed from his string of 50 goal seasons, but he was still a productive player. Between 1980 and 1983, he has registered three seasons of 27 goals along with a 30 goal campaign.
I remember jotting down the numbers of his last four seasons and finding a calculator.
In 265 games, Lafleur had posted 111 goals and 189 assists for an even 300 points - hardly a player on a decline, I summised. It was a 1.13 points per game ratio, far off his six season peak years of 766 points in 462 games for a 1.65 PPG, but hardly the numbers of a finished player.
Knowing the numbers, the Lafleur retirement pretty much tormented me for a year and a half. It took a 1986 Stanley Cup to finally put it to rest.
In time, we all learned of the true stories and sub-plots going on behind the scenes. After 19 games and into his fourteenth season with the Canadiens, Lafleur was miserable and was doubting himself. There were visible sighs coming from him when he'd return to the bench after norrowly missing another scoring chance or wringing a shot off the post. His ice time had decreased drastically, to a point where it rendered him ineffective. He felt stiffled in Jacques Lemaire's defensive system. Lafleur had 2 goals and 3 assists, and had had enough.
Lafleur told that the decision to call it a day came to him between the second and third periods of the Detroit game on November 24. During the intermission, Lemaire had shunned him, not even looking him in the eyes. Earlier, he had promised Lafleur that he would be used more during the game. In the final tally, Lafleur guesses that he played about "six minutes''.
Following the game, Lafleur later admitted that he had privately cried. He had crossed paths with Claude Mouton and Serge Savard, telling the GM, "You finally have what you wanted, I'm quitting." Savard asked that he take the rest of the weekend to think it over and it was announced that he would not accompany the team to Boston due to a groin injury.
Upon driving Larry Robinson and Chris Nilan to the airport, Guy spilled the beans and told his teammates. Robinson, a good friend, became very emotional and also asked Lafleur to think it over.
In his book, "Hockey, Heroes, and Me", Red Fisher discusses Lafleur's career and tells a story regarding the retirement in his distinct manner. In listing the greatest right wingers the game of hockey has seen, the text picks up where Fisher has summed up both the Rocket and Gordie Howe.
Red Fisher's original column on that day pointed to the problems Lafleur was having that season. A later article by Red (courtesy of NHL.com) told how he came across the scoop.
"....Now among right wingers, Howe is generally perceived to be the best. I don't dispute that, particularly since I covered the Rocket only during his last five seasons as a player. I saw flashes of his greatness, but time had eroded the general article.
On the other hand, has there been a more exciting right winger than Guy Lafleur? Sure, Howe was stronger, scored more goals, and lasted much longer, but was there anyone more exciting than a Lafleur, golden mane flying, skipping and dancing beyond one man and then another and then, in one motion, releasing that wonderfully accurate shot of his?
At his best - in 961 regular season and 124 playoff games with the Canadiens - Lafleur was not merely hockey's finest and most exciting player. He was its artist, its sculptor. With his speed and hissing shot, which produced 518 Canadiens regular season goals, he could turn games into things of beauty."
You want numbers? Lafleur had them. He was the National Hockey League's scoring champion three times. He was names the league's most valuable player twice. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy once, which goes to the outstanding player in the playoffs. He was on the NHL's First All-Star team six times. He scored 50 or more goals in six consecutive seasons and led the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups.
He was, simply, the very best of his time, and was treated that way on and off the ice. Big money. Fast cars. Glitzy restaurants. Fan worship. And that was the way it was until November 25, 1984.
The season was nineteen games old at that point and Lafleur had scored only two goals. He had played against the Detroit Red Wings that night, but after the game he didn't accompany the team to Boston.
"Did you hear about the Flower?" Chris Nilan said after the game.
"What about the Flower?'
"He's not making the trip to Boston."
"Groin injury. I'm driving him home before going to the airport."
"Groin injury? He was on the ice about two minutes before the end of the game. He was skating faster coming off the ice after a long shift than most guys starting a shift. That doesn't sound like a groin injury to me."
Jacques Lemaire was coaching the Canadiens at the time, having taken over from Bob Berry midway throught the preceding season. He had been a long time linemate of Lafleur's during the four consecutive Stanley Cup triumphs in the second half of the '70's. Playing alongside a Lafleur at his best was a pleasurable adventure. Coaching him, Lemaire learned, wasn't quite as much fun. The two often disagreed on how much ice time Lafleur should get.
Unlike most coaches, Lemaire didn't sleep much on the afternoon of a game. Often, he could be found killing time in the hotel lobby. He was there the afternoon of the Boston game. I asked him if Lafleur was hurt.
"Check it out," said Lemaire. "you could have a hell of a story."
Nobody answered the Lafleur telephone because, as I learned later, thenight before he had said to his wife, Lise: "I am empty. I have no more energy left for hockey. Even if I had a big offer, I can't do it anymore."
So on Sunday morning, long before Lemaire was telling a guy to "check it out," the Lafleurs left for his hometown of Thurso, on the Ottawa river. There he discussed his future with his parents. He returned home about 10:00 p.m., his mind made up.
Canadiens general manager Serge Savard wasn't home either, so there was no real way to confirm Lemaire's hint. Still, as one looked back, there were signs that Lafleur had had enough. He had been struggling on the ice since the start of the season. Anyone who knew him could tell he was, somehow, breaking up inside because he, better than anyone else, knew that the Lafleur of old was now merely an old Lafleur.
Groin injury? A groin injury wouldn't have stopped Lafleur from travelling with the team to Boston, even if he knew he couldn't play. He liked being with the team. He liked Boston.
"Check it out," his coach had suggested. "You could have a hell of a story."
A hell of a story is Guy Lafleur playing his last game only nineteen games into a season. A hell of a story is the end of an era, the end of a career which had been stunning in its beauty.
There I was, three hours before game time, sitting in front of my computer and wondering where - and if - to start. The nearest thing to a confirmation was Lemaire's string intimation that Lafleur had played his last game. Normally, that's not enough, but Lafleur was special. Go for it, I thought.
Monday morning, Lafleur told Serge Savard and team president Ronald Corey that he was through. At noon, Canadiens management announced an important news conference would be held at the Forum at 4:00 p.m.
At 4:05 p.m. on November 26, 1984, a white faced, drained Lafleur entered the crowded room with Savard and Corey. At 4:06, Savard said: "This is a sad day for all of us, because I must announce...."
He stopped. His lips trembled. He swallowed hard. "Finally: "The retirement of Guy Lafleur."
Savard swallowed hard again, and went on: "His contribution to the Canadiens was unbelievable."
There is no question that his first retirement was a mistake, a terrible example of over-reaction on both sides. In the final analysis, though, he has only himself to blame. It was Lafleur, nobody else, who allowed himself to be stampeded into retirement. Others may have thought so but, in 1984, Lafleur wasn't ready to go.
His retirement dominated the sports news for several days, of course. Even today, people wonder aloud whether or not he should have left the game - for the first time - when he did. For its part, Canadiens management wasn't particularly pleased over the need to play catch-up with the report which had appearwed in the Gazette with my byline.
Serge Savard suspected that someone within the organization had spilled the beans. He thought that a team trainer or a player had said something he shouldn't have.
A few days later, coach Jacques Lemaire had a question for me.
"Serge wants to know where you got the Lafleur story, " he said.
"Really? Don't you know?" I asked.
"No," said Lemaire.
"Check it out," I replied. "You could have a hell of a story."
Of course, fans later learned, as is often the case, that there indeed was more to the story than what meets the eye. Behind the scenes, there was much stirring. Lafleur did not want to quit, he felt forced into it. He had asked for a trade from GM Serge Savard and was flatly refused. Savard balked at the idea, fearing that if he ever were to trade Guy, fans would form a lynch mob.
Privately, Savard, it was later told, had been privy to unfounded rumours concerning Lafleur's off ice activities. As it went, a wannabe team insider had passed along information to the GM that Lafleur had developed a serious drug habit, and despite the falseness of such an accusation, Savard unfortunately chose to believe the wrong person at the time.
Unfortunately for Lafleur, Savard and Canadiens' fans, the story did not come to light until after Lafleur's jersey was raised to the rafters. Lafleur also learned later that a deal had been in place to trade him to Scotty Bowman's Buffalo Sabres even up for Gilbert Perreault, but the deal was killed when both sides became hesitant. A previous attempt to trade Lafleur by Savard's predecessor Irving Grundman, who was brokering the deal with Buffalo owner Seymour Knox had also ended in vain.
At the moment of the announcement of Lafleur's retirement, all that he was clued in on, was the knowlege that the Canadiens no longer seemed interested in him. A talk with Lemaire days prior regarding an increase in his ice team resulted in diminishing usage. A promise to rejoin the first unit of the powerplay never materialized. Unhappy, Lafleur thought things over with his family and approached team management the following day. His inclination to retire met no resistment.
At 4:00 p.m., Monday, November 26, 1984, it was all over.
Lafleur would soon join the Canadiens front office, sacrificing his player's salary for what he would come to refer to as a pencil pusher's rate. In time, he'd be as miserable off the ice as he had been on it in his final days. After making some random, off the cuff statements concerning the job, he was fired by Canadiens president Ronald Corey. The public was lead to believe Lafleur had resigned.
During that time in the Habs employ, Lafleur never spoke to Lemaire, but did sit Savard down to confront the rumours of drug use. In his book "Overtime", Lafleur mentions patching things up with the former GM, allowing that he was still angry that Savard chose to believe the story without ever coming to him for his side of it.
Fans never allowed Lafleur to forget that they felt he still had it in him to play in the NHL. As he toured Canada playing in several Oldtimer's Hockey Challenges, Guy was consistently confronted with the opinion. While he had never filed his retirement papers with the NHL, he did ask that the Canadiens release him from his contract to seek other employment in the league. They did not. Lafleur needed to wait for his final contracts term to run out, to consider offers. By that time, he had been inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame.
Watching a Canadiens game would never quite feel the same. I'm sure many other people felt the same. Gone was our boyhood idol, and the realization that we were perhaps all getting older started kicking in. It sucked, and perhaps many of us felt, in unison, that Guy definitely had something left. Time would indeed prove everyone right, Lafleur included.
In the House of Commons on November 27, Lorne Nystrom, a Member of Parliament, paid tribute to Lafleur's incredible career: "It may be that everywhere else in the world, the ascendance of Flower Power began and ended in the sixties, Mr. Speaker, but in Montreal it began in 1971 and ended yesterday when Guy Lafleur retired. This is the end of a great era, Mr. Speaker. I am certain that the House and the entire population of Canada will join me in wishing him good luck in the future and thanking him for the unforgettable moments he has given us."
The Canadiens record at the time was 13-4-2 and they would go winless in the first three games without Lafleur, losing 7-4 to Boston on Sunday, and tying the Red Wings and Sabres the following Wednesday and Friday.
Guy Clip 1
Guy cruises to net and almost pots one. The commentators alude to the troubles Lafleur is having.
Guy Clip 2
Lafleur gets another scoring chance during his final Habs' game.
Guy Clip 3
Lafleur during his last game as a Canadiens against the Red Wings.
Guy Clip 4
Part 1 of a retrospective which includes historical footage of Lafleur, from a Quebec City Pee Wee to NHL days.
Guy Clip 5
Part 2, a four minute retrospective clip in which Lafleur discusses the conditions of his retirement. The lok back comes from 1991, just as Guy is about to retire a second time. Interesting stuff!
Guy Clip 6
Between period commentary from the Detroit point of view on the slumping Lafleur. "He's been playing well, but just can't find the net."
Guy Clip 7
Guy Lafleur's last game in a Canadiens' jersey against Detroit on Saturday, November 24, 1984. The broadcast crew is from the Red Wings and the score as the clip begins is 4-2 Montreal.
Lafleur is seen at the 1:55 mark, on a line with Guy Carbonneau and Bob Gainey. This shift is about 1:10 long and ends with his icing of the puck. It's the only shift Lafleur has on the clip.
Jacques Lemaire of course, is coaching, and these seem to be the lines he deployed in this game:
Smith / Walter / DeBlois, Carbonneau / Gainey / Lafleur, Mondou / Tremblay / Naslund, Turcotte / Flockhart / Nilan.
At the 4:50 mark in the clip, the Canadiens go on the power play, and Lafleur is on neither the first or second unit. Lemaire sends out Smith, Walter, Turcotte, Chelios and Kurvers to start the Canadiens' power play, and about a minute in Mats Naslund jumps on and scores shortly after. For some reason, after his goal, he skates to the bench and shakes Bob Gainey's hand. The second wave of the PP also had Deblois replacing Walter with Smith remaining until the Naslund goal.
The Habs defensemen for the game are Chelios, Green, Svoboda, Robinson, Kurvers and Ludwig. Injured regulars were Hunter and McPhee. Doug Soetaert is in goal for Montreal and Corrado Micalef for Detroit. Among the Detroit players are Darryl Sittler, Steve Yzerman, Reed Larson and John Ogrodnick.
Guy Clip 8
A flashback clip starts with scenes of his junor Quebec Rempart days, and follows as he is drafted and makes his first steps on the ice as a Canadiens' player.
Guy Clip 9
Lafleur against the Nordiques during a power play. He plays the point with Chelios, practically quarterbacking it by himself. Other players out with him are Shutt, Naslund and Flockhart. From the clip, it's easy to see he still had the stuff and could captivate his audience.
Guy Clip 10
A short retrospective clip showing Guy's 500th goal against the New Jersey Devils and his final goal as a Canadien against the Buffalo Sabres on October 25, 1984. Notice the shot he blasts by Robert Sauve is quite similar to his legendary goal against Gilles Gilbert in 1979.
One month a day later, he announced his retirement. A Red Fisher column the day before seemed to tip everyone off that this could be coming.
At the podium, Lafleur describes how he came to his decision, noting that he had spent the weekend with his family thinking it over, before arriving at the Forum that morning to break the news to team president Ronald Corey and manager Serge Savard. He explains that he is leaving, not because he was mired in a deep slump, but because he felt he lacked the motivation to continue. As the clip cuts out, Lafleur is saying that his decision was made easier by the fact that the team was doing well.