Guy Lafleur is well-known as one of the greatest players to ever don the Montreal Canadiens sweater, holding the franchise record for assists and points, and coming in second for goals behind Maurice Richard. Lafleur’s number 10 was retired after 14 seasons of service to the franchise.
He was a larger-than-life persona; more than just a superstar hockey player. He was a bona fide celebrity in the province of Quebec, and beyond. But where there was poetry in motion on the ice, there were frequent difficulties with management behind the scenes stemming from a 10-year contract he signed with the team as a promising young player.
Lafleur’s reputation as a superstar of the future preceded his NHL career, and began when he was still in Junior playing for the Quebec Jr. Aces of the Quebec Junior A Hockey League. His promise was such that Lafleur was invited to the 1969 NHL Draft as an 18-year-old observer, two years before he was even eligible to be drafted.
That same year he was the subject of a massive bidding war, as up to four Junior teams were vying for his services. His preference, as stated to Le Soleil, was to play with the Montreal Junior Canadiens, where he would certainly be a star player for his remaining two seasons. In the end it was the Quebec Remparts who won the services of the generational player, signing him on June 24, 1969.
“We fought a good battle with the Junior Canadiens,” said the spokesperson for the Remparts to Le Soleil.
Lafleur was represented in the negotiations by his professor Normand Chouinard, but it was Lafleur who ultimately made his decision. “He made the decision himself,” said Lafleur’s father, Réjean.
“He believed that he would learn more playing in the Ontario league (where the Montreal Junior Canadiens played), but I knew he had a preference for Quebec.” The terms of the deal were not disclosed, however his salary was said to be “very fair” given his offensive output and very comparable to the Canadiens.
Rumours swirled that he made up to $20,000 per season, which was unheard of in Junior up to that point. (Le Soleil, December 22nd, 1970)
“That my salary is publicly discussed,” said Lafleur, “ it doesn’t bother me at all, and if the people want to think that I make $20,000 a year, it’s their right. If they think that, it probably reflects well on me. But that’s a lot of money for a junior. Let me tell you this though: if I was making $20,000 like they say, I wouldn’t be travelling by foot, that’s for sure.”
Reportedly his contract was somewhat tied to attendance figures, an indication of his drawing power, perhaps the source of the debate between potential earning and actual figures. There was little debate that Lafleur was raising the profile of the entire league on his own.
Lafleur would spend two seasons playing for Quebec, dominating a league well below his talent level. Bernie Geoffrion famously said that he was “wasting his time in Quebec”, and Jean Beliveau added, “I think it’s a bit ridiculous to stop a youngster with immense talent from going pro before he becomes 20 years old. A hockey career can be so short.”
Lafleur’s dominance was such that he took the Remparts all the way to the Memorial Cup in 1971, defeating the Edmonton Oil Kings, finishing off his Junior career in grand fashion.
“The difference in the game was Guy Lafleur,” said Claude Ruel, the chief scout for the Montreal Canadiens. “I hope that those who doubted he was the best junior hockey player in Canada now are convinced that he is. He never lets his fans down and that’s the sign of a star.”
Lafleur was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens first overall on June 10, 1971 in a famous bit of machination that ensured that Pollock would be first to speak at the podium that day. Pollock had previously lost out on bringing the huge marquee name to help market the Junior Canadiens, but he finally got his man. Losing Lafleur to Quebec City once was a heavy setback for Pollock, and it would be something that Pollock would take some drastic steps to ensure wouldn’t happen again.
The First Contract
“In the fall I will be looking to negotiate a contract of $150,000 for one year. This includes a regular salary, performance bonuses, and a signing bonus,” Lafleur said quite openly to the gathered media.
He would request that the contract also include a no-movement clause that would stop the Canadiens from sending him down to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs farm team. Lafleur believed that the retirement of Beliveau and the slowdown of Henri Richard played in his favour since the Canadiens were looking at Lafleur to lead the charge at centre for years to come. He never made the switch to centre.
Lafleur chose Jean Beliveau’s business manager, Gerry Patterson, as his representative in the negotiations
Lafleur’s first pro contract, signed in 1971, would end up being for two seasons, 1971-72 and 1972-73, as was the preference of Sam Pollock for first-round picks. There were no entry level contracts with set salaries back then, but Pollock made Lafleur the highest paid rookie in NHL history at over $40,000, and estimated at $100,000 over two years. A bit of a far cry from Lafleur’s initial boasts, but still a record setting sum for rookie. It wouldn’t be the last time that Lafleur would use the media to publicly set expectations for compensation.
Quebec City yearns for its star
Lafleur played out his first contract and headed into the summer of 1973 as a free agent. Normally Sam Pollock would wait until August to sit down at the negotiating table with players seeking new contracts, but Lafleur had significant leverage headed into the negotiations for his second contract. The upstart World Hockey Association had arrived, and its Quebec Nordiques were trying to lure Lafleur away from Pollock.
There were reports that the Nordiques initially proposed a three-year contract at $90,000 per season that Lafleur outright rejected. The team then increased their offer which would have paid him $125,000 in the first year, $135,000 in the second, $150,000 in the third, plus a $60,000 signing bonus. (La Presse, April 5th, 1973)
Obviously a return to Quebec City weighed heavily on Lafleur’s heart. As negotiations intensified, Quebec’s final offer came up to $155,000 per season for three years. Le Soleil stated that the owners would be willing to go as high as $175,000 per season. But it was the initial offer of $90,000 per season that left a lasting impression, and made Lafleur hesitant and confused.
Spurning Quebec, Guy Lafleur instead chose a remarkable and unexpected 10-year offer from the Canadiens. Pollock was not about to lose Lafleur to Quebec City for a second time. The contract made Lafleur a millionaire and paid him $100,000 on average per season, on a sliding scale. Le Soleil reported on April 6th, 1973 that in year eight he would make $160,000, and in year nine he would make $175,000. In the first year of the deal he would be making a mere $85,000.
Needless to say that he could have earned more overall if he took the riskier road of a shorter contract with Quebec.
“Patterson influenced my final decision,” said Lafleur. “I was leaning towards Quebec City because of all my friends and my previous success there, but Gerry made me understand that I could get better endorsement deals in Montreal. I hesitated for a long time, but I finally understood his point of view. I realize that I’m losing $55,000 per year, maybe more. But I’ve secured my future for many years, and that’s important to me. My money is guaranteed, so if I break my leg in a year or two, for example, my earnings will continue.”
Everything seemed great in Montreal with Lafleur secured for the long term and the team enjoying remarkable success on the ice. But the contract, and the conditions it was signed under, would soon emerge to cast an ever-present shadow over Lafleur’s entire career with the Canadiens.