Read Part I of this series here.
Guy Lafleur’s signing was viewed as a massive win for the Montreal Canadiens and the NHL, but it obviously came at the cost of the hearts of the people of Quebec City. “I am saddened for the people of Quebec. I hope they will understand,” said Jean Béliveau, who most likely had some influence on Lafleur as his idol. Béliveau also had previously made the same career-defining decision, choosing Montreal over Quebec City.
Another heart that was broken was Lafleur’s. “The evening I signed with the Canadiens, I cried. I cried for real. I was angry that Quebec didn’t give me their offer before I signed with Montreal. The Nordiques offered me something like $90,000 per year, and I told them I wasn’t interested in that amount.
“The Canadiens saw that things were getting heated with Quebec. Just before a game against the Flyers, 10 minutes before the game maybe, I was called into [Sam] Pollock’s office. Gerry Patterson, my agent, and Pollock told me ‘It’s tonight that you’re signing. Right now.’
“I was all alone, I didn’t know anymore, I didn’t really have much choice. I signed. That evening, after the game, my father-in-law, Roger Barré, arrived with the offer from the Nordiques. I did everything to have the contract with Montreal cancelled. That evening my wife was in all states because I didn’t wait for the offer from Quebec. I remember that we called Gerry, and he told us that it was too late, that the contract was with the league. I was certain that this was not true. Mr. Barré was neutral in all this. He just wanted for me to be happy one way or another. That night it would have been Quebec.”
The Nordiques ownership accused Patterson of favouritism by not having Lafleur’s best interests at heart, but rather the Canadiens’ best interests. But it was too late. Lafleur had signed the deal and he was to be a Canadien for 10 years.
“Patterson gave us his word,” said Marius Fortier to La Presse in 1985. “He took the flight to Montreal at five thirty in the afternoon after telling us the deal was done. Guy Lafleur was going to sign with the Quebec Nordiques for five years at $125,000 per year. The contract would be guaranteed by a bank. On Saturday, Patterson paraded into Pollock’s office, and just a few hours before the game, they announced that Lafleur had signed a deal for 10 years with the Canadiens. Guy cried when he saw us arrive with our final contract and the bank guarantee.”
“And what would have happened if Roger Barré would have arrived on time with the WHA contract offer from the Nordiques?” - Rejean Tremblay
“Without a doubt, I wouldn’t be filming a TV appearance at one in the afternoon,” answered Lafleur. “I would be eating my steak and taking a nap before going out on the ice to face the Canadiens. Playing for the Nordiques was a question of five hours.” (La Presse, February 8th, 1985)
It was reported that the value of the final contract offer from the Nordiques was $1 million over five years; double that of the Canadiens.
Over the years, Lafleur expressed his displeasure at the conditions he was put under to sign his contract with the Canadiens, equating it to having a gun put to his head, repeatedly quoting Pollock’s “you’re not leaving this office until you sign.”
The first Pollock re-negotiation
At the start of the third season, 1975-76, word began to spread that Lafleur was looking to exercise his option to re-negotiate, as per the terms of his contract which allowed for that after three seasons (Le Soleil, December 17th, 1975). He had the term for security, but salaries were rising in the league, with Marcel Dionne, the player drafted right after Lafleur, making $305,000. Making a mere $85,000 for the 1975-76 season, Lafleur felt he was worth more, and it was reported that he wanted to get more compensation for the present season, sooner than the terms of his contract allowed.
Lafleur tried to quickly diffuse the reports. “Dionne can earn double for all I care. He will never be as lucky as me. My big honour is to play in Montreal, in the province of Quebec. I’m happy with what I have. I consider myself a big dreamer. I think about all sorts of things I could have, but I am never envious of others. In reality I’m not that far behind Dionne if you take into consideration all the endorsement deals that you can fetch in Montreal.”
But as Pollock refused to enter into re-negotiations before he was contractually obliged, Lafleur began getting more vocal about his situation. “I was quite bothered by my salary being less than other players’, and even if I made the effort of letting it go, it got to me. I didn’t complain about it to anyone. After all, I am the one who signed it. Once the team started rolling four lines I had a breakdown. I thought to myself that maybe they were doing that to limit my ice time knowing that I would look to re-negotiate after the winter. They were worried I’d be greedy. The optics were bad and it wasn’t smart on my part. The team probably doesn’t think of the sort. Their primary goal is to win games.” (Le Soleil, May 3rd, 1976)
With the 1975-76 season being over, Pollock honoured the terms, and began to re-negotiate the contract. It came together quickly, and on June 10, 1976, Le Soleil reported that alterations had been made. Although no figures were made official, the sum of $165,000 per season was reportedly agreed upon.
The second Pollock re-negotiation
The 1976-77 season was one for the ages for Lafleur. He won the scoring title to claim the Art Ross Trophy, but also won the Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Award, the Conn Smythe Trophy, and capped it off with a Stanley Cup victory.
In the summer of 1977, Sports Illustrated published a series on salaries in sport, and one of the startling conclusions was that Guy Lafleur was one of, if not the most underpaid athlete in professional sports in North America. This certainly must have hit Lafleur hard to be not only included in the category, but be among the top. However, any strain he had off the ice certainly didn’t show on it. He continued his torrid scoring pace at the start of the 1977-78 campaign, on his way to winning the NHL scoring title for a third season in a row.
But salaries in the previous off-season continued to rise in the NHL, with the New York Rangers shattering previous records by signing away Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg from the WHA’s Winnipeg Jets for $600,000 each per season; an unheard of expense of $2.4 million over two seasons. The final straw was the new contract signed by Montreal Expos catcher Gary Carter, which meant Lafleur wasn’t even the highest-paid athlete in Montreal.
The Globe and Mail published a list of salaries in March of 1977, which showed that Lafleur’s salary was bumped up slightly to $180,000 for the remainder of the 1977-78 season. He was still paid less than several other less-notable names.
Despite being the best player in the league — maybe the world — he was still ranked 15th overall in salary in the league. Depending on the source, his new salary may have reached up to $200,000, although for once any re-negotiation was done quietly, and without the media spotlight shining brightly on the situation.
The Canadiens won their third consecutive Stanley Cup that year, and Lafleur was once again at the head of the table for producing offence.
The summer concluded with the retirement of Pollock. The difficult relationship with Lafleur was over, with the five remaining years on his 10-year contract to be placed into the hands of his successor, Irving Grundman. The hope was that the relationship between the superstar player and the ageing team could improve under new management.
Unfortunately, everything that had happened thus far was merely a prelude to a much more controversial situation that marked the team’s history, and would speed up the deteriorating conditions between both parties.