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Guy Lafleur and the 10-Year Contract: Part III — L’Affaire Lafleur

In 1978, tensions reach their boiling point.


Guy Lafleur and the 10-Year Contract | Part I | Part II

On August 28, 1978, Lafleur gave an explosive interview to Le Soleil, hinting that he returned from a European vacation with a contract proposal from a West German team.

“I won’t mention the country, but during my trip I received an incredible contract. I was offered $150,000 per season, tax-free, to continue my career overseas. I would only have to play 35 games. I would be given accommodations, staff, and cars. The whole ‘kit.’ I thought I was dreaming when these people approached me. An offer without taxes, that’s amazing. Over here you get devoured by income tax.”

He then transitioned to once again rail against his contract. “I want out of this straightjacket. I don’t envy anyone in particular, any of the richly-paid players, the free agents, the Hedbergs, the Nilssons, the Vachons, and others. But I want to be paid according to my value. If I’m the best player in the world as people say, they should stop taking advantage of the situation, and pay me as the best. It’s when you start getting offers like the one I got in Europe that you start figuring things out.”

When he signed his 10-year contract, he was convinced by his agent Gerry Patterson that even though his salary may be low, the endorsement deals he would get would more than make up the difference. Lafleur naïvely agreed to this line of thinking back in 1973, but five years later that certainly changed.

“I am a professional hockey player,” he argued. “The Canadiens should not take into account the money I make outside of the hockey rink. That’s not how you pay an athlete.”

Lafleur had already twice re-negotiated by this point, and Pollock’s replacement as managing director, Irving Grundman, was in no rush to re-open the case for a third time.

It became a real distraction for everyone to start the 1978-79 season, and even players could not avoid being pulled into the conversation.

“People don’t put in the effort to come to these games to see everyday players like the majority of us,” said Yvon Lambert to La Presse. “We do what we can to win games so that people buy season tickets. The two or three thousand additional people who come just to see Lafleur each games, they constitute the real profit margin for the owners of the team.”

“It’s not just in Montreal where Lafleur fills the pockets of the owners,” added Mario Tremblay. “It’s the same all around the League. All marketing is centred around Lafleur, even if the whole team is really good.”

After a pre-season loss against the New York Islanders, a game where everyone recognized that Lafleur was hardly engaged, he was asked whether the failure to open salary re-negotiations weighed heavily on him. “I’m going to be honest, yes it bothers me.”

L’Affaire Lafleur (the third re-negotiation)

Things reached a boiling point on October 26. The Canadiens were in Toronto to play against the rival Maple Leafs when Lafleur, speaking to the gathered press in the morning, dropped the team an ultimatum to re-negotiate the contract he signed under duress or he wouldn’t play that night. “If I don’t get a formal promise by tonight, I’m not playing.” Lafleur even threatened to retire and never return to the Canadiens again.

The biggest player of the biggest franchise in the biggest hockey league sent a shockwave that was unheard of at the time, forcing everyone into a mad scramble to resolve the situation. Only halfway through the contract, it appeared that things had finally come to a head between Lafleur and the Canadiens.

Jerry Petrie, who replaced Patterson as his agent, Lafleur’s lawyer George Langvary, and Grundman quickly huddled up at the Forum in Montreal to begin defusing the situation. Back in Toronto, Lafleur remained in his room, refusing to leave the hotel with the rest of the team until progress was made.

Lise Lafleur, Guy’s wife, eventually called him to tell him that Petrie and Grundman were traveling to Toronto, and to meet them at Maple Leaf Gardens. Thirty minutes before game time Lafleur, already in his gear, met privately with his agent in a room adjacent to the team’s locker room, then proceeded to head to the ice for warm-ups “looking like a man condemned.” He was the last man on the ice for his team, and was still shaking from all the fallout of his actions, feeling the glances of teammates and fans alike burning a hole in him.

Petrie proceeded to read a statement to the collected media, saying that Lafleur had always been well treated by the Canadiens, that he would continue to be, and that he regretted that his earlier declaration took on such gravity. Petrie continued saying that, although no conclusion was reached, that negotiations would keep going, as they had all day, and there was sufficient progress made to satisfy Lafleur, allowing him to return to the ice and play that night’s game.

Negotiations were short between Grundman, Petrie, and Lafleur once everyone returned to Montreal. After only a few hours, Jean Béliveau announced to the press that the Canadiens and Lafleur had come to terms “on a deal that satisfied both parties”. The new negotiated salary was not announced, but was estimated around $325,000, bringing Lafleur’s salary in line with the best-paid players in the league.

Lafleur was reportedly offered two salary structures: one fixed, the other bonus-laden. He turned down the bonus structure, saying that he didn’t need the incentive of bonuses to perform well, but rather the support of the fans and the organization.

Once a deal was reached at the table, Lafleur reportedly turned to Grundman and said, “I apologize for everything that happened. I’m sorry for putting you on the spot, but I had to do it.”

Lafleur was first on the ice at the Forum that day, by a good hour ahead of his teammates.

“I wasn’t paid my worth, and the gap was so wide with the other top players that it was tearing me apart inside. I had to do something. It’s easy to say today that we wouldn’t have dared to pull this off with Sam Pollock, but the toxic situation had grown to such a level that it was bound to explode. Pollock or not, I would have ended up collapsing on a stretcher.”

The 1978-79 season would be another remarkable one for Lafleur, his fifth consecutive 100-point campaign.

This third re-negotiation was done by the Canadiens to appease their superstar, and make him feel his worth in relation to other players in the league. Lafleur was at last satisfied that he was among the best-paid players and was compensated in proportion to his production.

But external factors would soon re-open the entire debate yet again as the curse of the 10-year contract continued to haunt Grundman, and would end up driving a wedge between the two that would ultimately lead to trade threats and job losses.