Guy Lafleur’s on-ice heroics had transformed him into one of Montreal’s most prominent celebrities off the ice. In 1979, he released a truly terrible disco album in which he gave hockey instruction set to the beat of the vibrant Montreal disco scene.
Lafleur became a frequent presence on the Montreal club scene and a late-night partying aficionado. The distraction this caused did not please Irving Grundman, whose relationship with his team’s superstar grew increasingly strained as Lafleur began exhibiting signs of frustration beyond his contract.
The superstar player, who grew used to the adulation and title of best player in the NHL, started taking a back seat to newcomers like Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky. It didn’t stop Lafleur from living the high life in Montreal, as he gripped tenaciously to his glory.
In March, 1981, while returning from a late-night escapade, Lafleur fell asleep behind the wheel of his Cadillac. The car veered off the highway, went through a chain-link fence, and a steel pole smashed through the windshield and embedded itself through the driver seat of the car.
Continuing my Lafleur retrospective for @HabsEOTP. I've come to March 1981, reminding myself of just how lucky Guy Lafleur was not to be killed in a car accident when he fell asleep at the wheel. pic.twitter.com/cN4lmP6gpD— Andrew Zadarnowski (@AZadarski) August 24, 2018
By some sort of divine intervention, Lafleur only suffered a minor injury to his ear, avoiding the serious injury, or worse, that the pole could have caused.
It wasn’t his first motor-vehicle incident: two years prior, he was involved in a motorcycle accident. The team made him get rid of the motorcycle. He also had a Ferrari and a Corvette at one point in time. He lived life off the ice very fast.
General manager Irving Grundman arrived at the hospital to visit Lafleur after his accident, and gave some sage advice to the media that had come together. “With all sincerity, I hope that Lafleur gets through this positively, as a father, as a husband, and as a man. He’s given a lot to the Montreal Canadiens, but it’s of the man you have to think of first.” It was a hope that Lafleur would forego his current lifestyle for a more sustainable one.
Lafleur missed 29 games in total during the 1980-81 season from various ailments, and the concern was that he was starting to slow down as the injuries were piling up.
Lafleur made assurances that he would bounce back in 1981-82, but he also made some pretty direct remarks to the Canadiens organization. “The Canadiens never keep players who lack discipline on their team. And if the managers of this team think that I fit in this category, they should not hesitate to trade me. It’s not that I go out at night that I live a life that’s incompatible with my status as a hockey player.”
The summer of 1981 was filled with trade rumours for the Montreal superstar, and certain behavioural traits continued. Montreal got a new head coach, Bob Berry, for the 1981-82 season, who preached strict discipline, instituting a team-wide curfew among various initiatives.
The first player to test that, of course, was Lafleur. He was fined $200 for missing a practice in September on the day of his 30th birthday. “The long and short of it is that he missed practice and the matter is closed,” said Berry. “He’s been fined by me. What went on between Guy and me is going to stay between Guy and me.”
“I’ve got nothing to say about it,” said Lafleur when asked for his version of the events in an unusual lack of candour.
The war of words certainly did not die down that year. Lafleur came hard to the defence of his friend, Pierre Larouche, whose production had dropped year-over-year, but whose attitude on the team was certainly taking a turn for the worse. When Berry decided to pin Larouche to the bench during a game, Lafleur accused Berry of being a puppet for Grundman, who was pulling the strings to make certain players look worse prior to their contract negotiations.
“They have a trick to slowing down a player. I realized this over the past two years. They say I didn’t play well because I wasn’t in shape. If I played bad, it’s because they didn’t want to use me,” said Lafleur to back up his thoughts.
Grundman did not take it lightly being called out by Lafleur publicly. “It would be false and dishonest to say things like that. We’re saying things that are really not right and we will take care of it. There are two ways of doing business: publicly like certain people like to do, or privately like I like to do.
“But we’re going to sort out the case of Lafleur and Larouche. When Lafleur comes to the support of Larouche, especially the way he did, he’s getting involved in things that do not concern him. He should concentrate on playing hockey. We chose a man to coach this team, and that man is not Lafleur. If everyone stuck to their own business things would go quite better, that much is certain.”
Lafleur was also becoming increasingly vocal about the work that Grundman was doing overall that season, saying that the general manager was failing to address the need of a big forward to take the team to the next level. As he normally did in these circumstances, he gave the press an earful of his thoughts.
“I sounded the alarm last season,” said Lafleur, “and the results proved me right. I noticed that nothing has been done to improve this team since then. It won’t be the addition of two rookies and a new coach. It takes a big player on every line in today’s hockey, and we don’t have one. Beside Bob Gainey, there are not a lot of solid forwards with us. On my line I’m the biggest guy, so I have to go in the corners.
“Now we are behind by a year or two on other teams because we didn’t make the necessary changes on time. It’s been three years that there should have been some trades, that we should have put more faith in younger players like the rest of the team’s in the league.
“We wanted to keep whole the team that won the Stanley Cup, but now we’re paying for it. Even our last Cup we won it by the skin of our teeth, and it was at that time that changes should have been made. It’s real nice to look up at the rafters of the Montreal Forum and see 22 Stanley Cup victories. I personally won five and I am quite proud. But I want more. I want several more before the end of my career. Not a day went by on the last road trip where the players didn’t ask if the team made any moves. After our latest loss the guys weren’t asking anymore, they were praying for change.”
Grundman killed two birds with one stone on a December day in 1981. Larouche descended into a drunken outburst on the team bus, directed at several players, Berry, and Grundman, calling him “a simple bowling manager.” Despite Lafleur’s plea for his friend to stop, Larouche insisted. This was the final straw that led Grundman to act.
Larouche was traded to Hartford for three draft picks. Grundman made a trade, as Lafleur was clamouring for, but almost out of spite it was not a trade for big forward at the cost of Lafleur’s friend, but for several future assets.
In November, 1981, the Canadian government, under fiscal duress, put in place a tax reform that targeted rich sports contracts, among other things, and it would hit the Canadiens players hard. Many would seek to re-negotiate their contracts, including Rod Langway, Larry Robinson, and of course, Lafleur.
“I am quite satisfied with my contract at this point”, said Lafleur. “It’s not impossible however that I will have to pay the team’s management a visit following these fiscal modifications. Like several other players, Réjean Houle for instance, I have in my contract certain clauses under the previous tax shelters. We will have to re-visit all that. I do not intend to re-negotiate my contract, even after the contract that Mike Bossy signed.”
The relationship between Grundman and Lafleur remained strained. After being eliminated by the Nordiques in the first round of the 1982 playoffs, Lafleur again took to the media to let his views be known. Grundman replied a day later, via the press, that Lafleur needs to watch what he says over the summer months, and that his focus should be to remain in shape, like every other player, and find satisfaction in simply doing his job as a hockey player.
“If I was Lafleur, the time may come sooner than later, and I like him as a person and hockey player, and he’s done a lot for the Canadiens in the past, but there are certain limits. If Guy wants to manage this team then he should apply to be General Manager. Maybe his application will be accepted; he’s a smart guy. But for now, this is my team, and I will take care of my job, and Guy Lafleur will have to take care of his job, and that’s being a hockey player.”
It’s under these conditions, the looming spectre of an ageing team in decline, financial uncertainty, and a very strained working relationship, that Lafleur would be headed for his fourth contract re-negotiation.