(Guy Lafleur salutes his Forum fans –photo: HHOF)
Fans of the Montreal Canadiens have seen numerous former players return in opposing uniform, to the Montreal Forum or the Bell Centre, over the years.
But no player has ever received the welcome that Guy Lafleur did, and it actually happened twice.
In his final season with the Canadiens, Lafleur was not happy with the way his coach, and former teammate, Jacques Lemaire was using him on the ice. In his previous 13 seasons, the Canadiens right winger never went with less than 21 goals. Nineteen games into his last campaign, he had just a pair of goals and was getting far less ice time. At the age of 33, Lafleur decided to retire, even though he still loved the game.
After a brief stint with the Canadiens front office, Lafleur spent the better part of two years thinking about what to do next. "I didn't want to wake up when I was 50 and be second-guessing myself, telling myself I should have given it another shot," he said. In the summer of 1988, shortly after the announcement that he would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, Lafleur and his agent began contacting NHL teams. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Los Angeles Kings both reportedly passed on Lafleur’s services, but the New York Rangers were certainly interested.
Four years after his retirement, the 37-year old winger was with the Rangers, where a 20-year old defenseman was just breaking in. “At first I didn't think it was such a great idea, him coming to training camp," said Brian Leetch, who himself would have a Hall of Fame career, "but then I saw him in the first practice skate faster than me and most of the other guys, and I realized, 'Christ, this guy has something the rest of us don't have.' "
As the 1988-89 season progressed, fans in Montreal waited in anticipation for Lafleur’s return to the Forum since the season. many in the Montreal media were covering Lafleur’s progress as if he still played for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
The Rangers paid their first visit to the Forum in December, but Lafleur had suffered a a fractured foot, in the previous game, and couldn’t play. Those who paid over $300 a ticket from scalpers would be disgruntled, but they at least got a glimpse of the living legend.
The Canadiens honored “Le Demon Blond” in a pre-game ceremony acknowledging his induction into the Hall of Fame. Lafleur received a two-minute ovation, with the fans cheering, “Guy!, Guy!, Guy!” and it extended another 60 seconds as he donned a Rangers sweater.
On February 4, 1989, the Canadiens faithful finally got to see what they paid for, and they certainly got their money’s worth. The chants of “Guy!, Guy! Guy!” started as soon as the Forum doors opened, an hour and a half before game time. They again rose to their feet and applauded, as Lafleur skated onto the ice with his Rangers teammates.
“When I first stepped onto the ice, it was something else,” said Lafleur, who admitted being nervous during the pre-game skate. “I got a good feeling inside. I was proud to be here.”
With the Canadiens taking an early lead, the Rangers responded with Lafleur assisting on the Rangers first goal by David Shaw, at 4:19 of the second period.
The second period was vintage Lafleur. With the Rangers leading 3-2, he was left unattended in front of the Canadiens goal by Chris Chelios and Craig Ludwig. He picked up the rebound off of Jason Lafreniere’s shot to beat Patrick Roy at 10:57. The crowd went crazy as the Rangers celebrated.
Six minutes later, Lafleur picked up a loose puck at center ice, and headed towards the Canadiens end. Rick Green and Peter Svoboda were all that stood between him and Roy. Seeing Svoboda was going to play the puck, Lafleur tipped it past the Canadiens defender and raced past him. He moved in on Roy and put it between the pads of the Habs goaltender at 16:44.
The ovation this time was possibly louder than the previous one. As renowned Canadiens historian Robert Lefebvre once wrote, “In the distinct 100 year history of the hockey club, no opponents' goal would ever be cheered as much.”
The Rangers had a three-goal lead (Shayne Corson scored to narrow it to two by period’s end) and the home team openly admitted they were a bit star-struck. “For a long time we were Lafleur watchers rather than playing our game," said veteran defenceman Larry Robinson, who shared five Stanley Cup with his former teammate.
The thoughts were also carried by several others, including Stephane Richer, who idolized Lafleur as a kid. “All the French kids in Quebec wanted to be Guy Lafleur,” said Richer, who had become the last Canadiens player since Lafleur to score 50 goals. “I know how I feel playing against him, and I know there were times in the game when I was just standing and watching him."
Pat Burns was watching from the Canadiens bench, and he was not happy with what was happening. He rallied his team, likely enhanced with some screaming between periods and they responded. The Habs scored four unanswered goals in the final 20 minutes to escape with a 7-5 win. Corson scored the game-winner and added an empty-net goal for the hat trick.
Not on the ice for any of the Montreal goals and his three-point night was enough to warrant him the game’s Second Star. “He’s a proud hockey player,” said Rangers coach Michel Bergeron, “Tonight he wanted to prove to the Montreal fans that he could play again, and that’s what he did.” Had the fans been allowed to vote, as they do now, he easily would have been the First Star, no matter the outcome on the evening.
“It was my best game of the year,” said Lafleur, who despite his coach’s thoughts, said he didn’t come to prove anything. “I just wanted to play my best and give something back to the fans. In a way I’m sad we lost.”
For the fans they couldn’t have asked for more. The home team won, and one of the all-time greats to wear the “CH” performed as he had for years. “I don’t think fans will ask for their money back,” said Patrick Roy after the game was over.
Elsewhere on his day:
1928: The Canadiens’ George Hainsworth and the Maroons’ Clint Benedict battle to a 0-0 tie. It was Hainsworth’s 22nd career shutout.
1934: Lorne Chabot’s 61st career shutout snaps Montreal’s 12-game road winless streak. The Canadiens defeated the New York Americans 2-0.
1979: Pierre Mondou scores his first career hat trick in the Habs’ 8-4 win over the Washington Capitals. Guy Lafleur (2G, 3A) and Steve Shutt (1G, 4A) each had five points.
1988: Bobby Smith scores a goal and adds an assist to reah 800 career NHL points and 350 points as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs lost 7-3 to the Boston Bruins.
1990: Patrick Roy records his 12th career shutout in Montreal’s 2-0 win over the Hartford Whalers.
1991: Mike McPhee scores his third (and final) career hat trick and adds an assist in the Canadiens’ 5-3 win over the Minnesota North Stars.
1994: Patrick Roy records his 26th career shutout and Vincent Damphousse scores his 8th career hat trick in the Canadiens’ 4-0 win over the Capitals.
Habs Born on This Day: Reg Abbott (1930), Ernie Roche (1930), Denis Savard (1961)
www.habseyesontheprize.com – “Kovalev’s Return Recalls Lafleur’s Forum Comeback”
People Magazine, February 6, 1989, Vol 31. No. 5, “Guy Lafleur, Hockey’s Faded Flower, Blooms Anew in New York” – Alan Richman
Achorage Daily News/AP, February 5, 1989, “Lafleur thrills his fans in return to Montreal”
Record-Journal/AP, February 6, 1989, “Montreal Fans get their Guy”
Boston Globe, February 5, 1989, “Forum for Nostalgia Rangers’ Lafleur Nets Two in his Return to Montreal”