Why Guy Lafleur means so much to Montreal

Justin Cuthbert and Julian McKenzie discuss the impact of Montreal Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur after his passing.

Video Transcript

JULIAN MCKENZIE: A lot of mourning, a lot of storytelling, a lot of story sharing, a lot of commemorating. And it's well worth it for a man, who, in the illustrious history of the Montreal Canadiens, all the players, all the Hall of Famers, all the banners raised to the rafters at the Bell Center now, you-- the Guy Lafleur, I think if you pull a lot of Canadiens fans throughout the different eras, he could stand out, if he hasn't already stood out as the team's most popular player.

Like, when I think of the best Canadiens players of all time, I think of him, I think of Maurice Richard, and I think of Jean Beliveau. Like, the three-- the big three of Montreal Canadiens players. And Maurice Richard you could look at it as the most fiery, the most passionate of the three; Jean Beliveau, the epitome of class. And then, Guy Lafleur was just-- like, he was-- he looked cool. He had the style. He had the presence.

Like, we talk a lot about, man, you know, we wish more NHL players were, like, superstars and leaned into the celebrity. Guy Lafleur did that. He did that before Wayne Gretzky did and, I mean, obviously in the varying ways between the two players obviously. But in Montreal, like, he was obviously just, like, treated as a god, you know. The fact that he was able to win as many cups as he did, he goes down as the all time point-getter for the Montreal Canadiens.

Dude could just, like, walk around Crescent or different bars around the city, and people would just love him and latch on to him. And he-- people loved him for that. He was in an era where obviously you're not playing with any helmets. So you're able to see his whole face and his hair.

You know how many people have commented on his hair in the last how many days? There's a reason why he was known as Le Démon Blond. Obviously, there's Flower, but Le Démon Blond was just the flowing blond hair when he would just streak through the-- well, just speed through the ice.

Like, there were so many things about him that a lot of people love to point out and commemorate and remember about him. Like, I always like to say that, you know what? I wasn't alive in the heyday of when the Canadians were truly great. But I've seen so many Guy Lafleur highlights because people just want to throw that out there, for whatever reason. It's just embedded in hockey history.

You know, not to say I've already seen enough of his career, but, like, there's no way I can ever forget a player like Guy Lafleur. There's no way no one could ever do that. I was listening on TSN 690 radio on the day of his passing.

There was one show in the morning called "The Montreal Forum." And the show has, like, a long kind of I don't want to say bloated intro. But it has all these different effects. You hear, like, a random song. I think it's actually "Eye of the Tiger" in the background and all these different clips.

And the one highlight that always plays is the Guy Lafleur game-time goal in the 1979 Stanley Cup semi-finals against Boston, the too-many-men penalty. The goal forces overtime. And that day, they just played the clip, and the host just comes in. And he could barely get a word out. That's his favorite player of all time.

He is sobbing, like, on air. He's getting all these different guests to come in. And he could barely get through it. And that's on the English side. You can imagine what it could be like on the French side, where they obviously idolized him.

And it's at a point now, where, like, not too long after we started recording today, the Quebec premier, Francois Legault, announced plans for a state funeral. And I've been thinking about this, like, all weekend. And I mean, it's not a surprise to anybody that Guy Lafleur is going to get something like this.

But how many other people who have played for a Canadian team, minus Wayne Gretzky-- because, I mean, knock on wood, we're not calling for it. We know if that-- when that day comes, that is a national day of mourning for Canadians all across the land. But how many people across the country who've played for Canadian teams, who have come up for those different teams would get the treatment that a guy like Guy Lafleur would get? And there's no one who had even come close.

You're talking about one of the most iconic players ever, one of the most iconic stars in the league. And it's only right for that to happen. It's also just timing just being a really weird thing. When the announcement of Mike Bossy passing away happened, it happened on a day where the Islanders just happened to be in town, in Montreal. And that night they held a tribute.

And they showed a photo of Mike Bossy and Guy Lafleur shaking hands after a playoff series. And on the surface you'd think, OK, this is a great way to show two of the league's greatest players of that era just showing each other-- you know, just praising each other and congratulating each other. But you look deeper into it, and you think of the fact that both men had been battling lung cancer. And just as one man's light had just gone out, I think everyone in the building that night kind of knew that it wasn't too long before we would hear the end of Guy Lafleur as well.

And that was a bit of a sobering moment for-- I think, for a lot of people. And not too long after that, the Canadiens said, OK, we need everyone to respect his privacy. And then we hear the announcement on Friday.

It's a very sad time. But I've heard a lot of people celebrate him and remember his legacy, remember his life. And people from all across the Canadian spectrum and here in Martin St. Louis talk about him. He never even played. But he's someone who has obviously met him a couple of times.

He mentioned Guy Lafleur was at his mom's funeral when his mom passed away. And even older players who played with him, just hearing their stories and hearing stories of him as a teammate, Guy Lafleur will go down as the epitome of what the Montreal Canadiens at a different time should be. And if you go beyond that with his generosity and how he treated fans, how he just treated people, like, you would think of him as, like, a saint if you heard all these different stories.

He will never be forgotten. And it's been really fascinating to see so many other people tell their stories. And I'm sure we're going to hear more of that leading up to the state funeral, I believe, on May 3 and beyond that. He's someone who is deserving of this. And the fact that he's getting all the tributes he's getting from across the hockey world and beyond is very just and deserving for someone like him.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Yeah, what strikes me in these situations, obviously unfortunate situations, is just especially with Montreal, the history and the connection between team and franchise legend is just-- it's beyond compare. It really is. Like, you're talking about Gretzky and, you know, what could compare to this. And it's kind of a morbid weird conversation to have.

But really, there's nothing that can compare to the loss of a legend in Montreal when looking at these other teams and other franchises, and even across other sports. I mean, it is so ingrained into the culture. And it's so important for a variety of reasons, because these players were so great. But you mentioned the generosity and just being there and being consistent and just being good humans that represented this franchise and had so much success. There's a long line of these players. And Guy Lafleur, unfortunately, is the latest that has passed.

There's going to be a lot of celebration and a lot of remembrance this week. Of course, the Boston Bruins are in Montreal. You'll be going to that game, I assume.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yes.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: That's going to be, you know, the first game back. It's going to be very, very emotional. The state funeral, which is going to happen the next week, I believe, I mean, it's going to be-- we're going to be celebrating Guy Lafleur until the end of this regular season and, of course, beyond that.

But you're right. It's hard to even draw up a comparison. I mean, Johnny Bauer here in Toronto had a service or a-- I don't want to say an event, but just a day where the public could come and pay their respects at Scotiabank Arena. And, of course, we'd see that in other situations across the country.

But it is so important. And you mentioned-- I think we were actually talking earlier about precedent. I mean, we've seen these before. And it's almost, like, it has to happen because the public-- Guy Lafleur means so much to the public that there has to be a moment where they can come, and the whole city can come and pay its respects to a player like Guy Lafleur and a legend, really, in hockey. I've had trouble--

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Not just the city. Not to stop you there, but not just the city, the entire province. I mean, remember, he also got to play with [INAUDIBLE] as well. You know, so people in Quebec City, for a time, also got to appreciate his greatness as well. This is somebody who-- and this is a guy who came from a small town in Thurso, Quebec.

Like, this is a guy who not just for an entire city, but for an entire province and for an entire culture-- he's embedded in the fabric of Quebicois culture. Like, he is a true son to the province. I just want to add that.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: That's a big difference, too, like born in Quebec, speaks the language, obviously, represented both teams-- like so, so important to hockey in Quebec. And hockey is so, so important, obviously, in Montreal and the province of Quebec. It's hard to even draw up a comparison because it is almost so perfect and the belonging, or the sense of belonging is so strong.

I was just going to say before, like, I'm trying to-- because I'm with you. I didn't watch Guy Lafleur play. And I know him from highlights. I know about the hair and the flair that he played with and all that. But I'm having trouble really contextualizing because I don't understand what he meant in the moment.

But I was talking with my dad, who's really broken up about it. And he said, this-- and the reason why. I mean, there was other reasons why. But this was the first superstar that he covered. And now that got me thinking about how am I going to feel when I'm 30, 40 years older, and I'm reflecting back on the superstars and the players that I covered in this industry.

So it kind of stopped me in my tracks and thought, you know, soak up as much as you can. And try to enjoy and savor and learn and observe as much as possible in these moments that you do get because one day you're going to be reflecting. And when you're reflecting on those moments, it's going to mean a great deal to you, like this did, like Guy Lafleur's passing meant to so many in Montreal, in Quebec, in Canada, and even beyond that.

So that was sort of my reminder here, that, you know, this is sort of the path we chose. I mean, this is what means so much to us, means so much to Canadians. And to just make sure that your respecting every moment, I guess, is sort of my take home.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. I want to just focus a little bit more on the superstar. I think another thing I'll add, too, I was trying to make that connection about timing being a funny thing. You did mention it. Yes, the Canadians are playing against the Boston Bruins on the Sunday. And that is the team Guy Lafleur scored that amazing goal in 1979, which again, with the illustrious history that this team has, the fact that you could say that Guy Lafleur could arguably be the team's most popular player and that goal could be, like, the greatest in franchise history says so much about that type of player.

And the fact that he was so accessible, especially in his retirement, like, that just speaks to the level of celebrity and stardom that he had. I know friends who have had so many opportunities to meet Guy Lafleur and take photos with him and get all these great quotes from him. I was talking with a friend of mine who's in the Canadiens organization. And they met-- they have, like, photos of themselves Guy Lafleur.

And they said they didn't even really talk to him. He just-- they just, like, nodded in their direction, and Guy Lafleur nodded back, and that was enough. Like, I see all these people put it up, yeah, and I met Guy. He did this. There was, like, this one other story where this one fan really wanted to meet Guy. But he lived, like, way too far out from where he was.

And Guy, like, flew in a helicopter to meet that fan and all that. Like, so many stories like that. And I'm like, I don't have a photo with him. I don't have anything like that. And it feels kind of-- it's weird to put myself in this and say like, I'm envious. But, like, I would have loved the opportunity to meet someone like Guy Lafleur, considering how he meant so much to so many people not just in Quebec, but also just across the hockey world.

And, yeah, like, now that I really think about it, like, what I think of the stars who play in Montreal since Guy Lafleur, and think of even stars who play in the National Hockey League since that era, like, I don't think we're going to remember them the same way. I don't think they're going to touch us the same way that Guy Lafleur has, maybe in different ways. But, like, not to be cliche here, but he's really-- he really came across as a guy who was one of one in terms of how he handled fans and the way that he played the game.

And, yeah, it's something that we-- I don't know if we'll ever feel that way with any other star player that we've covered or we've seen. Again, with Wayne Gretzky, that's a whole other echelon of player. But, yeah, when you look through the Canadiens, and you look through the players who have played, who have put on the [FRENCH] jersey, like, Guy Lafleur stands above the rest, man. And he was emblematic of that era. He was great for that era.

He did so much. I know I'm going on a lot of superlatives and stuff. But he-- you can't do the man justice by just saying one line about the man. He really was that dude for the Montreal Canadiens.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: It is hard to imagine, right? But, I mean, I don't think-- and just bring it back to what I said earlier, the first superstar my old man covered. I don't think he was thinking that in that moment, either, right? Like, I think they knew how special this player was, obviously. But there was special players all across the league at that time.

But it is also how you act and how you conduct yourself after you move on. And I think you don't know it in the moments. But you covering the Montreal Canadiens spread of the Stanley Cup Final last year, I mean, you're going to have memories from that that are going to endure forever. And it's going to be part of your reflections when you're reflecting, when you're 10, 20, 30, 40 years older.

I think that's just a part of it. So I think we have to stop and sort of check ourselves all the time. And this is-- I mean, whenever someone passes on, it's like it's time to do that. And it's a reminder to do that. But you never know what's going to happen.

And I mean, Guy Lafleur's obviously touched so many people's lives. And those photos, as you mentioned that you wish you had, I mean, probably a lot of people didn't think about it 10, 20, 30 years, 40 years ago when maybe they got that opportunity for a picture or an autograph or a memory even. But now it probably-- you know, they're probably cherishing it this week with the unfortunate news.

JULIAN MCKENZIE: Yeah. Actually, another photo story, another one of my good friends was talking about their dad, who had unfortunately passed away, I think, about two years ago. Years earlier, they had met Guy Lafleur, and they had this photo with him. And as he had passed away, my friend was looking for this photo. And he thought he had lost it forever and felt devastated and him describing him finding that photo, literally just screaming and yelling and having tears of joy just, you know-- just being overjoyed at all of that.

Like, you talk about people cherishing those photos. There are going to be a lot of people doing stuff like that over the next little while-- autographs, any other piece of memorabilia that they have from him or anything like that. Like, that's something that they're going to cherish.

What's also really interesting, too, is, like, a couple of days before Lafleur's passing, like, the Canadians had a night where they had members of their management team talk to older players. And they had them in an event. That's always been, like, a point of contention. But just, like, there's always been a lot of discussion about how some of the older players and the connection to the team.

I bet that night-- I bet that night they were probably all talking about Guy Lafleur and his condition. I bet that's probably-- that probably ended up being a main topic of conversation. Apparently, Geoff Molson, I think, visited Guy maybe like a week or two before his passing. And they were talking about the current team.

Like, Guy Lafleur wanted to be connected all the way to the end. We've heard stories of, you know, maybe Guy Lafleur should get into Jonathan Drouin's ear about different stuff. Like, Guy Lafleur found a way to still be connected, or at least be some kind of presence for even this current generation of the Montreal Canadiens. So that just goes to show the staying power that he had.

JUSTIN CUTHBERT: Definitely. Definitely. I mean, I think we sort of surrender our right to, like, idolize players in the game when you sort of get into the line of work that we're in. But that's moot when it comes to people like Guy Lafleur, who obviously transcend that. And again, it is beyond what you do on the ice.

It's being someone who's relied on at all times to be involved, like you mentioned Guy Lafleur. Like, we got a problem? Let's go to Guy. Let's figure out what he would say. What does he think about this subject?

I mean, that's staying power. That's lasting. That's ultimate respect. And of course, the hockey world is paying it's-- paying its respect and has the ultimate respect for Guy Lafleur.

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