Also in Glamorous Canadiens, Guy Lafleur was a rock star

Panache was the word for Guy Lafleur, a towering figure in Montreal hockey history who swooped down the right flank for the Canadiens in the 1970s, with golden curls flowing behind, before freezing many goalkeepers with his deadly slap.

Lafleur, often described as a rock star on the NHL’s most glamorous team of the time, has died after three years of treatment for lung cancer, his sister Lise Lafleur announced Friday. She was 70 years old.

At the height of Lafleur, the Montreal Canadiens were arguably the greatest team in league history. They won four consecutive Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979 with the 1976-77 team losing just eight of the 80 regular season games. Fans continue to argue whether that version of the Canadiens or the 1950s version that won five consecutive cups is the best.

There was never a discussion about who was the biggest star of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge of the 70s. Not only was Lafleur a prolific goalscorer, but he also played hockey the way French-Canadian fans loved to see him play, in style. NHL fans knew him as The Flower, the literal translation of Lafleur, but in Quebec his nickname was more aptly Le Démon Blond.

It combined the best features of its predecessors, Quebec hockey icons Maurice (Rocket) Richard and Jean Béliveau. Although Lafleur didn’t have Richard’s power on his skates, he had the eyes of a killer as he approached the net with the puck on his stick. His grace and elegance were a closer match with the majestic Béliveau, as Lafleur was a talented playmaker as well as a scorer.

For six consecutive seasons, from 1974-75 to 1979-80, Lafleur scored at least 50 goals. He played 961 games with the Canadiens from 1971 to 1984, finishing with 1,246 points, which is still the franchise record.

Lafleur’s playing days with the Canadiens did not end well. In 1984, his former linemate Jacques Lemaire was the head coach and they clashed over how the game should be played. Lafleur retired early in the 1984-85 season but returned four years later, after being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, to play another three seasons with the New York Rangers and Northern Quebec.

“He was a great player,” said Scotty Bowman, who was the head coach of the Canadiens from 1971 to 1979. “I don’t know if any player in history has had the pressure of him. When he was drafted by Montreal in ’71, they had just won the Cup, Béliveau had just retired.

“Those were great shoes to fill, coming to Montreal to replace a player you can’t replace.”

Lafleur was Béliveau’s direct successor and, before him, Richard, as the French superstar of the Canadiens. This was not an easy position in hockey-mad Montreal. Immediate success was required.

Additionally, Canadiens CEO Sam Pollock had used all of his notorious tricks to land Lafleur, who had grown up in the small town of Thurso, a small Quebec paper mill. He decided that the California Golden Seals were the best bet to finish last in the 1970-71 season, thus earning the first pick in the amateur draft. Pollock convinced the Seals to trade the choice and later, when it looked like the Los Angeles Kings might drop below the Seals in the rankings, Pollock sold the veteran Ralph Backstrom center in Los Angeles. Backstrom earned 27 points in 33 games and the Kings remained ahead of the Seals, which allowed Pollock to take Lafleur first overall.

But the Canadiens were very talented, and even a prodigy like Lafleur had to earn a place in the formation. This did not sweeten the fans, especially when two French-Canadian players caught shortly after Lafleur in the 1971 draft, Marcel Dionne (Detroit Red Wings) and Richard Martin (Buffalo Sabers), started scoring immediately.

“Obviously, everyone in Montreal was comparing Lafleur to both Dionne and Martin,” Bowman said. “They were playing regular minutes, and he wasn’t. He had a lot to overcome. It took a while.

“He was a quiet boy, he never complained about his fate. There was a lot of pressure on him, but she kept it to herself, “she said.

The turning point came in the 1974-75 season, when he teamed up with left fielder Steve Shutt and scored 53 goals. For much of the next 10 years, they were one of the most feared duos in the league.

Lafleur’s most famous goal came on May 10, 1979, when the Canadiens were about to lose their chance to win the fourth consecutive Stanley Cup. With two minutes left in the third period, they were 4-3 down to the Boston Bruins in the seventh and decisive semi-final of the Cup.

But the Bruins took that famous penalty from too many men, and then came Lafleur’s ultimate goal with 74 seconds left. He picked up the disc from its own end, circled it, and then squeezed the right side. Lafleur sent the disc to Lemaire, who took it to the Boston area with Lafleur behind him. Lemaire dropped a drop pass and Lafleur, in full flight with his dirty blonde mane flowing, got into a slap that left Boston goalkeeper Gilles Gilbert lying on his back.

The goal sent the game into extra time and Yvon Lambert scored to win it for the Canadiens. The New York Rangers were eliminated in five games and the Canadiens and Lafleur had a fourth championship.