LOS ANGELES – Marcel Dionne smiles and laughs easily these days, particularly on days when he takes his place among the greatest players ever to play the game. For a guy who did what he did and never won a Stanley Cup, only to watch his little brother win one just four years after he retired, these moments are special.
When the irony of the fact that one of the greatest scorers in the history of the game became a plumber after his career ended, Dionne’s wife Carol adds, “and a drycleaner, too.”
Each of the top 100 players of all-time chosen by the NHL has an incredible story. And many of them start with…what if? As in, what if the Boston Bruins hadn’t traded a little known Cornell grad named Ken Dryden to the Montreal Canadiens. What if Chris Chelios had hung around southern California to live as a beach bum instead of heading up to Moose Jaw to play junior hockey? What if the Montreal Canadiens had granted a desperately homesick Howie Morenz his wish and let him out of his contract so that he could go back and work on the railroad in southwestern Ontario?
Two of the more intriguing ‘What ifs?’ involve Dionne and another great French Canadian player who had a brilliant career, but never won a Stanley Cup – Gilbert Perreault. What if in 1971 the Canadiens had decided to take Dionne instead of Guy Lafleur with the first pick of the draft? And what if Perreault had been born one year earlier and been automatically placed on the Canadiens’ protected list instead of going into the draft in 1970?
We’ll never know, but things undoubtedly would have turned out completely differently for both of them. Both Dionne and Perreault would have been part of the Canadiens Stanley Cup factory of the 1970s that won six Stanley Cups during that decade. History would have looked at the two of them much differently, one would think. Add Perreault to that Canadiens team and substitute Dionne for Lafleur and the possibilities are intriguing to say the least.
Neither man gives much thought to that kind of thing. Both had wonderful careers, even without the Cups, where they were. There was no way the Canadiens were taking anyone but Lafleur after GM Sam Pollock fleeced the California Golden Seals for the first pick that year, then engineered a trade with the Los Angeles Kings to ensure the Seals finished last. Part of that is because Lafleur stayed home and played junior hockey with Quebec Remparts, while Dionne had to get out of the fishbowl in Quebec and went to play for the St. Catharines Black Hawks.
Months before that draft, Lafleur had set Quebec League scoring records with 130 goals and 209 points for the Remparts, while Dionne had 62 goals and 143 points in the much tighter Ontario Hockey Association in just 46 games. During the eastern Canada playdowns for the Memorial Cup, the Remparts and Blackhawks met in a series that was brutal and physical. When it shifted to Quebec City, fans there pelted the Black Hawks with eggs, potatoes and golf balls. Game 5 was played in Toronto, but when the Black Hawks refused to go to Quebec City for Games 6 and 7, Quebec was awarded the series and went onto the final against Edmonton, where Lafleur was brilliant in leading the Remparts to the Memorial Cup.
“The two guys I wanted to see the most tonight were Gilbert Perreault and Guy Lafleur,” Dionne said. “Gilbert is one year older and from the time we were eight years old, we played against each other until we retired. I remember Guy Lafleur at the age of nine or 10 years old at the Quebec Peewee Tournament, he got a standing ovation from 10,000 people because he was doing stuff that myself and Gilbert Perreault couldn’t do in those days.”
The Canadiens were no doubt salivating over all three players because in those days they had exclusive domain over all Quebec-born players. That ended in 1970 when the league took that exemption away and all three of the homegrown stars would be available to everyone. “I have my first letter from the Montreal Canadiens at the age of 12,” Dionne said. “They told my parents, ‘Keep up the good work, you’re doing a good job,’ and I was the one who was playing! Are you kidding me? I left home when I was 15 years old.”
Like his hero Jean Beliveau, Perreault grew up in Victoriaville, about 30 miles away from Dionne, who was in Drummondville. The Canadiens, in fact, groomed Perreault as a junior with the Montreal Jr. Canadiens where Perreault won two Memorial Cups. “As soon as the Montreal Canadiens lost that, I started focusing on Buffalo or Vancouver,” Perreault said. “Somebody told me once that Boston had the third and fourth pick and they were trying to trade up to get me, so I could have ended up in Boston. I always had a great admiration for the Canadiens, but I had a lot of great years with the Buffalo Sabres and I enjoyed every one of them.”
It’s interesting to note that statistically, Perreault and Dionne were every bit as accomplished as Lafleur. In fact, Dionne outscored Lafleur by more than 400 points in his career. Whether they would have put up those numbers with the Canadiens or had as much team success as Lafleur is impossible to say, but it’s fun to consider the possibility.