For years, while they finished first, all that the Montreal Canadiens watched was the top of the NHL standings. But this season the Canadiens are skating along in third place with no hope of catching the Boston Bruins, and their eyes are directed down—way down. The goal in Montreal is this: to make sure the California Golden Seals finish last.
To that end—and to that end alone—the Canadiens traded Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, when the Kings began a dangerous slide toward the cellar. For that reason and no other the Canadiens gave Center Gordon Labossiere to the Minnesota North Stars when the fading Stars were desperate for goals. The very next time the North Stars met the Seals they beat them 7-1, and three of the seven were scored by Labossiere. Smart trade, noted all of Montreal.
There are those in the know who say that if any team in the NHL should show signs of displacing the Seals at the bottom of the combined East-West rankings, Montreal General Manager Sammy Pollock would show up at rink-side offering a Beliveau or Cournoyer to pull them out of the slump.
The reason is the latest flower of Canada's junior hockey program, Guy Lafleur.
There was a time when the two Canadian members of the NHL—Montreal and Toronto—did not have to concern themselves much over acquiring top junior hockey players; they owned them practically from birth. But new draft rules adopted some years back changed matters to give the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs only a slight preference in choosing young players, and three years ago even that advantage was taken away. Now the Canadian teams must compete in the draft on equal terms with everyone else. And everyone else has his eye on Guy Lafleur.
Last season the flashing right wing of the Quebec Remparts scored 146 goals in 83 games. Already this season this 19-year-old 6-footer, who is cast in the mold of Rocket Richard, has scored more than 100 goals, and only recently he helped his team beat Rosemont by making seven goals himself and assisting on four others. It is obvious to every scout in the league that young Lafleur could play as important a part in the Canadiens' future as his idol, Jean Beliveau, who also played in Quebec, did in their past. It is obvious, too, that the Canadiens will do everything in their power to sign him up. The first and best way to do that is to keep the California Seals in last place, for the Seals, you see, traded their first draft pick to Montreal last year.
When and if the Canadiens get Guy Lafleur, sportswriters on this side of the border will surely begin calling him "another Orr." But in French-speaking Quebec they have long been calling him something like that. "Il est en or," the Quebecois say of Guy, meaning that he is their Golden Boy.
When Jean Beliveau left their city some 17 years ago to play for the Canadiens, the Quebecois began to lose interest in Canada's national sport. Over the years the city's team, the Aces, averaged barely 1,000 customers a game at the arena they built for Beliveau. Then came Lafleur and later a new name for the team: the Quebec Remparts. Suddenly the box office at the 10,000-seat Coliseum began to hum again. "Everyone is coming to see Les Remparts," crowed one official of the team. "Ah, no," Roland Mercier, who once signed Beliveau for the Aces, corrected him. "They come to see Guy Lafleur."
Like most Canadian boys Lafleur grew up with his eye on a puck. His family lived in Thurso, a lumbering town about 25 miles from Ottawa. "My father is a welder, and he took me out to play hockey for the first time when I was 4 years old," says Guy. "I played in all the various leagues—Mosquito, Peewee, Bantam and Midget—and when I was 14 I received a letter from a Paul Dumont asking me if I'd come to Quebec City and play hockey in the junior program there."
Guy's father rebelled at the thought of his 14-year-old son living with a strange family in Quebec City and declined the offer. But when Dumont wrote again a year later the answer was yes.
As Guy soon discovered, junior hockey is a lonely life for a boy. Each year he was placed with a different family living near the Coliseum. "The first year was the worst," he says. "I was only 15, and most of my teammates were 18 and 19. I was too young to go out with them, and I didn't know too many other people in the city. It was pretty terrible at times."
"We look after everything for our boys," says Paul Dumont. "We give them pocket money, get them a room, see that they go to school and, of course, let them play hockey. It is a tough life, sure. But it also is a very rewarding life."
Now Lafleur has finished his schooling, something many junior players never do, and he has his own quarters close to the Coliseum. Guy probably earns somewhere between $12,500 and $20,000 for playing amateur hockey with the Remparts. He won't discuss the total, but of money in general he says, "I buy lots of clothes and I put the rest in the bank. For now that is the best place."
For Guy Lafleur a game day in Quebec City means that he will be Exhibit A once more, and he generally arrives at the Coliseum at 3:30 for an 8:15 contest. "I like to sit in the Coliseum by myself and think about the game," he says. "I play over in my mind what I think the game will be like, and I always see myself scoring between three and six goals." All afternoon the phone rings in the Remparts office. Suzanne Belanger, the petite secretary, writes down names and hands them to Jean Sawyer, the publicist, who later will give them to Maurice Filion, coach of the Remparts. "Scouts," Sawyer explains, using one of his few English words.
After his "psych session," as he calls it, Guy walks down to the Remparts' dressing room to check his skates and his sticks. Alongside his locker stall, taped to a wall, is a large color picture of Jean Beliveau in his Canadien uniform. "That man is my hero," Guy says. "I may never be able to play hockey like him but I'd like to be the man he is." Guy's fingers go down the blades of his skates. His hands are enormous.
"I used to milk cows and rake hay during the summers when I was young," he continues. "I've always had big hands because of that. In hockey big hands are very important." Some of the other Remparts drop into the room, and they start to kid Lafleur about something. "Go ahead, tell him," they say. Guy remains silent, so one of his teammates tells a story.
"One night Guy has four goals after the second period at Cornwall," the player says, "and a photographer asks him if he's going to score again. Guy says yes, and the photographer asks him how? So Guy says he will skate behind the net, come out in front and shoot from 20 feet—face-on at the camera—in the first minute of play. Darned if he doesn't, and he scored the goal, too."
Before one recent game Bernie Geoffrion, now a scout for the New York Rangers, brought Jeep George, another Ranger scout, into the Remparts' dressing room to see Lafleur. Then Boom Boom talked with Claude Dolbec, the coach of the Shawinigan Bruins, Lafleur's opposition that night. Both Geoffrion and Dolbec agreed that, among other things, Lafleur is too strong for the Junior "A", that he should be in the NHL now. Indeed, he has scored almost twice as many goals as any other player in the league.
There are three Junior "A" leagues in Canada—the Quebec League containing the Remparts, the Ontario Hockey Association and the Western League. Of the three the Ontario League is rated the strongest by far, with the Western League second and the Quebec League third. "Maybe I'm not getting the opposition I should have," Guy says, "but I don't think it's hurting me. I keep working on my whole game, not just scoring."
At precisely 8:15 p.m. the Remparts skated onto the ice to a musical chorus rivaled only by the sing-along atmosphere of the St. Louis Blues' arena. The people were standing four deep in many places, even though there were a few empty seats high in the end balconies. "They want to see Lafleur up close," a local broadcaster explained. It was not a good game, and the crowd was silent throughout the first period. Then, in the second period Lafleur, back-checking tenaciously, stole the puck at center ice and started to skate swiftly down the right wing. The whole Coliseum was electrified.
Ten feet inside the blue line Guy shifted toward the center, almost forcing the defensemen to collide. He dropped his left shoulder, then wiggled his head half a dozen times, faking both defensemen to their knees. Instead of shooting, though, he veered sharply to his right. "That kid," said an awed Lynn Patrick of the St. Louis Blues, "has more moves than a monkey on a mile of vine."
Seconds later Lafleur had a clear shot on the goaltender, who suddenly seemed uncertain. "Slap shot. Wrist shot. Backhander. He has all the shots and he always uses the right one," murmured Al Millar of the Buffalo Sabres. This time it was the wrist shot, safer than the slap shot under the conditions. Flash. The red light was on. Lafleur had scored again, and the people in the Coliseum started their sing-along: "Il est en or," they chanted. "Il est en or."
Lafleur scored another goal that night, and also got an assist. He played a very disciplined game—the type of game NHL coaches prefer—and rarely strayed away from his right wing. "Very professional," said Geoffrion.
But Lafleur, like all good players, also can play it rough if necessary. "When there's a fight," Geoffrion said later, "he does not look at the clock." "They call him chicken sometimes," added Coach Filion, "because he won't fight everyone who wants to fight him. But I want him on the ice, not in the penalty box. And when he does fight it's a one-punch knockout."
One thing Lafleur did against Shawinigan that escaped general attention but caught the eyes of the scouts was the manner in which he handled a Shawinigan defenseman, Ghislain Boisvert, after Boisvert had illegally manhandled him near the goal. When the action turned back up ice Lafleur retaliated swiftly. Boisvert suddenly was on the ice, and the referee, who missed the incident, had to call time out while the Shawinigan trainer attended to the defenseman. "Lafleur's already learned some of Gordie Howe's old tricks," said Roland Mercier.
Lafleur and the Remparts lost to Shawinigan 5-4 that night, only their third loss all year. Before their next game Lafleur and his coach flew to Montreal, where Guy received a plaque from the Club Medaille d'Or as the outstanding French-Canadian athlete of the month. Of course, someone asked him if he would like to play for the Canadiens? Guy only smiled.
Playing for Les Canadiens in The Forum at Montreal is supposed to be the dream of every French-Canadian youngster, but Guy Lafleur is not thoroughly convinced Montreal is the right place for him next year. "I want to get a lot of ice time," he said last week, "and I'm afraid Montreal will keep me on the bench or send me to the minor leagues. I see what Gilbert Perreault is doing for Buffalo [29 goals so far as a rookie] and I want to get a chance like him. You know, I would not hate Buffalo myself."
How about that, Canadiens?