After all, in Montreal when one puts on that red sweater, one is a Canadien.
On the late-night Air Canada flight to Montreal, the Canadiens are celebrating a victory over the Maple Leafs with a few smuggled cartons of Molson's ale. It is a raucous time, and there is more to feel good about than just another win. The fact is, this Montreal team has begun to approach the quality of some of its famous predecessors. Having long since clinched its divisional race, it currently leads the NHL with a 51-9-10 record. At week's end the Canadiens were 10 points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers and 15 ahead of the third-place Boston Bruins, skating toward the playoffs with that old Montreal spirit. Even though there is no Richard on the team for the first time in 32 years, and even though the Forum has a few empty seats now and then and crooner Roger Doucet sings the anthem, O Canada, in English as well as French, a Canadien is still a Canadien.
True, the Stanley Cup resides in Philadelphia, where Bobby Clarke & Co. would like to keep it for a third straight year. True, last season in the playoffs Montreal was knocked off its pedestal by Buffalo. Ah, but wait till this year. The Habs have a little something extra going for them.
There is Guy Lafleur, for instance. He sits amid the airborne hullabaloo over Lake Ontario holding his ale bottle as though he would like a glass in which to pour it—something more civilized, if you please, than the chug-a-lugging going on around him. In his perfectly tailored, vested blue suit, with a fashionably slender attaché case under the seat, the 24-year-old Lafleur looks like a Gallic stockbroker who has been mistakenly placed between 6'5" Pete Mahovlich and battle-scarred team captain Yvan Cournoyer. But make no mistake about it, Lafleur is a hockey player, an extremely gifted wing. Last season he set a team record of 53 goals, and so far this season he has scored 45 goals and 57 assists to lead the league, with Clarke in hot pursuit.
March 22, 1976
Lafleur is a reluctant superstar. Shunning the spotlight, the interview, the after-dinner speaking tours of a player of his rank, he prefers to spend most of his free time at home with his wife Lise and his infant son Martin. He is a collector of watches—and indeed he seems to know the value of time better than most. When he lived next door to Defenseman Pierre Bouchard he would often show up at 8 a.m., rousing his protesting teammate for an 11:30 practice. "Superfleur," as he is called in Montreal, is in the dressing room two hours before games, determinedly whacking hockey sticks against a table, and breaking several, until his nerves have calmed down and he finds sticks that won't crack. "If you aren't expecting it, that sound really makes you jump," says Goalie Ken Dryden.
The son of a welder in Thurso, Quebec, a sleepy pulp-mill town, Lafleur set records by the handful in junior hockey, ending his stint in Quebec City with 130 goals in 62 games. Montreal's No. 1 draft choice in 1971, loudly hailed as the next Richard, the next Beliveau, Lafleur responded with three lackluster seasons. Even though he was the highest-paid youngster in the NHL at the time, his father-in-law, Roger Barry, part owner of the Quebec Nordiques, the WHA franchise, kept trying to get him to jump to that team.
"When I first saw him, I thought he was an average hockey player," says Lafleur's linemate Steve Shutt. "Then two years ago in Chicago he gave us a taste of what was inside that shyness. He simply deked the entire Black Hawk team—skated through them like they weren't even on the ice. Henri Richard said, 'Did you see that? No one can do that.' After that we knew it was just a matter of getting that kind of play out of him all the time."
Lafleur's early difficulties were compounded by the fact that he could satisfy neither the sophisticated and critical Montreal fans and sportswriters nor himself. Today the French-language Montreal papers run a Guy Lafleur story every other day, reporting every headache, every smile, and committing to history every one of his few words. But in seasons past he maintained a self-imposed silence, a reticence rarely matched outside a wax museum. "It took Guy a long time to get this thing resolved," says Beliveau, the marvelous Canadien center of 1950-71 and a childhood idol of Lafleur's. "Now he has a 10-year contract and he has settled down."
When Lafleur takes the ice these days there is a sudden transformation, from shrinking violet to mousquetaire with cape and sword.
"Guy has all the talent in the world," says his coach, Scotty Bowman. "He skates like a genius, he's puck-hungry in the best sense and he'll go into the corners when he has to. But he's best in front of the net.
"I think the real secret of his success is his physical condition. It's amazing. We had the team tested two years back, and Lafleur was in better shape than anyone else. He practices just as hard as he plays."
Punch Imlach, the Buffalo general manager, says, "Guy has tremendous speed. He can go from one end of the rink to the other with the best in the league, and he's amazing around the net. He is the epitome of the Montreal style."
In a recent game against the Sabres in Montreal, Lafleur's special abilities became painfully obvious to Imlach and Buffalo Goaltender Gerry Desjardins. In the final 10 seconds of the second period, Cournoyer sped deep into the Sabres' zone and then was forced to throw a long back-pass. As the puck looped toward the blue line and out of play, Lafleur, astonishingly fast and agile, reached it, and while it would have been achievement enough to merely keep the puck in the zone, Lafleur managed to get off a tremendous slap shot that took the inside of the post, scoring a goal. The Forum fans exploded. "I never had a chance to move," said Desjardins later. "Anyway, it was one of those shots that I'm almost glad I didn't get a piece of. It would have hurt for a week."
So Guy Lafleur est l√†, as they say in Montreal; he's arrived, he's there. And maybe the Canadiens are, too, once again.
Somebody like Lafleur has always blossomed in Montreal to put the puck in the net. Keeping it out of the Canadien goal has been more difficult. But this year the defense is on the upswing. The steadiness of Don Awrey and a new emphasis on defensive play on the part of those offense-minded defenders, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard, has helped.
But perhaps the most important factor in the Canadiens' sterner defense is the big man in the net. Dryden didn't perform up to his best last season after returning from a year off to play legal eagle and prepare for the Canadian bar exams. At the moment he has a 2.00 goals-against average, which is second in the NHL only to the Islanders' Glenn Resch. For most of the season Dryden has been in the top spot.
As the Canadiens rush toward what might turn out to be a date with Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup finals, Dryden is preparing his brief on the Broad Street Bullies. "Philadelphia has been able to intimidate us without intimidating us," he says. "We'd seem to be playing our game against them, but really we were not.
"This year I think Philadelphia is going to have to learn how to lose. It will be a very difficult lesson for them, and I hope it doesn't destroy their spirit."
Yep, uh-huh. That isn't quite the way things have been going so far. The Flyers have won two, lost one and tied one of their games with Montreal, and last week were on a 20-game undefeated streak. Let's just say Montreal has a reinvigorated spirit of its own, and any postseason showdown with the Flyers would be worth going quite a distance to see.
Showing in Montreal these days is a children's adventure film called The Mystery of the $1,000,000 Hockey Puck, in which jewel thieves plot to smuggle diamonds into the U.S. in a Canadien puck. Two kids overhear the plan and, in footage using real Montreal players and team broadcaster Danny Gallivan, foil the scheme. As a reward the youngsters are taken to the Montreal dressing room, and each is given one of those sacred red sweaters.
In such moments one can't help thinking there is more to the Canadiens' comeback toward hockey supremacy than Lafleur's shooting eye or Dryden's saves. Can the Canadiens foil the wicked Flyers of Philadelphia this spring? Only le ton Dieu knows for sure, and He is leaking nothing to the papers, in French or English