No one can see the wheels turning inside Guy Lafleur's balding, helmetless head. Only Lafleur, who just turned 37, knows exactly why he decided to give professional hockey another go after a couple of winters of playing glorified shinny with NHL old-timers. It could be that his acrimonious divorce from the Montreal Canadiens in November 1984, and his subsequent retirement from hockey, left such a bad taste in his mouth that, four years later, it still needs to be rinsed out. Or that Lafleur simply wants to satisfy a lingering competitive urge. Or that he needs the money. Or all of the above.
We do know that he didn't come back to cool his heels in an airport, waiting for a delayed charter flight, or to check into a hotel at 4:30 a.m.—which happened to Lafleur and his new teammates, the New York Rangers, after their 3-3 overtime tie in an exhibition game with the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night. The flight finally left Edmonton International Airport at 1 a.m. for Denver, where the Rangers would play the Pittsburgh Penguins that night.
The Flower reclined in his seat, unperturbed. There isn't much he hasn't seen or experienced. Over the course of nearly 14 seasons—including five Stanley Cup championship years—with the Canadiens, during which he scored 518 regular-season goals, Lafleur was thrice the NHL's scoring champion, twice its MVP and once its playoff MVP On Sept. 7 this year, three days before he reported for camp, the rightwinger was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
But early Saturday morning, somewhere over Alberta, Lafleur was savoring a more recent moment. By coming out of the just-completed Edmonton game in one piece, he had dismissed some of the last stubborn doubts about his comeback.
September 25, 1988
Not that Lafleur has approached—or will ever again approach—his performances of a decade ago. But he held his own Friday night, peppering Oiler goalies Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford with six shots—more than any other player on either team—and he gave a glimpse of his once-awesome playmaking, spinning out of a hit in the neutral zone to set up Brian Mullen for New York's second goal. Most important, he absorbed several hard checks by Oiler hitters like Jeff Beukeboom and kept on ticking.
"Amazing," said Oiler forward Mark Messier of Lafleur's six shots on goal. "After being out that long."
Indeed, Lafleur has been such a pleasant surprise that even if the Rangers release him at the end of training camp, he may be signed by another NHL club—either the Hartford Whalers or St. Louis Blues, according to Rangers general manager Phil Esposito. But with Lafleur taking a regular shift and logging lots of power-play minutes in preseason games, he seems to have made the club. Besides, the Flower doesn't want to play elsewhere. "I contacted other teams," Lafleur said. "They said, "We don't know.... We're not sure.... We don't want to disappoint you.' Tony Esposito [Phil's brother and the general manager of the Penguins] wanted to negotiate on the phone. I said, 'Forget that.' The Rangers have been straightforward with me. That's the way I like it."
Though the Flower had been impressive in intrasquad games for the Rangers at their Trois-Rivières, Que., training camp—where adoring Quebecois paid $10 to watch him scrimmage—Phil Esposito clung to reservations. "You can't tell much from the scrimmages because they [his teammates] aren't touching him," he said. But Espo seemed pleased after Friday's game. Anticipating Lafleur's play the next night against the Penguins, then again on Tuesday against the Oilers in Denver, he said, "That's three games in five nights. If he does that, no problem."
Oiler general manager-coach Glen Sather—who, along with at least two other NHL general managers, reportedly declined to offer Lafleur a tryout—does not doubt that Lafleur can still skate. "The big thing is," says Sather, "can he take the pounding? How will he be when he's played three games in four nights on the road?"
Indeed, in the Rangers' 5-2 loss to the Penguins on Saturday, Lafleur and his teammates, some of whom were suffering from a virus, struggled. Lafleur fore-checked with abandon, but tended to let his defense rest. He did, however, concede his shortcomings, saying, "That is why we have training camp."
During the summer, Esposito dealt high-scoring forward Walt Poddubny to Quebec for all-star defenseman Normand Rochefort. While they should have a splendid defense, the Rangers can also expect to be goal-starved. His fingers crossed, Rangers coach Michel Bergeron has Lafleur on a line with his former Canadiens teammate Doug Wickenheiser and Mullen, although some cynical Rangers fans have begun clamoring for a line of John Ogrodnick (29 years old), Lafleur and Marcel Dionne (37), so they could call it the O.L.D. line.
Old though Lafleur may be, he is not in the way. He reported in fighting trim, 175 pounds, six pounds lighter, he said, than his former playing weight. He had also cut back on his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit. For Lafleur, that was unprecedented asceticism.
Well, so far, so good. The word from the players is that Lafleur still has it. "He's really bringing it," says Rangers goalie Bob Froese of the Flower's shot. "And it's a heavy puck, with a lot of spin on it. It can hit your pad and go in anyway."
Another Rangers goalie, John Vanbiesbrouck, who is making a comeback of his own—from microsurgery last June to repair a lacerated ulnar nerve and three partially severed tendons in his left wrist—said of Lafleur, "The thing about his shot is the accuracy. He doesn't miss much. And his passing from the corners—forehand, backhand, it's always on the center's [stick] tape."
Lafleur is wearing number 44 for the Rangers, even though number 10—his sweater for 14 years in Montreal—became available Sept. 14 when the Rangers' Pierre Larouche announced his retirement. But Lafleur refused to pounce on Larouche's number. "This is a whole new career for me," Lafleur says. "I have a new number. And besides, I want to retire at 44."