Lafleur still worth the money

Robin Short rshort@thetelegram.com
Published on May 30, 2016

Montreal Canadiens great Steve Shutt, right, signs Len Walsh’s jersey while fellow Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur looks on during a recent event in St. John’s.

©Submitted photo

For 17 National Hockey League seasons — including one five-year stretch when he was widely regarded as the best in the game — Guy Lafleur collected $3.7 million in salary.

Last season, Torrey Mitchell made $1 million for scoring 11 goals in 71 games for the Montreal Canadiens. Next year, and the season after that, Mitchell stands to pocket $1.3 million.
Nothing against Mitchell — more power to him — but he will have made as much in one contract as one of hockey’s all-time greats took home in a career.

Not that Lafleur is bitter, or in the poor house. He’s done very well for himself, working as a Canadiens ambassador, restaurateur and helicopter pilot, but you know, one can’t help but ponder the irony in it, and marvel at how the game has changed in every which way.

“Ten goals,” shrugs Lafleur, the Hall of Famer/Canadiens icon, before smiling, “will get you three (million dollars) today.”

There have been greater stars, and more prolific goalscorers, but during the mid- to late-1970s, there was no better hockey player on earth than Lafleur. Though he ranks 25th on the all-time goals list, it’s no stretch to suggest he ranks in the top 10 or dozen of the most feared snipers the game has known.

“When it mattered, he was always there with the big goal,” Howie Meeker, dipping back into his time on Hockey Night in Canada, told me years ago. “The Canadiens always entered a game with the one ace up their sleeve — we got Lafleur.”

And so it’s no surprise Lafleur — rarely shy to offer his opinion, which still rankles a few feathers (the last time we spoke, years ago, my story with him scolding the pitiful Canadiens made Page 1 of Le Journal de Montreal) — is as perplexed as he is fed up with the lack of scoring today.

In the past five seasons (excluding the 2012-13 lockout-shorted year), only four players — Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Daniel Sedin — have surpassed 100 points, and three — Alex Ovechkin, three times, Steven Stamkos and Corey Perry — have scored 50 or more goals.

Lafleur potted 50-plus goals and over 100 points six straight years.

“I’m surprised because there’s no hooking and grabbing today,” he said over lunch last week. “It’s a wide open game. The goalies are good, I understand that, but, geez …”

Lafleur, just 10 or a dozen pounds over his playing weight, tanned and looking younger than his 64 years, agrees there is little creativity in the game today, though he enjoys watching Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington and Dallas, four teams that are amongst the highest-scoring in the league.

He says there may be 10 creative players in the National Hockey League — 15 at the most — out of 600.

“… won’t dump the puck in for nothing,” he says, singling out Kane and Ovechkin for their puck possession. “It’s why they get their points.

“When (Jacques) Lemaire was coaching, he told me once, ‘When you get to the red line, if you don’t dump the puck in, you’re not going to play.’

“I said, ‘Well, I’m not gonna play.’ Because that was not my game, not my style. I wanted to hold on to the puck, get in the other team’s zone. If I couldn’t do that, I was going to try and make the right play. Not get rid of the puck.

“I was taught, even as a kid, that when you have the puck, make sure you don’t get rid of it. Make sure you make the right play.

“Today, they get to the red line and play the dump-and-chase game, a yo-yo game. It’s a joke.”

Lafleur, who was in town with his old linemate, Steve Shutt, for a dinner at the CLB Armory, knows the pickle the Canadiens are in today.

Montreal finished out of the playoffs, but weren’t so bad as to land a top-three or top-five draft pick.

Consequently, the Canadiens sort of languish in a hockey no-man’s land.

Strangely enough, the lineup that managed 82 points this season was roughly the same as the one which finished second in the NHL in 2014-2015.

Of course, there was no Carey Price for most of last year, and the Canadiens on many nights looked too much like the St. John’s IceCaps, thanks to a flood of injuries.

There’s no quick fix, Lafleur said, meaning general manager Marc Bergevin must come up with shrewd picks in the draft. Free agency probably isn’t the answer either as the really big fish, like Stamkos, probably aren’t interested in landing in Montreal where the team isn’t expected to win a Stanley Cup for a while.

“There is no hope,” Lafleur surmised, “for that type of player to come to Montreal.”

But the Canadiens do have the best goalie in the world, and Montreal has to believe Price is healthy next season. If not, another year such as 2015-2016 could send the franchise into a freefall, from which it might not recover for years to come.

“Without Carey Price last year,” Lafleur said, “it seemed like nobody knew where to go. It seemed like everybody was looking at each other wondering, ‘Who’s going to take over?’ Nobody really took over.

“(Brendan) Gallagher got hurt. (Max) Pacioretty had lots of pressure as a new captain. It was a tough situation.

“But the question I ask myself is, ‘Why would one player make such a big difference?’ I don’t know, maybe Pricey brings some stability, some confidence to his teammates.

“But with the turnover the Canadiens had last year, bringing guys up and down all season, there is no way you can have stability. Everybody is insecure, and while the young guys are doing their best, it’s very tough, especially in Montreal.

“It’s a great place when you’re winning,” he added with a wink, “but not so much if you’re losing.”

HE'S NOT A SHY GUY:

Former Montreal Canadiens’ great Guy Lafleur, the franchise’s all-time points leader and a four-time Stanley Cup winner, is anything but shy.

Lafleur is ready and willing to chat about everything and anything.

• On whether P.K. Subban, the supremely-talented but sometimes maligned Montreal defenceman whose outgoing personality is said to be wearing thin in the room, should be moved for scoring up front:

“Well, if you do, you had better make sure you make the right deal. He’s the only one who brings some life to the team. P.K. is P.K. You can’t change his style. He’s going to make mistakes, but so what? He brings things the team doesn’t have — spirit, upbeat play. And he’s the type of the player that when he takes the blame, he’s taking the blame. He’s a real pro.”

• On the best forward unit on which he’s ever skated:

In the 1981 Canada Cup, Lafleur played the right side on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Gilbert Perreault. Perreault, the Buffalo Sabres star, was moved to the left wing from centre to make room for Gretzky. It didn’t last long, however, as Perreault, who was leading the tournament in scoring, broke his ankle against the Swedes.

“That was the best,” Lafleur said. “It’s like we had played together for years.

“But through my NHL career, it was Steve (Shutt) and Lemaire. Lemaire was backing us up. We (Lafleur and Shutt) didn’t have to worry about getting back, you know?” he smiled.

The relationship between Lafleur and Lemaire soured when the latter took over as Canadiens’ coach, and wanted Lafleur to play a more defensive game.

On Canadiens’ coach Michel Therrien, who had more than his share of critics this season:

“A coach can only do the best with what he has. And he was in tough this year with all the injuries (incredibly, over 350 man games lost). I have hope for the organization and the players, but they’re going to have to pick it up because they can’t afford another year like last season. If they do, forget it.”

• On the knack for scoring goals:

“How many shots miss the net today? I don’t understand it. When I went to practice, before everybody was the ice, I’d shoot 300, 400, 500 pucks from different angles for an hour. In the game, I knew where the net was, where the corners were … I was ready.”

• On life after hockey:

A licensed helicopter pilot, Lafleur has ferried choppers to the United States for Bell Helicopters. He also had a restaurant before selling in 2012.

These days, he’s busy as a Canadiens’ ambassador, along with Yvan Cournoyer and Rejean Houle.  He gets to about 20 games per year, but doesn’t spend much time watching the hockey as he mingles with fans and corporate partners. “I’m very lucky,” he said. “I love what I’m doing.”

- The Telegram