There was a magnificent photo taken during a public visitation at the Bell Center after Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau passed away in 2014 at age 83.
The photo was of Guy Lafleur kneeling in front of Béliveau’s closed casket while paying his respects to the man he looked up to and idolized.
I was thinking about that photo on Sunday afternoon while watching the long line of fans at the Bell Center waiting for their turn to pay their respects to Lafleur, who died on April 22 at age 70 after battling lung cancer.
Like Béliveau, Lafleur was in a closed casket with a beautiful flower arrangement on top. The Bell Center looked more like a church than an arena with the way the Canadiens had set it up with red carpets and soft lighting.
Behind Lafleur’s casket was his No. 10 banner that normally hangs from the rafters of the building, along with two large posters of him, a CH flower arrangement and the trophies he won during his Hall of Fame career, including the Stanley Cup, the Hart Trophy, the Ted Lindsay Award, the Art Ross Trophy and the Conn Smythe Trophy. When the doors to the Bell Center opened at noon, members of Lafleur’s family were also on the stage to meet with visitors who had waited in line for hours.
While looking at Lafleur’s coffin, I was thinking what must have been going through his mind eight years ago when he paid his respects to Béliveau. I also felt a deep sense of sadness with the loss of the last of the four Canadiens legends who are immortalized with statues outside the Bell Centre.
Howie Morenz died in 1937, followed by Maurice (Rocket) Richard in 2000, Béliveau and now Lafleur.
While fans lined up outside waiting to get in the Bell Centre, others paid their respects in front of Lafleur’s statue.
“Guy Lafleur learned a lot from Jean Béliveau,” Yvon Lambert said after paying his respects to his former teammate inside the Bell Centre. “Jean was his idol of him and I think Guy had a lot of respect for Jean Béliveau and it continued all his life of him.”
Former Montreal Gazette sports columnist Michael Farber — who has a majestic way with words — had a great line last week on TSN 690 radio when he said: “Jean Béliveau was magisterial. Jean Béliveau was our father — and Guy Lafleur was our cool older brother.
“Lafleur wasn’t a quiet guy and if you look at his era, that was not a quiet time,” Farber added. “Lafleur was a product of the ’70s. There were loud colors, loud clothing — we’ve seen pictures of the sideburns — and this was it. Hockey itself was loud. There were goals upon goals, there were fights — that was a thing. Even the music was loud. We had disco — that was a thing. Our politics were loud. In November of ’76, the PQ was elected and there was a referendum shortly thereafter.”
Béliveau and Lafleur were different people from different eras, but fans loved them in a way no future Canadiens player will ever be loved. They were more than just hockey players — they were icons in their own ways.
“What we’re seeing today inside the Bell Center, it’s unbelievable,” Lambert said. “It’s certain that since it’s a death it hurts. But it still brings back good memories. Incredible memories and anecdotes.”
One of those memories was Game 7 of the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals against the Boston Bruins when Lafleur scored a power-play goal with 1:14 remaining in the third period before Lambert scored in OT for a 5-4 victory. The Canadiens would go on to win the Stanley Cup.
“In 1979, I lived stardom for 24 hours,” Lambert said. “I was in demand… I realized the life of Guy Lafleur for 24 hours. After, things went back to normal.”
Lambert remembered that unlike his teammates, Lafleur would never show up for practice wearing jeans because he would always be in demand afterward from the media and fans.
“The rest of us would go take our little beer — one beer at a time,” Lambert said with a laugh.
Times were different back then. As Farber noted, it was the 1970s.
“Guy lived 100 miles an hour,” former teammate Réjean Houle recalled. “One hundred miles an hour everywhere. One hundred miles an hour when he went to Quebec in his car. One hundred miles an hour on the rink. One hundred miles an hour on Crescent St.”
While Béliveau was Le Gros Bill, Lafleur was Le Démon Blond—on and off the ice.
A second day of visitation for Lafleur will be held Monday at the Bell Center from 10:30 am until 3 pm, followed by his funeral at 11 am Tuesday at the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral.
“The guys are going to be very close over the next couple of days,” Houle said about Lafleur’s former teammates. “A guy like Guy Lafleur not living with us anymore, it’s a big loss. We have an empty heart that bleeds.”
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