“Guy was a perfect idol and icon for this province,” former Canadian Chris Nilan says. “He loved life and it’s so sad to see him go.”

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Chris Nilan grew up in Boston and hated the Canadiens. As a big Bruins fan, he often had his heart broken by Guy Lafleur.

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“I hated the Canadiens and I really didn’t care for Guy, but I also knew what a great player he was,” Nilan recalled Friday after it was announced Lafleur had died at 70 following a battle with lung cancer.

Nilan’s relationship with the Canadiens and Lafleur started to change after the team selected him in the 19th round (231st overall) of the 1978 NHL Draft.

The Bruins played the Canadiens in the 1979 Stanley Cup semifinals and Nilan and one of his buddies were able to watch both teams practice at Boston Garden on an off-day. Afterward, Nilan and his friend of him were headed home when they spotted Lafleur and teammates Jacques Lemaire and Gilles Lupien standing outside the arena waiting for a taxi.

“We probably looked like a couple of hoodlums in the car and we said: ‘Do you guys want a ride to the hotel?’” Nilan recalled. “They kind of looked at us like: ‘Are we going to get in with these guys with our Stanley Cup rings?’”

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The players decided to get in the car and on the drive to the hotel the buddy told them Nilan had been drafted by the Canadiens.

“I said: ‘I’m actually going to be up there playing with you guys next year,’” Nilan recalled.

When Nilan told them what round he was drafted in, the players started to laugh.

The Canadiens won that playoff series against Boston with Lafleur scoring a power-play goal with only 1:44 remaining in regulation time of Game 7 before Yvon Lambert got the winner in overtime at the Forum. It was one of the most famous goals of Lafleur’s career and the Canadiens would go on to win their fourth straight Stanley Cup.

At training camp the next season, Nilan found himself sitting in the same locker room as Lafleur.

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“He kept looking at me and then he finally said: ‘Hey, you! Tabernac, it’s you… the kid from Boston!’” Nilan recalled. “I said: ‘Yeah, I told you I’m going to be here.’”

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Nilan was sent down to the AHL’S Nova Scotia Voyageurs to start that season, but was called up by the Canadiens midway through the season. The Canadiens had a day off when Nilan arrived in Montreal and he was supposed to skate by himself at the Verdun Auditorium. Lafleur was recovering from an injury and decided to join Nilan on the ice.

“Just me and Guy,” Nilan recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. The year before, I’m hating on these guys for what they did to the Bruins and now I’m on the ice with him. He couldn’t have been more gracious. He was passing me pucks and giving me some pointers. Telling me how important the skating game was with Montreal. Then he took me to lunch afterwards.”

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They went to Thursday’s on Crescent St.

“Here’s a I am with Guy Lafleur and everyone’s all over him for autographs and staring at us,” Nilan recalled. “I just realized then how big hockey is here and how big he was.”

Growing up in Quebec, Guy Carbonneau always knew how big Lafleur was.

“I had a chance to kind of grow as a kid idolizing Guy Lafleur,” Carbonneau awning TSN 690 Radio’s Tony Marinaro Friday. “Watching him on TV, trying to be him on the ice, trying to be him in the street. And then a few years later, he was my teammate and I had a chance to spend a lot of time with him. … I was a lucky kid and a lucky guy when I got here with the Canadiens to not only see him at his best on TV, but knowing him from the inside.

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Nilan was Lafleur’s teammate for his final six seasons with the Canadiens and Carbonneau was with them for Lafleur’s final three. When Lafleur ended his three-year retirement and joined the New York Rangers for the 1988-89 season he became Nilan’s teammate again.

“It was nice to see him out of this element in Montreal,” Nilan said. “He just seemed so much more relaxed being in New York. Not that nobody knew who he was, but it certainly was nothing like his life here and it gave him a chance to kind of experience that and it was cool to watch.

Nilan and Lafleur remained close after they had both hung up their skates. Lafleur had a passion for flying helicopters and Nilan made trips with him to Boston, Quebec City and Lafleur’s home town of Thurso.

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“Sometimes the superstars are on another level,” Nilan said. “My first year with the Canadiens, I have treated myself like one of the guys on the team. He was good to me. I guess it shocked me because I didn’t know what to expect. I’ll never forget the times I got to spend with him. He was a great friend.

“He was one of those guys when he walked into a room it was like: ‘Who is that?’” Nilan added. “He could be in a room in Texas and, if you walked in, people would say: ‘Who the hell is that guy?’”

Chantal Machabée grew up idolizing Lafleur, which led her to a career in sports broadcasting with RDS, and now she’s the Canadiens’ vice-president of communications. Machabée calls Lafleur “the perfect, imperfect idol,” which is a great description.

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“I get what she’s saying,” Nilan said when told about Machabée’s comment. “When we talk about imperfections, character defects, shortcomings, everybody has them — it doesn’t matter who you are.

“Guy was a perfect idol and icon for this province in who he was,” Nilan added. “The passion, certainly his lust for life. He loved life and it’s so sad to see him go.”

RIP, Guy.

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