Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur - Two Legends of the Montreal Canadiens
I was born in Montreal,Quebec. Growing up in Quebec, you experience all four of the seasons in all their wonderful, unpredictable ways. Winter (quite synonymous with Quebec) seems like the longest of all seasons. Winter in Canada can start in October and end well into April. As a result, kids need something to do to fill those months with healthy activity. Learning to ice skate, for most, is automatic...right after taking your first steps. I learned to skate at four years old and in my neighbourhood, it was like that for most of the kids. As we became older (one year later), most of the boys started to play hockey in the Mites league. Soon we were old enough to understand how to play the game...and, thanks to our Dads, WATCH the game and the Canadiens on Hockey Night In Canada!
As a child, my first memories of the Canadiens and watching games on T.V. was the blonde haired (in the 70's and 80's you new the colour of hockey players hair- helmets were optional), graceful and smooth skating Hab (nickname for the Canadiens, "Les Habitants", meaning French settlers), Guy Lafleur. To me, he was the MICKEY MANTLE of hockey. Larger than life, exciting and French Canadian, Guy Lafleur was the pride of Quebec in a province that needed a hero of their own in a time of political and social turmoil in Canada and Quebec. Guy Lafleur, hockey player, gave Montreal and Quebec a sense of pride. If you were French or English speaking in Montreal, you had something in common; you loved Guy Lafleur and the Montreal Canadiens. It brought a lot of us together, regardless of differences. Guy Laleur finished his career with his Montreal Canadien career with 1246 points and 518 goals including six 50 goal seasons between 1974-1980.
Unfortunately,Lafleur "retired" from the Canadiens at age 33 after his production tailed off in the '80's and it was assumed he was too old to play and retired a young man after much criticism and high expectations from Canadiens management and fans. "The Flower" would come out of retirement in 1988 and retire for good in 1991. By then,his skills had diminished (along with his hair) but fans were still witness to his past greatness, but just periodically.In my mind,what sends Lafleur into mythical status is not what he accomplished, but what could have been achieved. Lafleur partied and drank as hard as he played, smoked (by some accounts, two packs of cigarettes a day) and was involved in a well known drunken car accident that nearly took his life. While I don't admire an athlete, blessed with gifts that you and I could only dream of having, not taking care of himself, there's a certain amazement and wonder in what could have been achieved if this gifted athlete had taken care of himself off the ice.
When you're young, you think history started in your era. As we get older, we learn that there were past events and people that existed before us. In my small world, at an age to realize and be aware that there were those who made their mark before us, I discovered that "The Rocket", Maurice Richard played for the Canadiens from 1942 to 1960. He finished his NHL career with 965 points and 544 goals. Richard was the first player to score 50 goals AND do so in 50 games. In an era when 20 goals was a HUGE total of goals, "The Rocket" was a pioneer in goal scoring just as Babe Ruth was to home runs in baseball. When parents would speak of his accomplishments and achievements and how he was larger than life in the hockey world and in Quebec...I said "ya, right, bigger than "The Flower" and all his popularity, "Bigger, much bigger than Lafleur, he was the original superstar. The BABE RUTH of hockey". What!? Yes...adored by Quebecers and Canadiens fans alike, Richard played hockey in an era that bridged the radio and television era.
For the first time, hockey fans were able to see their heroes on T.V. and not have to shell out money for a ticket at the Montreal Forum. This exposure on television, combined with the Canadiens Stanley Cup success and "The Rocket" being the heart and soul of the team, turned players, until then, only heard on radio or read about in newspapers, into someone a fan could identify with. Maurice Richard, with his explosive speed, his grit, his toughness and his heart, became a role model and a symbol of hope to many Quebecers. Richard, during his NHL career, was a victim of much prejudice and stereotyping. French Canadians were seen a "second citizens" in this era of the Anglophone run NHL and Richard fought for equal rights and earned respect with his class, on and off the ice, in a time when French Canadians earned less money and were subject to unspeakable name calling from opposing players and fans alike. Richard, his hockey accomplishment notwithstanding, broke down the barriers between French and English, East and West Canada and the NHL "elite" that were ignorant to diversity and unaware that cultural and language variety is something to celebrate and not repress.
When the Montreal Forum closed in 1996 and the Canadiens moved to the present Bell Centre, during the opening ceremonies when the Habs legends were brought out to christen the new home, it was Richard that received the longest ovation, 16 minutes. The unflappable legend with eyes of coal cried. Fans cried. I think most who watched on television cried. Of all the memories that Richard left people with from the '40's to the day he retired in 1960, that ovation in 1996, 36 years after his playing days, allowed people to feel and show Richard what we felt all along...We never forgot you..We never stopped loving you...You gave us hope...We'll never forget!