Two great players with joined destinies

Mario Lemieux has always admired Guy Lafleur immensely. And the two could have been reunited with the Penguins in the 1980s.

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Simon Olivier Lorange

Simon Olivier Lorange
The press

“He wants Lafleur as a gift: Lemieux puts pressure on him. »

The cuff is not lacking in panache. On the front page of the sports tabloid The press, 1ah October 1985, the news stimulates the imagination: in Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux is doing everything he can to convince his general manager to take over from Guy Lafleur, who announced his early retirement last season.

We learn on the same pages that Penguins GM Eddie Johnston has already met with Serge Savard to discuss a transaction – the rights to Lafleur still belonged to the Canadian. A priori, the strained relations between Lafleur and coach Bob Berry, formerly of Habs, could pose an obstacle. “Berry would be willing to make concessions, however,” assures young Lemieux, who is about to turn 20.

History has taught us that this exchange never happened…much to Lemieux’s dismay.

However, it was neither the first nor the last time the fates of these two players were linked.

Lafleur, 14 years his compatriot’s senior, enjoyed the best seasons of his NHL career as Lemieux dominated small-time hockey in his neighborhood.

The magnificent had eyes only for Lafleur growing up in Ville-Émard on the south-west of the island of Montreal, not far from the Forum. “He was the best in the world,” he summed up years later*.

On March 4, 1981, Lafleur collected the 1000thand point in his career. In the very front row of the forum, a tall teenager in Sunday dress applauds, mesmerized by his idol waving at the crowd. A future legend salutes a legend at the top of his game.

The moment is immortalized by a photographer from The Canadian Press. “This is a photo I will cherish for the rest of my life,” Lemieux told us in an email.

Our colleague Guillaume Lefrançois also traced the story behind this shot in 2019.

In his second season with the Voisins de Laval, in the QMJHL, it’s Guy Lafleur’s supposedly unbeatable record that Lemieux is attacking: that of 130 goals in one season.

About his record to be broken by Lemieux, Lafleur says the Canadians need a man like him to replace him. “A player of his caliber should spend his entire career in Montreal. I wish him the best of luck,” he adds.


PHOTO BY TWITTER ACCOUNT @LAVALHOCKEY

Mario Lemieux scored 133 goals in 1983-84.

Lafleur’s wish was not granted, nonetheless Lemieux scored six goals against struggling Longueuil Knights on 14 March 1984 to set the record alone. He went on to win the President’s Cup with the Voisins, and it was Lafleur himself who presented him with the trophy – bearing his name – that recognizes the most useful player of the playoffs.

However, the 1966er had no idea that his dream of playing in the same line as his idol would come true just under a year and a half later.

Delay

Finally, in 1985, nothing happens.

However, it was only a postponement.

On August 17, 1988 on the cover of The press, the caption “Maybe in Pittsburgh” crowns a photograph of Lafleur. In the sports book, we learn that the Detroit Red Wings and Los Angeles Kings, who just took over Wayne Gretzky last week, pulled out of the race to attract the blonde demon.

The penguins would still be in the game, and Lemieux isn’t giving up hope.

Guy would be better off with me in Pittsburgh… and the Penguins are definitely interested. We need a veteran of his caliber to spur us on, to inspire the young people. He has already won Stanley Cups. He has always been an athlete hungry for victory.

Mario Lemieux in front of journalists waiting for him at the exit of a golf club in Dorval in 1988

Two days later, Lafleur signed a one-year contract with the New York Rangers, dependent on his performance at their training camp.

In The press from 1ah October, Lemieux does not hide his sadness. He told journalist Tom Lapointe that he “took the necessary steps” to invite Number 10 to the penguin camp. “The Rangers were quicker than the rest of us. It disappoints me. »

Open as his childhood hero, he recalls calling his CEO, Tony Esposito, as soon as he found out from Lafleur’s adviser, Yves Tremblay, that the former Canadian was preparing to return.

“Tony told me he would take care of the file, except he wasn’t trying too hard,” Lemieux laments. “Really, it disappoints me,” he repeats again.

retreat and return

The 1990s passed. Lafleur completed his final round with the Rangers and then the Quebec Nordiques, and Lemieux, in a state of grace, won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins. Despite remaining dominant despite injuries and illness, he announced his retirement in 1997 at the age of 31.

When he became the owner of the team, he shook the hockey world in late 2000 by announcing that he too would be getting back on the skates.

In a book written after his return, his biographers Chrystian Goyens and Frank Orr recall that Lafleur and his “missed retirement” influenced Lemieux’s decision.

Both retired for reasons unrelated to their ability to play, they recall. Lafleur felt handcuffed to the defensive style imposed by his coach and ex-teammate Jacques Lemaire. And Lemieux said he was disgusted to find the NHL and its commissioner Gary Bettman failed to act to stop the clash. “Both players had questions to clear and will only return after making peace,” the authors write.

With the adults

Unrelated, Lafleur and Lemieux, who are considered two of Quebec’s greatest ice hockey players — two of the greatest, in fact — have always held each other in respect and admiration.

And it was they who topped the list of the top 10 players in QMJHL history in April 2019. “Oh! It’s safe Guy!” Lemieux exclaimed just before the first position reveal.


PHOTO FROM NHL WEBSITE

Guy Lafleur and Mario Lemieux in April 2019

His prediction came true. The student readily conceded victory to the master, who had remained his role model despite the years gone by.

Mario Lemieux did not want to give us an interview for this report.

In a brief written statement sent to us by Pittsburgh Penguins management, he said it was one of the greatest honors to play against and meet Guy Lafleur [sa] Life “.

“He was one of the greatest players in NHL history and has always remained a great ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens and for Quebec hockey. »

“My family and I send our thoughts to Guy and his family,” he concluded.

*Excerpt from Mario Lemieux, the grandiose, Trécarré, 2001, by Chrystian Goyens and Frank Orr

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