The hockey world stopped to pay tribute to Guy Lafleur over the last two weeks. In some NHL arenas, it was a tribute on the jumbotron. In others, it meant more. In Ottawa, for example, the Senators hosted the Montreal Canadiens the day after the hockey legend’s passing. There was a moment of silence and a tribute, and there was not a dry eye in the house.
As I stood there, silently, in Canadian Tire Centre, I thought about what I would write about. Every hockey pundit will pay homage to “The Flower” in some way. For the record, I never called him that. He was widely referred to as “Le Démon Blond” long before he made the NHL. I saw him more as a possessed demon racing down the ice than a delicate flower. And in our road hockey games when I was a kid – it was road hockey and not street hockey out in the country because we didn’t really have streets – we had a ritual before each game after school of calling who we were. I always called that I was “Le Démon Blond”. If Lafleur was taken, I was Yvan Cournoyer. If he, too was taken, I went home to watch Adam West as Batman.
Lafleur grew up in the small town of Thurso, Quebec, a small town on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River on the outskirts of Ottawa. He was as beloved in Ottawa as he was in Montreal, as Ottawa did not have an NHL team at that time. My generation grew up watching and loving Lafleur, and making two-hour Saturday night treks to the Montreal Forum to see him play several times a year.
But rather than something predictable, like ‘here are the 10 most valuable Lafleur cards’, I wanted to dig a little bit deeper. The 1971-72 O-Pee-Chee hockey card set was one of the favorites of my childhood. I was a seven-year-old Grade 4 student – don’t ask – at little Churchill Public School built on farmland that backed onto our house near Prescott, Ontario. There were three classrooms and 58 kids. Some of the Grade 5 kids smoked, and the odd one would even drive a car to school if they missed the bus.
If you have ever seen Letterkenny, well, how’re ya now? It will take you about two episodes to dial into my hometown and childhood.
What I remember the most about that school year was collecting. Every single kid in the school brought a plastic bag of hockey cards, or a stack bound tightly by an elastic band, to school. Everyone. At recess, we gathered in small groups. Got’ em, got’ em, need’ em, got’ em. I remember the moment I got the Ken Dryden rookie card in Series 1, and everyone was waiting for the Lafleur card in series 2. Mine’s pretty beaten up, but it’s special to me, even if O-Pee-Chee botched his name (La Fleur instead of Lafleur) on his rookie card to make it officially an uncorrected error card.
Trader Sam Locks Up Lafleur
The greatest story about Lafleur was how he ended up with the Canadiens. It was a chain reaction of events, and it had a major impact on the 1971-72 hockey set.
It begins with Montreal Canadiens GM Sam Pollock, who preyed on the NHL’s west coast expansion teams, the Los Angeles Kings and the California Golden Seals with a handful of one-sided deals.
The first such trade was made in May, 1970. Pollock traded Ernie Hicke and Montreal’s 1970 first round pick to the Seals for Francois Lacombe, cash, and the Seals’ first round pick in the 1971 draft. Pollock was already aware that Lafleur, who was emerging with the Quebec Remparts as the best junior hockey player in the history of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, was on his way to becoming a generational superstar. Hickey appears posed as a Calfornia Golden Seal in the first series of the 1971-72 OPC set, though it is interesting that the logo in the corner of the card is the old Oakland Seals logo.
The following year, things were getting close in the standings as the Kings and Golden Seals see-sawed back and forth at the bottom of the standings. Pollock pulled off one of the most franchise-changing trades in NHL history.
The Insurance Policy
Ralph Backstrom, an aging star, wanted to play in a warmer climate. Pollock, needing to make the Kings better, sent Backstrom to the Kings for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin. Pollock knew neither of those players would ever suit up for the Habs, and they didn’t. But Backstrom put together a strong second half of the season in Los Angeles and led the Kings out of their last-place battle with the Golden Seals. That trade cemented Montreal’s first overall pick in the 1971 draft.
Backstrom appears in the 1971-72 set as a member of the Kings, but wearing a Montreal uniform. The shirt has a fold and an airbrushed shadow – they didn’t have photoshop way back then – to cover up the Montreal logo.
At around the same time, Pollock pulled the trigger on another big trade that led to other unique cards in the set. He had been wanting to land Frank Mahovlich for a long time. With Lafleur coming on board, who better than a veteran, Hall of Fame-bound winger to mentor his young star. Mahovlich was dealt to the Canadiens while Mickey Redmond, Bill Collins and Guy Charron went back to Detroit. Mahovlich was thrilled to come to Montreal, compete for the Cup, and play with his younger brother Pete. When Mahovlich arrived in Montreal, they did not have a number 27 ready for him, so he wore the vacated number 10 that Ted Harris had worn. Mahovlich was the last Montreal player to wear 10 before Guy Lafleur.
Mahovlich’s 1971-72 card features him in a Red Wings jersey with the logo removed. Redmond, meanwhile, is wearing a Montreal jersey on his card but is identified as a Red Wing. Mahovlich helped the Canadiens win the 1970-71 Stanley Cup, and he and Lafleur were teammates on the 1972-73 Cup-winning team.
Guy Lafleur was not the only Hall of Famer taken by Montreal in the 1971 NHL Draft. The Canadiens had traded Dick Duff to the Kings for the second round pick that turned out to be another rural Ottawa-area star, defenseman Larry Robinson. Duff was then traded with Eddie Shack to Buffalo for Mike McMahon Jr., and a pair of low-round draft picks. Duff appears in the 1971-72 in a Sabres jersey, though on the back of his card it states that he retired early in that season. Shack is identified as a Sabre but is wearing a Kings’ uniform.
Pollack was not done working with the Kings and the Seals.
If Only They Had Photoshop
To make room in the line-up for Lafleur, Pollock sold forward Bobby Sheehan to the Golden Seals. If you look closely at Sheehan’s card number 177, you will see that Sheehan’s head shot is pasted onto the body of Gary Croteau, who was card #17 in the first series.
And Sheehan is not the only former Montreal Canadiens player with his head pasted on another body in this set.
Goalie Rogie Vachon was a star in Montreal, but after Ken Dryden more or less Wally Pipped him in the 1970-71 Stanley Cup playoffs, Vachon wanted to be traded. The Canadiens sent Vachon to the Kings for four players – Noel Price, Dennis DeJordy, Dale Hoganson and Doug Robinson.
If the Bobby Sheehan card looked bad, the Vachon card looked awful. Card #156 of Vachon has his head pasted onto the hairy body of Ross Lonsberry, who is card #121 in the first series.
Vachon went on to be a star.
Had fate not worked out in Montreal’s favor and their pick would have been second, they would have had to settle for Marcel Dionne instead of Lafleur. Although Dionne did not win any Stanley Cups, the two players became the most dominant players in the years between Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky.
We can only ask ourselves how big of a star Dionne would have been in Montreal, and whose head would be pasted on whose body in the 1971-72 OPC hockey set.