The ceremony began with the Archbishop of Montreal, the Most Reverend Christian Lépine, addressing the packed Mary Queen of the World Cathedral and acknowledging the dignitaries in attendance. This is what happens at a national funeral. This is what happens when you are Guy Lafleur.
As he read out the long list – the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Québec Premier François Legault, federal ministers, provincial ministers, municipal politicians, on and on it went – it was impossible not to notice the surroundings. The opulent cathedral, all the silver and gold, a who’s who of the hockey world in attendance, including NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, deputy commissioner Bill Daly, nearly all the current Canadiens players, even Colorado Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic, who roomed with the veteran Lafleur very early in his career with the Québec Nordiques, and whose team was opening their playoffs later Tuesday evening.
Outside the cathedral, traffic was closed in the heart of downtown Montreal. Helicopters flew overhead to capture the scene. There were fans gathered behind barriers across the street, watching the proceedings on a big screen. All of this seemed appropriate for someone who left as big a footprint on the world as Guy Lafleur. But it also seemed somewhat inappropriate considering who Guy Lafleur was, as a man. He embraced his larger-than-life status without ever succumbing to it, without ever letting it change who he was at heart.
He was a hockey player, one who considered himself no bigger or no greater than anyone else, whether it was his teammates, or whether it was someone he came across on the street who asked for a photo or an autograph. Since Lafleur’s death on April 22, we have heard countless people, from former teammates to people who had one chance meeting with the legend, say how one of his best qualities was how humble he was.
So, how would this humble man, a man of the people, a man who felt uncomfortable with the comparisons to Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau that were made inevitable by his own greatness, how would he feel watching how grandiose his final tribute was?
“Probably embarrassed,” said Steve Shutt, Lafleur’s longtime linemate and a pallbearer at his funeral Tuesday. “He was a hockey player, that’s all he was. He never pretended to be anything else. He was honest, and that’s why people loved him. ”
Shutt wasn’t the only one of Lafleur’s former teammates who felt that way.
“I think he’d be kind of shy about it and just say ‘thank you very much,'” said former Canadian defender and current Tampa Bay Lightning broadcaster Brian Engblom. “Like, he knew who he was, but he was very easy to talk to for everybody. He always had a smile or would try to crack a joke with somebody he didn’t even know on the street who wanted a picture.
“So I think all this, he would be like ‘thank you, it’s great to see all the guys.’ He’d start talking about the guys. That’s what he’d want to talk about. Pete (Mahovlich) is here. Gilbert Perreault’s here. Lanny McDonald, (Darryl) Sittler. All our guys, of course. It’d be great to see them, sit down, have a beer, talk, relax. ”
This is the contradiction at the heart of Guy Lafleur, why a funeral like this was at once necessary and inappropriate. Because Lafleur was a simple man, but he was also honest and accessible to the public, and he was an incredible hockey player.
And that unique combination made him loved by so many.
Larry Robinson walked up the stairs to the cathedral when he agreed to answer a few questions about his old friend. He was asked if he had a favorite memory of Guy Lafleur and replied that it would be like asking someone who just drank a case of beer which beer was his favorite. Lafleur’s sense of humor was one of his calling cards, and Robinson wasn’t going to let the day go on without cracking a joke.
But eventually, the gravity, the reality of what was happening on this day hit Robinson quite suddenly.
“Both he and I, why we played so long is we loved to play the game, and it was a game. And we’ll ”
At that point Robinson paused, he had to gather himself, his emotions got the better of him. His voice was cracking as he attempted to finish his sentence.
“We’ll really miss him.”
Aside from Shutt, Lafleur’s other pallbearers were his two sons, Mark and Martin, and former teammates Mario Tremblay, Yvon Lambert, Pierre Bouchard and Guy Lapointe. As the coffin entered the cathedral, Lapointe was in tears.
Although Lafleur’s battle with lung cancer was long and the end seemed inevitable, it still came suddenly to those closest to him.
“Well, I guess I got another assist. We’ve been attached to the hip for so many years, we can just think what the other’s doing. So that’s why it’s pretty tough for me, ”Shutt said when asked how it felt to be a pallbearer for his close friend. “You know, I saw him three weeks ago, too, and he was on a real high. He was really, really sharp. I was with my son at the time and we walked out and said, ‘We know what’s happening, but it’s not going to be for a while.’ But that wasn’t to be. ”
One of the reasons Lafleur resonated so deeply with his teammates was because he was such a good teammate himself, always making sure everyone felt just as important as he was.
When Patrick Roy arrived for his first training camp with the Canadiens in 1984, he was immediately faced with the legend. Shy and intimidated, Roy was in awe of Lafleur. But Lafleur quickly made sure that feeling dissipated.
“He gave me a tap on the pads and said, ‘Hey kid, welcome to the Canadiens,'” Roy said in his eulogy. “Because that was Guy Lafleur. Heart, respect and a generosity that knew no limit. He was someone who took the time, because he knew that for you, those few words would make all the difference. ”
Guy Carbonneau had a similar experience at his first training camp when he was placed on a line with Shutt and his idol Lafleur.
“From what I remember,” he said in his eulogy, “I didn’t touch the puck once because I was afraid I would disappoint them.”
But Carbonneau later added that he, too, like Roy, quickly got to witness what made Lafleur so special.
“He did everything in his power to make sure I felt like I belonged there,” he said. “That was Guy Lafleur, a superstar, but also one of the boys… He was one of the most generous and accessible people I have ever met.”
And Lafleur’s way of treating others, of making sure everyone felt part of the team did not stop at the doors of the Canadiens’ dressing room at The Forum.
“Everybody knew that Guy was a special person,” said former Edmonton Oilers defender Kevin Lowe, who grew up in Lachute, Quebec, near Lafleur’s hometown of Thurso, Quebec. “He was a humble guy, he was a quiet guy. But I’ll never forget in ’81 when Wayne (Gretzky) came back from the Canada Cup. Wayne was a second-year pro and he was just astonished at how welcoming Guy was, how much fun he was, they just bonded as people.
“I really think that helped mold Wayne into the person that he became in terms of being a great leader.”
The grandeur of it all, Lafleur’s coffin draped in a Canadiens banner, the dignitaries, the television cameras swooping over the crowd in the cathedral, was witnessed by some important young Canadiens players. And this is relevant, because if there is one thing Lafleur always wanted, right down to his final days, was for the Canadiens to have success, and the presence of those players, them witnessing this, might one day lead to it.
People like Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki and Jordan Harris all had some idea of what it meant to play for the Canadiens because it is unavoidable when you walk through the Bell Center. As the players enter their dressing room, there are 24 replica Stanley Cups staring at them from inside a glass case. Once in the room, there are portraits of every Canadian player who is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on the wall above their lockers.
But this, an event like this for a man like this, drives the point home like nothing else could. Playing for the Canadiens is special, and if you inspire the fans to the extent Lafleur did – which is an almost unattainable bar – this is the reaction when you’re gone.
“There’s only a few regular-season games that will stand out in your memory when you look back at your career, and that’s certainly one of them,” Brendan Gallagher said of the game last Sunday when Lafleur was honored, two days after his death. . “It was such a powerful moment, the chants, the fans were able to show their appreciation and it was definitely really special.”
Gallagher was a young man when Jean Béliveau passed away in 2014, and he sat in that same cathedral and witnessed a very similar ceremony. It quickly made him realize what wearing that uniform means. But aside from Carey Price, none of Gallagher’s current teammates were with the Canadiens when that funeral was held. This was new for all of them.
When it was time to take communion, people in the cathedral stood up and walked to the front of the hall. Except there were four priests, each holding a large, golden goblet, who began walking up the aisle toward the doors.
They exited the hall, and then exited the church, walking across the street to offer communion to the fans watching outside.
And as Lafleur’s coffin was being wheeled out of the cathedral, everyone in the hall stood up and applauded. It was not the solemn, silent march you usually see at the end of a funeral. Then, once the coffin emerged outside, the fans behind those barriers began to applaud and cheer as well as the coffin was wheeled into a hearse, and Lafleur’s family and loved ones began emerging from the cathedral.
It was Lafleur doing what he always did, first being accessible to the public, giving them a chance to take part in the service by taking communion, and then drawing people out of their seats to applaud and cheer, one final time.
In the end, it couldn’t have been more appropriate.
(Photo: Vitor Munhoz / NHLI via Getty Images)