In the province of Quebec, the Montreal Canadiens are as much a symbol of French Canadian pride as the fleur-de-lis.So it is appropriate that Guy Lafleur has been their leading scorer for almost a decade. And after a subpar 1980-81 season he and the team are both looking sharp again this winter.
During the early '70s, Lafleur was touted as the No. 1 amateur player in Canada. Playing both center and right wing, he established himself as a prolific goal scorer, netting the puck over 300 times in four full seasons with the Quebec Ramparts. In 1970-71, his last season as an amateur, he notched 209 points in only 62 games, making him the most coveted prize in hockey, aside from the Stanley Cup.
That year, the Canadiens not only won their 16th Stanley Cup but thanks to their possession of the No. 1 draft choice via an earlier trade, they also got Lafleur. Montrealers regarded Guy as more than just a methodical goal scorer. The fans believed that the stylish skater would fit into the motif of such great former stars as Maurice Richard, Toe Blake and Jean Beliveau.
These players, many of whom were Trois-Rivieres products like Lafleur, had established the Canadiens as the winningest team in hockey. In their 70-year history ''Les Habitants,'' as Montrealers refer to their team, have won the Stanley Cup 21 times -- far more than any other team. Five of these championship banners have been raised during Lafleur's ten years with the team.
Yet for quite a while at the beginning it seemed as though the heralded ''flower'' had wilted. After playing for a short time at center, where Montreal was loaded with outstanding performers, he found a permanent niche at right wing , but was able to average only a meager 60 points per season in his first three years. Many speculated that the reserved Lafleur simply couldn't adjust to the pomp and circumstance that accompanied his arrival in the NHL.
However, in 1974-75, Lafleur silenced all of the doubt concerning his talents by exploding with 53 goals and a total of 119 points. For the next five seasons he scored over 50 goals and 100 points per season, making him the only player in history to do so in six consecutive seasons. During this period he also won the Art Ross scoring championship three times.
''Few players control a game like Lafleur,'' says former teammate Pierre Larouche. ''Most players are either scorers or checkers, but he does both well.''
The oppositon is forced to key its defense around Guy because of his versatility. He is capable of intiating a scoring threat from his own end with a crisp pass to an open man moving up ice -- or of taking matters into his own hands and changing the complexion of a close game with one end-to-end rush.
His speed, stick handling, and ability to anticipate a play before it actually develops make him extremely dangerous in the opposition's zone. These ingredients also make him a key on the Montreal power play. His quickness enables him to move the puck to a teammate while maneuvering for a better shot at the goal. His accurate slapshot has paid handsome dividends in this situation , as shown by the fact that 25 percent of his goals have been scored on the power play.
Lafleur has also established himself as a clutch player because so many of his goals have been game winners. Except for last year, when he was hindered by injuries, he has always excelled during the playoffs. In 93 playoff games he has scored 68 goals.
In the mid-to-late '70s Lafleur and Montreal reigned supreme in the NHL. The team won four Stanley Cups in a row, thus drawing comparisons to the Canadiens of the late '50s, featuring Maurice Richard and Boom Boom Geoffrion. That team won five cups in a row, prompting the ever humble Geoffrion to quip, ''We were so good that they had to rewrite the rule book.''
In 1976 and 1977, though, it was the Lafleur-led Habs who rewrote the record book by establishing new highs for total points in a season. They were the fat cats of the league who regularly devoured the competition. In a 1977 quarterfinal series, for example, they clobbered the St. Louis Blues 4-0, outscoring them 19 to 4. The Canadiens then rolled over the Boston Bruins to take the Cup.
After the latter series, a beleaguered Wayne Cashman said of Lafleur, ''The guy's the greatest there is, so what are we supposed to do about it?'' No one could do much, as is indicated by the fact that he won the MVP awards for both the series and the season.
In the past two years, however, Montreal has played respectably in the regular season but has gone nowhere in the playoffs. Some cited the retirement of goaltender Ken Dryden as the primary reason; others felt the team had become complacent. In any event, the Canadiens had seemingly gone from the status of ''Les Habitants'' to ''Les Miserables'' in two years.
Last season, after the club got off to its worst start in years, Lafleur blasted his teammates at a team meeting. The aftermath: the Canadiens won 14 games in a row and lost only four times the rest of the season. The event was significant because it indicated that Guy had acknowledged his role as a leader. ''I thought about speaking up for a month.'' he said, ''We had too much talent, but we didn't have any spark, so we ended up losing to teams we ordinarily could beat.''
Lafleur's remarks were not delivered in a sanctimonious vein. After all, last season he had nothing to be proud of either. Injuries kept him out of the lineup much of the time. He missed his 100-point premium, scoring only 71 points. Lafleur admitted, ''Even when I scored it didn't seem right last season.''
In last year's playoffs, nothing went right for Lafleur or the Canadiens. They bowed out to the 14th place Edmonton Oilers in a quick three games. From afar, it seemed as though Montreal's reign in the NHL was over. But what many didn't realize is that the team had been hounded by a rash of injuries. A team doesn't lose players like Lafleur, veteran defensemen Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson, and forwards like Larouche, Pierre Mondou, and Marc Tardiff without feeling it.
This season, however, the Canadiens seem to be back in good form. Bob Berry, the new, no-nonsense coach, keeps in his players in shape by working them hard in practice. The talented but troublesome Larouche, whom Lafleur spent so much of his time defending last year, has been traded. And an injury-free Lafleur is on target for his seventh 100-point season. He has already collected 20 goals and 40 assists for 60 points with the season just a little more than half completed.
Steve Shutt and Keith Acton have combined effectively with Lafleur, making them the line to watch. Like Guy, they have an uncanny ability to make innovative plays and, as skaters, this duo knows nothing about low speed zones.
However, what they and the Forum fans do know is that Lafleur and ''Les Habitants'' are playing inspired hockey once again.