The flower of ice hockey takes his last turn

GUY Lafleur hung up his skates last week, and the sportswriters promptly dragged forth his stats. They pointed out that since 1980 Lafleur's goal production had dropped to half of the 50-goal standard he set during his prime years as a Montreal Canadien, from 1974 to 1980.

Thus his retirement became a kind of declaration of bankruptcy, filed when the returns on a once-spectacular investment fell off unforgivably.

As sports have turned into more and more of a business, have sportswriters come to think more and more like economists? To view Lafleur's retirement solely in these bookkeeping terms is to misunderstand the man and his game. At 33 - to introduce another statistic - a superb athlete of sound body does not quit because he has become an incompetent. Time passed Lafleur by in other, subtler ways.

Guy Lafleur did not even look like a 1984 hockey player. He belonged to a vanishing generation of veterans who refused to wear helmets. With his soft, wavy hair, large eyes, and dreamy poet's face, he stood out from the crowd, on the ice or off. Though deceptively strong, he appeared less burly than the players around him, like a figure skater who had blundered in among the heavy hitters.

But there was a special intentness to Lafleur. Even when he coasted on the ice for a routine face-off, he brought drama, urgency. The eye followed him, as the eye follows an actor on stage who has the gift of presence. The tempo of excitement lifted just because he was there.

When the puck was dropped, Lafleur moved for it with a bright-eyed hunger. He is one of those players so drawn to the puck that the puck seems drawn to them.

When he did gain possession, few players, alone or in tandem, could take the puck from Lafleur. And when he crossed the blue line into the attacking zone, a whole team could mass between Lafleur and the goal. With head feints, with sudden shifts of direction and dazzling changes of speed, somehow he would penetrate the impenetrable. Somehow the puck would find itself in the net, as if destined.

Lafleur was a great scorer - in a class with Maurice Richard, Montreal's other legend. But he was always more than a point-accumulator - more than the sum of his stats.

There are hockey players - Mike Bossy is one - who are all efficiency. Their technique is as spare as a modern metal sculpture. No superfluous moves mar their pure functionalism - nothing so human as hesitation. If they are elegant, they are elegant in the sense of a mathematical equation.

Lafleur was by no means a Fancy Dan. But he played a game within the game, according to his own private scoring system. Everything Lafleur did on the ice said: The aesthetics count. Hockey is also a matter of grace, of style. A player must look good.

Lafleur not only skated fast, he skated beautifully. He passed with finesse. Even the brute force of his slapshot had a flourish to its backswing.

If Lafleur were a poet, he would be a romantic poet. Even his name fits him: The Flower.

Bossy suits New York. New Yorkers admire him. Lafleur suited Montreal. The French fans of the Forum do not admire their heroes - they love them. And they loved Guy Lafleur.

In his retirement speech Lafleur suggested that it was not his legs that had given out but his desire, his heart. He ended his career as he would end a great love - with tears.

The game of hockey has changed since Lafleur began. The marvelous soloists are gone - the men who wound up behind their net and made the rink-length rush a work of art. The Europeans, and particularly the Russians, have taught the value of system-hockey. A well-conditioned team with a game plan can beat any all-star assortment of individualists, no matter what their gifts. This is the current wisdom.

The game, as a game, has improved. Few doubt it. But with Lafleur, the grand gesture has gone, and that can bring a tear to our eyes as well as his.

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