Outside the Bell Centre, right around noon Sunday, the lineup to enter the building was about an hour long, with hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, waiting on a perfect spring day. People were smiling, laughing, not looking all that put out to be waiting in line that long. Instead, they were happy to do it.
Among those hundreds or thousands of people were many Canadiens jerseys with a No. 10 and LAFLEUR on the back. Some of them were frayed, the lettering yellowed with the passing of time. Others looked brand new. And so many of them were signed with that famous autograph, the one so prominently displayed inside the building, where Guy Lafleur lay in state after his passing from lung cancer on April 22.
It has been often said that no one in the history of Québec signed more autographs than Guy Lafleur.
By the time people actually reached Lafleur’s coffin, some had been waiting upwards of three hours in line to spend maybe one minute paying their respects. Seated to the right of the coffin was Lafleur’s wife, Lise, joined by their children Marc and Martin and other members of the family. For hours, Lise Lafleur sat there as people walked by and paid their respects. Some stopped to chat, and she chatted. Some simply gave a wave and shared a message of condolence. In response, Lise Lafleur would tap her heart twice. She did this over and over again, two taps on her she has never met heart offered as their people.
She did this for hours. Because her late husband did this his entire adult life, meeting people he had never met and hearing them tell him how much he meant to them.
“He would be in a restaurant, and his wife would have to move over at the table to make room for a father and his son to come talk to Guy for five or six minutes right in the middle of a meal. I saw it happen five or six times,” former NHL referee and Québec radio personality Ron Fournier said. “And he took the time to make sure the father would be proud, and the kid could one day say he had the privilege to meet Guy Lafleur. He’s a phenomenon on every level, but what I particularly appreciate is what he accomplished after his career, which is something no one else has ever matched.”
This was Guy Lafleur, a larger-than-life figure who touched more people than he probably even realized, people who traveled from far and wide to be at the Bell Center on Sunday and waited upwards of three hours to tell him one last time how much he meant to them.
When those people entered the building, they were met with two massive photos of Lafleur on either side of his coffin. The one on the left was of Lafleur celebrating the 1977 Stanley Cup by placing the only Conn Smythe Trophy he won in his career on top of the Cup. It is a photo of a winner. The one on the right is of Lafleur skating on the ice of the Forum, waving to the fans. It is a photo of a man of the people.
The two sides of Lafleur that made him so important not only to hockey fans, but to an entire population, perfectly captured.
“He brought everyone together, anglophones, francophones, everyone was behind Guy Lafleur, everyone was proud Guy Lafleur was a little guy from here who was the best player in the NHL,” Québec premier François Legault said. “It’s important. We’re going back a ways here, but we’re a conquered people, so sometimes we have trouble being winners. But with Guy Lafleur, we were winners. We were all proud, all united. So he did a lot, and I’m happy to see so many Québécois people coming here to thank him.”
There were little details throughout the arena that were poignant, further signs of how well the Canadiens do a ceremony.
One was that the Hockey Hall of Fame brought all the trophies Lafleur won in his career to the event. So the Ted Lindsay, Art Ross, Conn Smythe and Hart Trophies were all there. But so was the Stanley Cup, which Lafleur won five times, and it was placed directly behind the coffin, between two Canadiens flags made out of flowers, which was appropriate for The Flower.
Just next to the Stanley Cup was a little toy helicopter, a nod to Lafleur’s love of flying and having his helicopter license. He would take long helicopter flights to far off places in retirement. It was a passion of his, and the Canadiens made sure that was noted.
Another was perhaps a bit more subtle. The Bell Center seats were lit up in either red, white or blue lights, the Canadiens colours. Off to the sides, there were no lights in the seats. But in 2008, the Canadiens inaugurated their Ring of Honor that encircles the upper reaches of the arena, just behind the cheapest seats in the building, where each of the Canadiens’ 48 players and 11 builders who are inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame are honored.
It would have been difficult to notice from the arena floor, but the only source of light to the right of the tribute way up there in the cheap seats was a light shining on Lafleur’s spot on the Ring of Honor.
It was appropriate, because the people who normally fill those seats are the people Lafleur resonated with the most.
There is a significance to Guy Lafleur that is sometimes difficult to explain. It is different from other hockey greats.
Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan made sure to get Maple Leafs alumni Wendel Clark, Rick Vaive and Doug Gilmour on a plane to come to the Bell Center on Sunday to pay their respects. Each of them played against Lafleur later in his career, but that didn’t matter. It is what Lafleur represented that brought them there.
“It was an honor to put the logo on, just the history around here is amazing,” said Gilmour, who played two seasons for the Canadiens at the end of his career. “It’s beautiful. It’s kind of shocking and overwhelming when you walk in. Just look at the lineup here, there’s a lot of great memories and history of winning Stanley Cups here. To the family, God bless them, he’ll be missed. That’s why we came up, to pay our respects as well.”
Two of Lafleur’s former teammates, Réjean Houle and Yvon Lambert, spoke eloquently about who Lafleur was, and how what the Canadiens did for him represented that perfectly because of just how much of a public figure he was.
Lafleur loved being with his teammates, making sure they spent time together and picking up the tab whenever they did. But he couldn’t do that all the time.
“When you’re a superstar, you’re in demand everywhere. Everywhere,” Lambert said. “So Guy, after every practice — we never saw Flower come to practice in jeans. He was always business casual, because he was always busy after practice.”
While his teammates would go out to grab lunch and a beer, Lafleur would be heading off to some event where he was wanted. But he also knew how to have fun and live the superstar life.
“Guy Lafleur went 100 miles an hour,” Houle said. “It was 100 miles an hour when he drove to Quebec City, 100 miles an hour on the ice, and 100 miles an hour on Crescent St., 100 miles an hour every hour”
Lambert told a story of how Lafleur and former Formula 1 driver Gilles Villeneuve once made it from the Lafontaine Tunnel in Montreal to the Québec Bridge in Québec City in 58 minutes. That is 230 kilometres, or 140 miles.
So 100 miles an hour was an understatement.
This was the first of two days where Lafleur would lay in state at the Bell Centre, with people filing through the building, waiting hours and paying their respects.
At one point later in the day Sunday, there was a father walking to the Bell Center with his daughter and son. The father had a Canadiens jersey with RICHARD and No. 9 on the back, his daughter had a jersey with BELIVEAU and No. 4 on the back, and the youngest, the son, had LAFLEUR and No. 10 on the back. One family representing the lineage of Canadiens greatness that represented so much to a “conquered people” who needed to be shown how they could be winners, and how they were shown that by those three men in a nearly unbroken line from the 1940s to the 1980s .
“Today is a moment,” Fournier said. “A father who tells his little kids, ‘let’s go, we’re going to see Guy.’ Understand? And then you wait for an hour and a half, maybe two hours before getting to pass in front of Guy and say hello. And that father can say this is an important moment, kids, because that man is someone we will be talking about forever, and you can tell your kids about it.
“It is a gathering of the Québécois people. And when do we gather as Québécois, aside from protests because our union tells us to, but for serious things? When do we really gather for a venerable cause? And when will we ever do it again? Who will be the next one? I don’t know. So this is something extraordinary, a beautiful moment, a moment to celebrate.”
(Photo: Vitor Munhoz / NHLI via Getty Images)