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Montreal Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur, who captured five Stanley Cup titles and was a hockey hero in Quebec long before his NHL playing days, has died. He was 70.
The cause of death was not immediately known. However, Lafleur suffered through health issues in the latter stages of his life. In September 2019, he underwent quadruple bypass heart surgery, which was followed by lung surgery two months later.
Then, in October of 2020, he endured a recurrence of lung cancer.
"We are deeply saddened to learn of the death of Guy Lafleur. All members of the Canadiens organization are devastated by his passing," Canadiens President Geoff Molson said in a statement.
"Guy Lafleur had an exceptional career and always remained simple, accessible, and close to the Habs and hockey fans in Quebec, Canada and around the world. Throughout his career, he allowed us to experience great moments of collective pride. He was one of the greatest players in our organization while becoming an extraordinary ambassador for our sport."
For decades, Lafleur — nicknamed "The Flower" — scored seemingly with ease at all levels of hockey and grew into the role of one of the game's flashiest superstars. He often mesmerized fans with his signature long blond hair flowing behind him as he rushed up the ice before unleashing one of his patented booming slapshots.
By his 10th birthday, there were already signs that Lafleur was a generational talent, skating circles around kids three years his senior at an international peewee hockey tournament in Quebec City.
Lafleur played junior hockey for the Quebec Jr. Aces and Quebec Remparts. He amassed a staggering 465 points in two seasons and two playoffs with the Remparts, leading the team to the Memorial Cup title in 1971.
That year, Lafleur set the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League regular-season record of 130 goals, which was eclipsed by another French hockey prodigy, Mario Lemieux (133), in the 1983-84 campaign.
WATCH | Jamie Strashin looks at the legacy of Guy Lafleur:
Being drafted by Canadiens was fitting
Guy Damien Lafleur was born on Sept. 20, 1951, in Thurso, Que., a small city in the western part of the province, and grew up idolizing Canadiens great Jean Béliveau.
So it was fitting he made his debut for the Montreal Canadiens in the 1971-72 season, taking the torch from his hero only months after Béliveau wrapped his career by skating off the ice as a Stanley Cup champion for the 10th time in the spring of 1971.
Lafleur's arrival in Montreal, like his departure years later, was controversial. General manager Sam Pollock made a deal with the California Golden Seals to move up in the NHL draft to select Lafleur, passing on another highly touted French Canadian, Marcel Dionne.
Dionne outscored Lafleur in their rookie seasons, leading some fans to think Pollock had made a mistake in selecting Lafleur. But the critics backed off by 1973 as Lafleur hoisted his first Stanley Cup with the franchise.
All doubt was erased in the 1974-75 season when Lafleur broke out with his first of six consecutive seasons with at least 50 goals and 100 points.
WATCH | Lafleur's most famous goal explained:
He dominated the latter half of the decade, leading the Habs to four consecutive Stanley Cup titles from 1976 to 1979, and won the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player twice during that period. He also captured the 1977 Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP.
His scoring prowess was so dominating in the late '70s that legendary Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster Dick Irvin Jr. called him the greatest player in the world.
Lafleur transcended the sport despite his known habit of smoking cigarettes. Former coach Scotty Bowman said he would even smoke between periods.
"He'd smoke in the [hotel] room, but always in the bathroom," said former Quebec Nordiques teammate Joe Sakic. "I told him he didn't have to do that. I mean, I was in awe of him."
On March 24, 1981, Lafleur barely escaped a fatal crash after smashing his Cadillac into a highway fence while driving home. A signpost smashed through the windshield, missing his head by inches. Minor plastic surgery was needed to repair his right ear lobe.
Lafleur's relationship with Canadiens management started to sour in the 1980s. He was asked to rein in his free-wheeling style of play in favour of a more defensive style by Hall of Fame linemate and then coach Jacques Lemaire. After the team refused to meet his demand for a trade, he shocked the hockey world when, at only 33 years old, he abruptly announced his retirement weeks into the 1984 season.
For the next three years, Lafleur generally only played publicly in charity hockey events, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988.
That same year, New York Rangers general manager Phil Esposito convinced him to come out of retirement and return to the NHL. Lafleur played a season in New York, highlighted by a two-goal performance at the fabled Montreal Forum, resulting in a rare standing ovation for an opposing player. He then played two more years with his hometown Quebec Nordiques before calling it a career for a second and final time following the 1991 season.
WATCH | Lafleur returns to Montreal as a Ranger:
At the time, Lafleur was only the second player in league history, after Gordie Howe, to return to the NHL as a player after being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
In his post-playing career, Lafleur became an ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens and established the Guy Lafleur Award of Excellence, a prize given annually to the top student-athlete hockey player in the province of Quebec.
In the late 2000s, Lafleur was in the headlines for non-hockey reasons.
Lafleur testified in 2007 at a bail hearing for his son Mark and was the subject of an arrest warrant in 2008 for allegedly giving contradictory testimony. He was found guilty in 2009 before the conviction was overturned on appeal a year later.
Today his statue stands outside Montreal's Bell Centre arena alongside Canadiens all-time greats Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard and Béliveau. His No. 10 hangs in the rafters of the arena after being retired on Feb. 16, 1985. At the time it was the sixth number retired by the Canadiens franchise.
WATCH | Lafleur discusses his retirement plans:
Lafleur is still the Canadiens' record holder for points (1,246), assists (728) and game-winning goals (94).
He was named No. 11 on the list of the NHL's 100 all-time greatest players by the Hockey News in 1998. Lafleur was also named one of the 100 greatest players by the NHL as part of its centennial celebration in 2017.
Lafleur is survived by his two sons, Mark and Martin, and his wife, Lise.