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Last Friday morning, I was in Montreal at a sports sociology conference when a friend texted me the news: Guy Lafleur had died. His battle with lung cancer was widely known, but the news still came as a shock.
Sadness swept over me immediately. Being situated less than a block from the Bell Centre, I felt the heaviness in the air, in the comments online, and in the voice of my mother when I called her. "I know," she replied sadly. "I heard it on the news."
She asked if I was going to the Bell Centre to pay homage and I assured her I would. I also offered to stop by city's famous Notre-Dame Basilica and light a candle. She laughed in appreciation. But I knew that since it is the last stretch of Ramadan, some of her prayers would go out to his family, and his memory.
She put up a Facebook status to announce his death and received many wishes of condolence. My mother's adoration of Lafleur was not a surprise to anyone who knows her. A Montreal Canadiens fan for five decades, Lafleur (lovingly called 'The Flower') was her favourite player.
She arrived in Ottawa from Pakistan in 1972 after marrying my father and fell in love with hockey — specifically the Habs and their star, No. 10. She felt it brought a deeper understanding of Canadian culture; she studied the biographies of the players and learned about Canadian geography that way.
My mom was mesmerized when she watched Lafleur on the ice. She loved the way he played, his noble demeanour and measured conduct. And she loved it when he scored goals because she could scream loudly and raise her arms in triumph and delight. I thought of her all that day. My friends messaged me to tell me they were also thinking of her. Guy Lafleur had made a huge imprint in her life as a sports fan and included her in a culture that doesn't often look like her. But she says, "I got attached."
This past weekend, there have been stories written about how Lafleur drew in many people who didn't know hockey very well or were new to it — particularly newcomers to Canada. But is it the same now?
The hockey that my mom fell in love with featured incredible players like Lafleur, the late Jean Béliveau and most recently, goaltender Carey Price. This makes it easy to love a sport, when its finest players are excellent people, too.
Times are changing. Béliveau was a staunch supporter of the Montreal Children's Hospital and the Canadiens have a trophy named after him, awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies leadership in the community. Price not only advocates for Indigenous communities, but has shown extraordinary moments of kindness and compassion.
But times are changing, and are teams offering real opportunities for players to excel off the ice? Are they too focused on money than on the character of the players? While teams may have foundations that allow players to do charitable work, they are heavily shepherded by the teams' PR department. If players have their own interests, they must be cleared with the front office to ensure it doesn't conflict with any brand or isn't too critical. Is that truly allowing growth and encouragement of community engagement?
Lafleur's kindness and his generous spirit brought people in. And many of them stuck around because of it. There are not many players who had such an impact on fans and even opposing teams alike.
Lafleur was active in community initiatives and was well known throughout the league for always making time for his fans. His most recent campaign, in 2020, was to raise money for cancer research with the Foundation du CHUM. At the time, the Canadiens organization did not permit Lafleur to wear a Habs jersey for the promo, which baffled many fans. But Lafleur responded with poise and dignity:
"My engagement with the CHUM foundation is not based on my successes on the ice, even if I'm aware that those will help the campaign," he said in an Instagram post at the time. "This is Guy Lafleur, the man, who is getting involved. The one who was a patient at the CHUM hospital, who underwent quadruple-bypass surgery last year and who had a cancerous lobe cut out of his lung. The one who benefitted from unbelievable care from the doctors, nurses and other staff at the hospital."
WATCH | The trade that made Guy Lafleur a Montreal Canadien:
His dedication to charitable events and his kindness to strangers, to every fan, is something that resonates deeply in the way people are remembering him.
Jeff Gorton, executive vice-president of operations of the Canadiens said of Lafleur: "Guy wasn't only an electrifying player, he was first and foremost an outstanding human being."
I consider Lafleur to be a statesman of hockey, not simply an ambassador, one of his official roles post-retirement. He took the best of his own humanity and used it as currency as part of his work in hockey. Lafleur's actions got me to think about how players can give back, how others can be included, and why it matters. He offered kindness and a connection through hockey.
When my mom met him in 2016 at a game, he didn't flinch for a second or inquire about why a hijab-wearing woman in her late sixties would be interested in hockey. He was delightful and charming and received her warmly.
Because Lafleur never wondered about things like that, my mom didn't either. Assuming that everyone naturally belongs and deserves to be there leads to people feeling like they actually do. I am not sure if my mom will feel differently now.
She still cheers loudly for the team's rookie star, Cole Caufield — maybe not as wildly as she did for Lafleur, but she still does. As I visited the Bell Centre, I saw many people wearing Habs jerseys and leaving flowers and cards at the makeshift monument set up to honour Lafleur. Quebec Premier François Legault announced that Lafleur will have a national funeral after his family agreed to the government's offer. Only two players have received this honour: Maurice Richard (2000) and Jean Béliveau (2014).
I wonder if the Montreal Canadiens head office is ruminating about fostering more "excellent humans" or if the wins are the most important thing. After a lacklustre season and no playoff run, one year after an incredible journey to the Stanley Cup final, the Habs are now mourning a legend. But maybe the organization (and others in the NHL) can think about the wins off the ice. Anti-racism work, LGBTIQ advocacy, supporting gender equity programs or even local charities and community efforts all need constant work.
A great player's legacy is not about their stats on the ice or the mechanics of their play, it is about the way they made people feel. It is why there will be so many sad hockey fans for a long time. Even more so when we aren't sure that those footprints leaving a big hole in this hockey space will ever be filled.