Outside the Bell Center around noon Sunday, the line to enter the building lasted about an hour, with hundreds, if not thousands of people, waiting on a perfect spring day. People were smiling, laughing, didn’t look so sad to stand in line for so long. Instead, they were happy to do so.
Among those hundreds or thousands of people were many Canadiens jerseys with a number 10 and LAFLEUR on the back. Some of them were frayed, the lettering yellowed over time. Others looked brand new. And so many of them were signed with that famous autograph, the one that was so prominently displayed inside the building, where Guy Lafleur lay in state after his death from lung cancer on April 22.
It has often been said that no one in the history of Quebec has signed more autographs than Guy Lafleur.
By the time people reached Lafleur’s casket, some had been waiting for more than three hours to spend perhaps a minute paying their respects. Seated to the right of the coffin was Lafleur’s wife, Lise, accompanied by their children Marc and Martin and other family members. For hours, Lise Lafleur sat as people passed by and paid their respects. Some stopped to chat, and she chatted. Some simply waved and shared a message of condolence. In response, Lise Lafleur double tapped her heart. She did it again and again, two taps on her heart as people she had never met offered their condolences.
She did this for hours. Because her late husband did this all his adult life, meeting people he had never met and hearing them tell her how much he meant to them.
“He would be in a restaurant, and his wife would have to move to the table to make room for a father and son to come talk to Guy for five or six minutes in the middle of a meal. I’ve seen it five or six times,” said former NHL referee and Quebec radio personality Ron Fournier. “And he took the time to make sure the father would be proud, and that the kid could one day say he had the privilege of meeting Guy Lafleur. He is a phenomenon on all levels, but what I particularly appreciate is what he has achieved after his career, which no one else has ever matched.
It was about Guy Lafleur, a larger than life character who touched more people than he probably thought, people who traveled far and wide to be at the Bell Center on Sunday and waited over three hours for him. say one last time how what he meant to them.
When these people entered the building, they were greeted by 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 atop the cup. It’s a photo of a winner. The one on the right shows Lafleur skating on the ice of the Forum, saluting the supporters. It’s a photo of a man of the people.
The two sides of Lafleur that made him so important not just to hockey fans, but to an entire population, perfectly captured.
“It 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,” said Quebec Premier François Legault. “It’s important. We’re going back a bit here, but we’re a conquered people, so sometimes it’s hard to be winners. But with Guy Lafleur, we were winners. We were all proud, all united. He done a lot and I’m happy to see so many Quebecers come here to thank him.
There were small details in the arena that were poignant, additional signs of the way Canadians hold a ceremony.
The first was that the Hockey Hall of Fame brought all of the trophies Lafleur won during his career to the event. So the Ted Lindsay, Art Ross and Hart trophies were all there. But so was the Stanley Cup, which Lafleur won five times, and it was placed directly behind the casket, between two Habs flags made of flowers, which suited La Fleur.
Right next to the Stanley Cup was a small toy helicopter, a nod to Lafleur’s love of flying and his helicopter license. He would take long helicopter flights to distant places in retirement. It was a passion of his and Canadians made sure it was noted.
Another was perhaps a little more subtle. The Bell Center seats were illuminated with red, white or blue lights, the colors of the Canadians. On the sides, there was no light in the seats. But in 2008, the Canadiens inaugurated their Ring of Honor that encircles the top of the arena, just behind the least expensive seats in the building, where each of the 48 Habs players and 11 builders who are inducted into the Hall of hockey fame are honoured.
It would have been hard to notice from the arena floor, but the only source of light to the right of the tribute up there in the cheap seats was a light illuminating Lafleur’s place on the Ring of Honor. .
It was fitting, because the people who normally occupy these seats are the ones Lafleur resonated with the most.
There is a meaning for Guy Lafleur that is sometimes difficult to explain. It’s 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 their careers, but it didn’t matter. It’s what Lafleur represented that brought them there.
“It was an honor to put the logo on, just the story 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 the story of winning the Stanley Cup here. To the family, may God Bless them, we will miss him, that’s why we came, to honor him 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 perfectly represented that because of his public persona.
Lafleur enjoyed being with his teammates, making sure they spent time together and paying the bill 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 laid back, as he was always busy after practice.
While his teammates were out for lunch and a beer, Lafleur was on his way to an event where he was wanted. But he also knew how to have fun and live the life of a superstar.
“Guy Lafleur went 100 miles an hour,” Houle said. “It was 100 miles an hour when he drove to Quebec, 100 miles an hour on ice and 100 miles an hour on Crescent Street, 100 miles an hour everywhere »
Lambert recounted how Lafleur and former Formula 1 driver Gilles Villeneuve went from the Lafontaine Tunnel in Montreal to the Quebec Bridge in Quebec City in 58 minutes. It’s 230 kilometers, or 140 miles.
So 100 miles an hour was an understatement.
It was the first of two days Lafleur was in state at the Bell Center, with people marching through the building, waiting for hours and paying their respects.
At some point later in the day on Sunday, a father was walking towards the Bell Center with his daughter and son. The father had a Canadiens jersey with RICHARD and #9 on the back, his daughter had a jersey with BELIVEAU and #4 on the back, and the youngest, the son, had LAFLEUR and #10 on the back. A family representing the line of Canadian greatness that meant so much to a “conquered people” who needed to be shown how they could be winners, and how these three men showed it in an almost unbroken line from the 1940s through the 1980 .
“Today is a moment,” Fournier said. “A father who says to his grandchildren: ‘Let’s go, we’ll see Guy.’ To understand? And then you wait an hour and a half, maybe two hours before you manage to walk past Guy and say hello. And this dad can say this is a big time, kids, because this man is someone we’ll talk about forever, and you can tell your kids about it.
“It is a gathering of the people of Quebec. And when do we come together as Quebecers, apart from protests because our union tells us so, but for serious things? When do we really come together for a worthy cause? And when will we do it again? Who will be the next one ? I do not know. So it’s something extraordinary, a beautiful moment, a moment to celebrate.
(Photo: Vitor Munhoz/NHLI via Getty Images)