MONTREAL — Among the thousands who gathered on Rene-Levesque Boulevard outside Basilique Marie-Reine-du-Monde Cathedral to pay homage to Guy Lafleur was Antoine Pejot-Charrost, age 20 — far too young to have seen the man build an everlasting legacy, but not too young to help carry that legacy forward.
“He was a giant of a player, but also a giant of a man who helped define Quebec and its culture, as our parents and grandparents told us,” said Pejot-Charrost. “Even if we never saw him play, we heard all the stories about him and consider him an example to follow.”
He hopes to one day tell his kids about Guy Lafleur—the man who scored over 500 goals and won five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, the Hall of Famer who rose to greatness following in the footsteps of Maurice “the Rocket” Richard and Jean “le Gros Bill” Beliveau.
He hopes to tell them about how he was there on this sunny Tuesday morning, taking part in something he knew he’d always remember, clapping and chanting Guy! Guy! Guy! as Lafleur’s casket was carried both in and out of the church.
“He marked our lives so much,” said 64-year-old Gilles Morency, who stood 20 paces from Pejot-Charrost with tears in his eyes. “He’s a part of me. He was a beautiful person, an incredible hockey player, an amazing talent. He was the greatest Quebecois of all.”
Lafleur was Guy! Guy! Guy! to Morency, and to all the fans who came out in droves donning their No. 10 jerseys to honour his memory.
Lafleur was also Guy! Guy! Guy! to his former teammates, who honoured their friend, the hockey player, with eulogies delivered so eloquently and gracefully just after 11 a.m.
“Guy once said play every game like it’s your last one,” recounted Larry Robinson. “Nobody embodied that philosophy more than Guy did. And not only did he play each game to its fullest; he tried to live his life to the fullest off the ice as well.”
Guy Carbonneau and Patrick Roy talked about being welcomed to the Canadiens by Lafleur in the early 1980s, about how a player of such illustrious status humbled himself to make them feel a part of the team.
“In the 1970s, everyone in Quebec wanted to be Guy Lafleur,” said Roy. “I wanted to be Ken Dryden, so I could play on the same team as Guy Lafleur. Guy was a player who was larger than life, who achieved limitless exploits. He was a hero, an inspiration, and living proof that we could achieve what we dreamed of.”
“In 1984, when I walked through the doors of the Forum and took the hallway to the dressing room to take part in my very first practice with the Montreal Canadiens, I took in this hero that was sitting in front of me; his stature, his presence, his charisma,” Roy continued. “No. 10 got dressed in five minutes. Intimidated, impressed, I was living a surreal moment, and before leaving the room he gave me a tap on the pads to say, ‘Hey kid, welcome to the Canadiens.’
“I think that’s who Guy Lafleur was. He had heart, a profound respect and incredible generosity. He was the guy who took the time, knowing that just a few words from him would make all the difference to you. It was his way of saying we were on the same team, that he’d be there for me even if he’d be shooting on me non-stop over the coming minutes.”
Yvan Cournoyer, the former captain of the Canadiens and winningest member of the organization still alive, thanked the late Sam Pollock—the architect of the dynastic Canadiens of the 1970s—for drafting Lafleur and said, “It allowed the fans and us to appreciate him for many years and to win five Stanley Cups.” His speech ended with, Guy! Guy! Guy!
To his 90-year-old mother, Pierrette, and to his sisters, Suzanne (71), Gisele (68), Lise (65) and Lucie (who turned 62 on Tuesday), he was just Guy.
In an interview with Sportsnet last week, Lise shared how she would forever cherish memories from well before he became a global icon—memories of how he lived to prank her and her sisters, about how he’d hide under their beds and get kicks out of scaring them at every opportunity he got.
She spoke fondly of family vacations from before Guy Lafleur became the hockey player she and her sisters would inevitably have to share with the world.
“We went to a hunting and fishing camp that our parents brought us to, and we went there via train with my grandfather,” Lise recounted. “They had those old cars, and we had a lot of fun together. We loved fishing—no electricity, just each other. We spent a week there, and those are really nice memories.”
They are the ones Lise, her sisters and her mother are holding dear to after the last ones formed with Guy were far more sobering, somber and painful.
“We saw him last Wednesday (36 hours before he died on April 22), and he was suffering a lot,” Lise said. “He was conscious, lucid; he recognized us and was able to speak with us. But that was the last time we were able to see him. He died overnight Thursday into Friday.
“It was the four of us (sisters), my mother and Guy. They said we should just go in three at a time because he was in a palliative care residence and there were COVID protocols, but Guy insisted on us being all together the five of us. He wanted all of us in his room, and we stayed with him all afternoon.”
They talked about life, reminisced, and said, “See you soon,” thinking they’d see each other again before having to say “Goodbye.”
“He was fighting. He wanted to go home, he didn’t want to stay there,” said Lise. “He told the doctor he wanted to be given something to boost his strength and the doctor told him he couldn’t do it. It was impossible, and there was nothing to do. Still, we thought he had at least a couple more weeks.”
Lafleur passed after a two-year battle with lung cancer between 1 and 1:30 a.m. that Friday, leaving everyone who knew him—or knew of him—feeling he was gone too soon.
People immediately flocked from across the country and the province to Centennial Plaza, outside the Bell Centre, to leave flowers and notes by the statue of Lafleur, which stands next to those of Richard and Beliveau.
Days later, when the team welcomed the Boston Bruins to town for the first home game to follow Lafleur’s passing, fans filled the auditorium and chanted his name and roared at full volume for 10 minutes and 10 seconds before a moment of silence was interrupted by more chants and more roars. Lafleur’s family watched from a candlelight vigil held outside the arena that bears his name in his hometown of Thurso, Que.
This past Sunday and Monday, Lafleur lay in state near centre ice under his retired jersey, with the Canadiens decorating the space as a shrine to his career. Beside the Stanley Cup and the NHL’s most prestigious awards—which he won several times—Lafleur’s wife, Lise, and their sons, Martin and Mark, greeted thousands of people who came to pay their respects and say goodbye.
Many more lined the streets for Tuesday’s funeral, watching former teammates, former opponents, many of the current Canadiens, Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Francois Legault and Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante walk the red-carpeted steps leading to the cathedral. They chanted when the procession rolled in—and chanted just slightly louder when the casket, draped in bleu, blanc et rouge and the Canadiens logo, was carried up and into the reception.
Halfway through the service, Quebec sensation Ginette Reno sung a stirring rendition of L’Essentiel.
“It’s inspiring a feeling so strong in others,” is an English translation of some of the lyrics she sang in French, “it’s a feeling that will survive even after death.”
L’Essentiel, indeed. It captured exactly what Guy Lafleur did throughout his life, and what Guy Lafleur will continue to do forever, beyond death, in these parts.
His legacy wasn’t only being celebrated by everyone who came to say farewell; it was being taken in so it could be carried forward by those people.
“Guy was a rassembleur,” said Serge Savard, who was Lafleur’s teammate for 10 years. “He brought everyone together, made everyone feel a part of something, made everyone feel like they were with him and not beneath them. And they can take that with them today and always.”