Family, friends, former teammates and opponents, and countless fans have struggled with the loss of the Canadiens icon, who died at age 70 on April 22, 31 months after being diagnosed with lung cancer.
Now, over three days, thousands are preparing to bid an emotional farewell to one of the greatest players in NHL history, as they did in 2014 for the legendary Jean Beliveau and in 2000 for the immortal Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
“In my tenure as owner of the Canadiens (since 2009), there have been quite a few people who have left us,” Molson told NHL.com on Wednesday. “But the two big ones are Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. The grandeur, the significance is very similar, but the feeling is very different.”
Guy Lafleur’s Bell Center banner is illuminated on April 24, two days after his death. Atop this story: Canadiens owner Geoff Molson with Lafleur in support of the Canadian Armed Forces in about 2015. Molson has this photo displayed in his Bell Center office.
Bell Center will open its doors Sunday and Monday for mourners to pay their last respects to Lafleur and his family. Tens of thousands are expected to walk the length of the arena’s gently lit floor to the casket of the five-time Stanley Cup champion, a member of the Canadiens’ most recent dynasty in the late 1970s and arguably the most electrifying player of his generation.
There they can expect to meet Lafleur’s wife, Lise, sons Martin and Mark, and other members of his family.
There will be 12 1/2 hours of public visitation – from 12 noon to 8 pm ET on Sunday, and from 10:30 am to 3 pm on Monday – before Lafleur’s national funeral Tuesday a short distance away at Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral.
Organized by the government of Quebec and the Canadiens, the 11 am ET service will be telecast live in Canada in English and French, and streamed globally. Political and business leaders and sports figures will arrive at the church past throngs of fans gathered on the steps across the street from the Sun Life Building, the NHL’s first official headquarters, and near the former Windsor Hotel, where the League was born in 1917.
Bell Center visitation for Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau on Dec. 7, 2014.
In December 2014, a two-day Bell Center visitation preceded the funeral of Beliveau, the Canadiens’ illustrious captain and 10-time Stanley Cup champion who in some ways remains the conscience of the only NHL team for which he played. Beliveau’s funeral was also celebrated at Mary, Queen of the World, the 83-year-old having died following a lengthy illness.
In May 2000, days after having died at age 78 of abdominal cancer, Richard lay in state at Bell Center for a two-day visitation, the forward’s dramatic funeral then held at Old Montreal’s historic Notre-Dame Basilica.
Howie Morenz, the Canadiens’ first great star, was celebrated with a wake and funeral at the packed Montreal Forum on March 11, 1937; that came three days after the 34-year-old forward died of a coronary embolism, having broken his leg on Montreal Forum ice five weeks earlier.
Morenz, Richard, Beliveau and Lafleur are the cornerstone Canadiens immortalized in a plaza outside Bell Center, their careers celebrated with four frozen-in-flight statues skating on huge granite bases.
Guy Lafleur’s Bell Center statue on April 24, two days after his death, with flowers left by fans.
Geoff Molson was born the year before Lafleur was selected No. 1 in the 1971 NHL Draft, chosen by the Canadiens in the ballroom of a hotel a few blocks from where Bell Center would open in 1996. He grew to be a huge fan of the flashy forward and, upon purchasing the Canadiens in 2009 from George N. Gillett Jr., signed the idol of his youth to a 10-year contract, later extended, as a team ambassador, a role Lafleur embraced until his final days.
More than seven years ago, Molson oversaw the heartbreaking farewell to Beliveau. Today, he is steeling his emotions for another goodbye.
Five days after Lafleur died, the Canadiens owner was speaking of the late legend partly in the present tense, as he had in the days following the death of Beliveau.
“You can expect visitation for Guy to be very similar and just as impressive and important as those for Jean and Maurice, but with COVID security present,” said Molson, whose family and its business interests have had a full or partial ownership stake in the Canadians for all but seven years since 1957.
Guy Lafleur receives a kiss from his mother, Pierrette, during his December 2010 Canadiens Alumni farewell tour game in his hometown of Thurso, Quebec.
“Jean Beliveau was the ultimate gentleman, somebody who was respected in all the communities that he crossed. But mostly he was known as the captain, the gentleman, who everyone looked up to. Guy Lafleur was the eccentric, flamboyant man of the people who went about his business as a real pro and was the best player on the best teams in the NHL and had a flair that nobody can replicate.
“That’s what Guy is going to be remembered for – the flair, that flamboyance. That was on the ice. Off the ice was when I got to know him much, much better, as I had with Jean. You saw a person who like Jean was very approachable, but in a different way. Guy was someone who can walk into a room and strike up a conversation, tell jokes and feel like he’s part of the party naturally. People really respected him for that. He was a real person. “
Richard had been the fire in the belly of eight championship teams, and Beliveau was the elegant leader who never had a hair or a foot out of place. Lafleur was viewed by fans as the everyman, a champion who spoke from the heart no matter the reaction or the consequences.
Guy Lafleur with the Canadiens ceremonial torch for the 2013-14 home opener at Bell Center.
His passion was such that often he was sharply critical of the team that was paying him to be their ambassador.
“Guy is most respected for speaking exactly what’s on his mind,” Molson said. “He’s appreciated by people because all the time he’s speaking his truths. Usually he’s not far off. He just chooses to say it exactly as it is. That’s what Guy Lafleur was.
“While it may be frustrating for the organization to have to read about it or see it on TV, there’s no denying that Guy [was] telling the truth. It’s something that the Canadiens needed to appreciate. When I signed him for an extended contract as ambassador, it was because of that appreciation for him and for being someone who would represent us perfectly as an organization.
“Compare his way of responding to a question about the performance of the team, for example, to the way Jean Beliveau would respond. They would be completely different but both important. For me, having Guy Lafleur inside our tent as an ambassador was a big priority, but under no circumstance did I ever try to control what he said, that’s for sure. “
An emotional Geoff Molson begins his April 22 news conference, hours after the passing of Guy Lafleur was announced.
Molson choked back tears in a news conference held hours after Lafleur’s death had been announced. Four days before the Bell Center visitation was to begin, he was deeply introspective, considering what Lafleur had meant to the team and to him.
In early April, less than two weeks before Lafleur was moved to palliative care, Molson paid a call to his suburban Montreal home with France Margaret Belanger, president of sports and entertainment of Groupe CH, its crown jewel being the Canadiens, and Rejean Houle, the longtime Canadiens alumni director who played with Lafleur on four championship teams.
“It was a really pleasant experience,” Molson said. “You never really know what you’re going to see or what it’s going to be like when you get there, to look at Guy and talk to him. I’d heard that he’d had up days and down days. We caught him on a good day, which was amazing.
“He was full of energy, still joking, telling stories, not complaining for one second. He was very positive. He was talking about having to change the flag on his flagpole this summer because it had been ripped by the wind over the winter. He said his windows needed fixing, and that he was going to get on to that, as well.
“Guy was very optimistic, which led us to have a really nice conversation, some good laughs. He got out of his bed, which was in his living room at the end, and gave us a hug goodbye.”
Guy Lafleur, in his prime, rushes on Madison Square Garden ice against the New York Rangers.
Nearly four decades after his final game for the Canadiens in 1984, Lafleur remains their leader in points (1,246), assists (728), game-winning goals (94), and 40-goal, 50-goal and 100-point seasons ( six each). His rushes up Forum ice lifted fans out of their seats, his sense of occasion and gift for scoring the most important goals a monument to his skill on the rink.
Molson came to love all of that about Lafleur, but very much more.
“Guy’s numbers on the ice speak for themselves,” he said. “You can not forget how much faster he was than anyone, how much more powerful his shot was than anyone and how hard he worked on the ice all the time to win. He was a winner.
“One thing I would hope that people remember about Guy is that he was dedicated to winning at all times. And that he was dedicated to his community, whether he was representing the Canadiens, his hospital (CHUM) where his cancer was treated, the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation and others.… He was committed to supporting them in his own way, in an honest way with a total commitment to doing it best.
“As an ambassador, Guy would empty the room with autographs and selfies and discussions and jokes. It wasn’t until the room was empty that he felt his job was done.”
Guy Lafleur prior to the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Classic between the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators with (from left) NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, singer Bryan Adams, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Trudeau’s son, Xavier.
Lafleur often spoke of his love for his fans. Never will their love for him be stronger than over these three days.
“Like Jean’s, Guy’s will be a national funeral so there will be certain protocols that we will follow,” Molson said. “I think you can expect that the structure of Guy’s funeral will be similar to Jean’s but the content will be unique to him.”
Molson stood inconsolably outside the Canadiens dressing room as fans streamed into Bell Center to pay their last respects to Beliveau. He said that his words that day, read back to him, apply perfectly to Lafleur now.
“It’s incredible how important Jean was to so many people,” Molson said in 2014. “Since his passing, everywhere I turn, people are still talking about it. Here we are, five days later and people want to remember Jean and talk about him and they will do that all day today and all day tomorrow. It’s going to be fantastic. And it will be a fantastic funeral too.…
“I have no idea how many people will come. Whatever the number is, it will be wonderful. And whoever comes here will see something special and they will remember it for their whole lives.”
Photos: Montreal Canadiens (courtesy Geoff Molson; Noemie Provencher; Bob Fisher); Hockey Hall of Fame, Paul Bereswill; Getty Images; Dave Stubbs