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A wilted flower

Guy Lafleur was a hockey god. Now, it’s his role as indulgent father to a troubled son that’s on trial.


 

For a moment, it might have been 30 years ago.

Guy Lafleur took a pass deep in his own zone and skated up the right side of the ice, wind in his hair, streaking past a befuddled defence. At the top of the circle he let loose his blistering slapshot. It hit the back of the net before the goalie even saw it, a mere nine seconds into the match.

“The crowd just got what they paid for,” remarked Steve Shutt, Lafleur’s former line- mate with the Montreal Canadiens. Never mind that this was a charity match between NHL veterans and a team of police officers, and that he’d just scored on a 35-year-old constable. Just by showing up on this frigid night last winter, Lafleur warmed Leamington, Ont.’s heart, and the 2,000 people in the stands chanted “Guy! Guy! Guy!” like it was the gospel.

Two weeks later, an entirely different scene. Lafleur sat in a Montreal courtroom in support of his son, Mark, on trial for assault, criminal harassment and uttering threats against the parents of his ex-girlfriend. The girl, who can’t be identified because she was 15 at the time, snuck out to meet Mark, then age 20, on Boxing Day 2004. Her father gave chase, and a scuffle ensued.

While Mark beat the assault and harassment charges, the judge found him guilty of threatening the girl’s mother. “You and your husband are f–king crazy,” Mark said in a phone message, according to the mother’s testimony. “I’m going to kill you, you’re going to die.” (He received a $500 fine and was placed on probation.)

Guy Lafleur left the court upbeat. “I’m happy,” he told La Presse. “There are other things coming but we’ll take them one by one, as [former Canadiens coach] Claude Ruel used to say.” And the death threats? “You know, we all make mistakes in our youth,” he shrugged, then walked off.

Spectacular goals and mythic nonchalance: it is what has endeared Lafleur to an entire generation of hockey fans. He was, and remains, the personification of his play—quick, improvised, dazzling, the staunch individualist with a sense of entitlement to match. “Hockey’s first rock star,” as critic Mark Lepage once wrote.

His renegade legacy continues to this day, even though he hasn’t played professional hockey in 17 years. His column in Le Journal de Montréal, in which he regularly browbeats Canadiens players and management for a litany of shortcomings, is among the paper’s most popular. He is about to open a hockey-themed restaurant that will trade heavily on his enduring glory. He has been a paid pitchman for, among others, Viagra, Hairfax and the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation. In one ad promoting proper battery disposal, Lafleur plays hockey with a discarded cellphone. Apparently, he can sell anything.

The latest court saga with his son has only bolstered his renown in Quebec. Even when he gave contradictory testimony on the stand about his son’s whereabouts while on leave from a drug abuse centre—for which Lafleur was charged with giving false testimony—the fans stood behind him: “Mr. Lafleur chose between two duties,” read a typical letter in La Presse. “Support his son or give in to excessive legalism… He supported his son, without judging him. That is a real father.”

Lafleur, meanwhile, says the police and the prosecutors personally have it out for him because he is famous. “I think my case is being handled the way it has because I’m Guy Lafleur,” he told Maclean’s recently. “I mean, how many cases are there like mine and people don’t speak about it?” (Lafleur is expected in court this week.)

The famous Lafleur’s defiance on display again, though this time around there is a kink in the narrative. Apart from his recent conviction for uttering threats, Mark Lafleur, now 24 years old, faces 21 other charges, including assault, sexual assault, forcible confinement, drug possession, dangerous driving and theft, all of which involve the same diminutive young woman he called a girlfriend for four years. A judge recently said there was enough evidence to proceed to trial.

Lafleur won’t speak about Mark’s upcoming trial, other than to say his son “wasn’t the only one to blame in it.” Lafleur also says his son has been afflicted with Tourette syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder since he was a child, and has had to suffer through his condition in the public eye. “It’s affected the whole family badly,” says Lafleur of his son’s predicament, “but it’s getting back on the right track slowly, so that’s the main thing.” Guy Lafleur himself, meanwhile, is the populist rebel once again. As a player, he often took on the Canadiens management when he thought he was being treated unfairly; now, as a father, he is protecting his son against the judicial establishment.

Today, Mark’s alleged victim is 21 years old, and her parents say they feel they’re caught in an uneven battle with a legend. They say Guy Lafleur indulged his son’s every whim—Mark had a condo, several SUVs, and a generous allowance, they claim. (Lafleur himself admits he was an indulgent father. When his wife, Lise, would say no to Mark, he says, he would usually say yes. “In acting like that, I wasn’t helping Lise or Mark. When I think about it now, I regret having played that game,” he told Le Journal de Montréal sports columnist Bertrand Raymond last year.)

The girl’s mother says Mark has a continued sense of invincibility thanks to his last name and his father’s connections, which the parents say he used liberally. “He always knew that his dad would be there to get him out of trouble,” said the father of the young girl outside a courtroom where she was testifying against Mark Lafleur.

“We weren’t only fighting Mark. We were fighting Guy as well.”

Lafleur arrived in Montreal in 1971, marking both the end of an era and the beginning of a promise. Already a star in Quebec’s Major Junior League, he joined the Canadiens just as Jean Béliveau, the picture of class and poise on and off the ice, announced his retirement. Quebec underwent profound changes during Béliveau’s tenure as Habs captain—the Quiet Revolution, Expo 67, the October Crisis—and Lafleur was a superstar to match the new times: a natural goal scorer, but more importantly, a flamboyant and irreverent Québécois who liked to drink beer and drive fast, something that would nearly kill him years later.

“Sam Pollock [the Canadiens’ general manager] had a project to create this mythic French Canadian rebel with Guy,” says Georges-Hébert Germain, author of Overtime, the definitive Lafleur biography. “He saw that Guy had a huge talent, as well as a sense of rebellion about him. I think if Sam Pollock hadn’t come along, Guy would have been as big a player, but wouldn’t have had nearly the freedoms.”

Lafleur disappointed at first, averaging a middling 26 goals with the Canadiens during his first three seasons. All struggling heroes have turning points, though, and Lafleur’s was so perfect it sounds contrived. During training camp before the ’74-’75 season, he forgot his helmet in the dressing room. For one reason or another—he’d also resorted to prayer at that point—he played magnificently. His game was better, yes, but perhaps equally as important was the unforgettable image he created just by skating down the ice, with that lion’s mane of blond hair. Le Démon Blond had finally arrived.
He became one of hockey’s first brand names, in every sense of the term. Yoplait, General Motors, Bauer, Koho: Lafleur shilled for them all. There was even a Number 10 line of lotions, cologne, soap and deodorant. As a Québécois hero who, ironically enough, completely disagreed with the notion of Quebec separation, Lafleur could sell skates, cars and yogurt to both sides of Canada’s two solitudes.

He seemed at once humbled and in love with the spotlight. “He never crossed the street coming out of the Forum to avoid signing autographs,” says sportswriter Raymond, who has covered Lafleur for over 35 years. Peter Alves, a record producer and former neighbour in the West Island suburb of Baie D’Urfé, saw the Lafleur effect firsthand: “It was a pleasant summer ritual. He’d be out there in his driveway washing his car, a black Ferrari. People knew where he lived, and they would slowly crawl up our street, turn around and come back. He’d go up to each car, have a chat, sign autographs. It seemed to go for hour after hour, and he was always very accommodating. He never turned anyone away.” (Alves himself took part in one of the more bizarre Lafleur product endorsements when he produced Lafleur!, best described as a spoken word disco album consisting of Lafleur dictating hockey tips in English and French over throbbing dance beats.)

Lafleur also liked to party. At least, people liked to think he liked to party. Part of the Lafleur myth was his ability to dazzle on the ice, suck back countless beers and cigarettes after the game, then do it all the next night. Reality was often less impressive—“We went into Chinatown the odd time to have dinner. It wasn’t as though we were going out every night,” says Pete Mahovlich, who played on Lafleur’s line for several years. Nonetheless, Lafleur’s name was often associated with Gatsby’s, 1234, Régine’s, Thursday’s and a host of other popular downtown Montreal establishments. And though he was never a Canadiens captain, he had a reassuring effect on the team. “When you’ve got a guy like that, a guy who you know who’s going to do it, he’s going to win, it’s like going downtown and knowing that if you have a problem your dad is there,” says Gilles Lupien, a former Canadiens defenceman turned player agent.

With management, meanwhile, Lafleur acted as the team’s unofficial spokesperson, and was quick to air a host of grievances with the likes of Sam Pollock and even Scotty Bowman, the Canadiens’ bulldog-faced coach and noted disciplinarian. “It was in my nature to do that, to talk about my misgivings to my teammates like lack of ice time,” Lafleur says today. “It’s a personality thing. I was built like that. Some things piss me off more than others.” After the Habs won the Stanley Cup in 1978, Guy drove to Thurso, his hometown, with the trophy spirited away in the back of his car. He drank champagne out of it in his parents’ kitchen. “Guy was a typical baby boomer,” says Germain, the author. “For him, questioning authority was an affirmation of his individuality. The coach certainly wasn’t Christ on earth.”

Lafleur’s blunt talk endeared him both to journalists and Habs fans. He publicly blamed the Canadiens’ slow start in 1979 on Claude Ruel, an assistant coach at the time, and counted sportswriters like Raymond, Claude Quenneville, Guy Larochelle and Réjean Tremblay among his friends. He confided in them—even, in Quenneville’s case, about his near-breakup with his wife, Lise. His candour was breathtaking at times. “I really love my family and my kid,” Lafleur told the New York Times in 1978, “but first of all it’s my hockey, it’s my career. My family is second, and my fans go third. Sometimes my fans go second, and my family is third. It’s turning all the time.”

By 1984, his career was over, his last few years spent hobbled by injuries and struggling to adapt to a new regime’s defensive style of play where there was little room for a streaking forward with what Pete Mahovlich calls “an inability to play away from the puck.” After the Habs hoisted his number 10 into the Forum rafters, Lafleur took a job with the Canadiens front office. He essentially became a salesman for the team, touring office buildings, social clubs, luncheons and the like on behalf of the Canadiens. It was wretched work, and Lafleur quickly let it be known, through a column penned by Bertrand Raymond, that he wouldn’t be around for much longer. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life playing office clerk for $75,000 a year,” he was quoted as saying.

Lafleur would come out of retirement for three lacklustre seasons with the New York Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques. For his second retirement in 1991, the Canadiens organized a glitzy send-off attended by Dickie Moore, Rocket Richard and Réjean Houle, among other luminaries. At least one Habs great wasn’t thrilled with the spectacle, however. In the restroom of the players’ lounge prior to the ceremony, Jean Béliveau adjusted his tie in the mirror. He was preparing to present a ceremonial cheque to one of Guy Lafleur’s charities. A man at a nearby urinal asked Béliveau how he was doing.
“I’m fine, but I don’t see why we have to do this for him twice,” he said.

The years seemed to have mellowed the relations between Lafleur and the Canadiens organization. Since 1999, Lafleur has been a team ambassador, along with Béli veau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and Réjean Houle. In the spring of 1981, after a night of boozy revelry with a teammate, Lafleur got into a near-fatal car accident while driving back to his home in Baie D’Urfé. Today, he only drinks non-alcoholic beer and virgin Ceasars, though he does still sneak the occasional cigarette.

After an aborted attempt at a line of “Flower Power” sports drinks, as well as a stint as owner/operator of a sugar shack near Quebec City, Lafleur has become a successful restaurant owner. In November, he sold his franchise in the Mike’s diner chain, which he’d owned since 2002, and will soon open Blue Blanc Rouge, a $5-million, 9,000-sq.-foot restaurant in Rosemère, north of Montreal.

A brief foray into politics, in which he campaigned for the federalist option during the Meech Lake negotiations, turned him off that line of work for good. After an embarrassing radio interview, Lafleur remarked that the biggest defencemen have nothing on Canadian politicians. “They play even rougher than in hockey. I’m telling you, they hit below the belt,” he told a reporter. Along with the battery recycling initiative, Lafleur has endorsed Viagra (which he says he doesn’t use) and Hairfax, the hair replacement company (which he has).

And yet, there are flashes of the old Guy Lafleur. Last November, during a Habs scoring slump, Lafleur excoriated the team on a popular sports show. “They rely on four fourth lines,” he said. Naturally, Lafleur stood by his words in the subsequent fallout. “I don’t think [the Canadiens are] crazy about it, because I’m an ambassador for the team,” Lafleur says today. “But the fact is, I’m not on the payroll. I’m on contract to work for them for 15 days a year, that’s it, that’s all. It’s not like I have dental insurance or anything. Sure, I’m proud to be an ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens, but if I have other things I want to do, like write a column, then I’m going to do it.”

His other preoccupation has been his kids, Martin and Mark. Lafleur, writes Germain in Overtime, retired from hockey to find he hardly knew them. “I remember we were in Rye, N.Y., where Lafleur played for the Rangers in 1989,” Germain says. “We were having a barbecue at about five in the afternoon, and Martin came by and asked Guy if he could borrow some money because there was a party at the college where he went to school. Guy gives him a twenty. The little s–t then asked his dad, ‘What do you want me to do with this? Guy asked him how much he wanted. Martin said, ‘Give me a hundred.’ I forget how much he got, but say Guy gave him sixty. Afterwards Guy turned to me and said, ‘I was brought up working for every cent that I got. I had to earn my living, but my kids were born millionaires. This really worries me, because in life you have to earn what you want, and my kids won’t have to earn anything.’ ”

By most accounts, Lafleur’s eldest son Martin has managed to grow up in his father’s shadow. For a period, he sold Guy Lafleur merchandise on eBay; today, the 33-year-old helps manage his father’s restaurant interests. Mark Lafleur is another story. He was expelled from kindergarten and would go on to be kicked out of nearly two dozen schools by the 10th grade. In high school, he was asked to leave Sedbergh, an Ontario boarding school, for what his examining neurologist characterized as “aggressive tendencies, violence and assaults on other children.”

“During these episodes, his language was extremely menacing towards school personnel and students,” wrote the neurologist in 1998, noting that Mark’s Tourette’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder responded well to a cocktail of prescription drugs. “[Mark] doesn’t try to minimize his guilt, and shows a desire to change his behaviour.”

Nonetheless, his troubles continued throughout his relationship with the young girl, who was 14 years old when they began dating. At the time, Mark was living at his parents’ home in Ile Bizard and working sporadically at his father’s restaurant. In his testimony in the uttering threats case, the girl’s father made it clear that he didn’t want Mark around. “He’d drive by the house, constantly blaring a stereo… most of the times I’ve seen him was when he was trying to take off with my daughter in his truck.”

“I called Guy’s house once and it was Mark who answered,” the father told Maclean’s recently. “When Mark heard it was me he passed the phone off to Guy. I said I was five minutes away and that I was coming to get her, and when I got to their house they were gone. He was not a responsible parent at all.”

Last spring, Mark entered La Maison Dianova, a Montreal drug treatment centre, following his arrest for marijuana possession and production, among other charges. His father posted a $10,000 bond in part so that his son could stay at Dianova rather than serve jail time. His stay wasn’t successful. According to testimony from clinic coordinator Steve Rondelli, Mark “showed a complete lack of willingness to adopt the measures imposed on him so that he may adopt the lifestyle he claims to want, even becoming hostile at times.” Rondelli characterized Mark’s therapy as “a complete failure”; Mark himself was a “high-risk patient” who demonstrated “an absence of limits.”

Four months later, Mark moved to Centre l’Exode, a similar institution. The month after that, he asked a judge for a conditional release, to spend weekends with his father. In September, one month later, he was found in possession of a knife, as well as other contraband, but a few days later a judge let him leave in the care of his father, who testified his son had always obeyed curfew when he left Exode for the weekends. “He always came home when he was supposed to,” Lafleur said under oath.

On Oct. 15, Lafleur told another judge that Mark had in fact spent several nights in a hotel room with his 16-year-old girlfriend (a different girl from the one in the ongoing case against Mark). “He respected it except for twice, when he asked if he could go to a hotel. I thought that at 22 he had a right to some intimacy,” Lafleur said, noting he had driven Mark to the hotel himself. The prosecutor asked Lafleur why he hadn’t revealed as much in his last testimony.

“Because I wasn’t asked the question,” Lafleur said.

“So why are you mentioning it today?” asked the prosecutor.

“Because I know you have proof that he went there and I didn’t want to hide it,” Lafleur responded.

Curiously, Lafleur today says his son had in fact made curfew. “I didn’t lie,” Lafleur told Maclean’s last week. The Montreal police beg to differ. In January, the force issued a warrant for his arrest, charging him with of giving false testimony. It is an unusual charge, similar to perjury, and several criminal defence lawyers contacted by Maclean’s expressed surprise that Lafleur, who has no criminal record and a fixed address, would be served a warrant when a simple summons would suffice. “You issue a warrant if you believe he’s not going to show,” said lawyer Steven Slimovitch, adding, “If there is someone who isn’t a flight risk, it’s Guy Lafleur.”

In April, Lafleur launched a $3.5-million lawsuit against the Crown prosecutor and a Montreal police detective involved in his case —as well as the City Of Montreal, the officer’s employer—for what his lawyer described as a “disproportionate gesture” designed to “harm the plaintiff.”

He might now be a 57-year-old with greying hair and bothersome knees, but Guy Lafleur is taking on the establishment once again. He says Mark is making progress, and that he looks forward for the truth to come out about the nearly two dozen charges that await him.

The girl’s parents, meanwhile, say their daughter has only recently recovered from her relationship with Mark Lafleur. And they continue to accuse Lafleur of indulging his troubled son. “We begged Guy to take away the truck and not give Mark any money,” says the girl’s mother today. “That would have stopped the whole thing.”

Guy Lafleur, though, is as cagey as ever. “[Mark] was not the only one to blame in it. There were two people involved,” he says. It’s a struggle, he says, but he’s struggled plenty before. He knows his fans are behind him. They, like him, know he’s right, everyone else be damned.


 
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A wilted flower

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