Daniel Veniez: Why hockey great Guy Lafleur meant so much to so many

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      I grew up in the working-class east end of Montreal. I have always had a deep love for hockey, and an innate affinity for the Montreal Canadiens. Initially, I think it was a way to bond with my father in what was often a turbulent household. 

      Saturday night was when my father and I would watch the game together, and often, it was the night my Pépère and Mémère—my late mother Micheline’s parents—came over for their weekly game of cards. They would play on the kitchen table and the television in the living room would be tuned into Hockey Night in Canada or La Soirée du hockey. My “safe place” as a young boy was a small, cramped spot under the stairs in our unfinished basement on De La Rousselière with the radio tuned in to les Canadiens away games. That was where I would escape to be alone. I was 10 years old when Jean Beliveau played his last game in 1971. I vividly remember Pépère yelling “atta boy” at the top of his lungs whenever he would score. I just loved that sound. It made me happy. 

      I saved up my money and, in the summer of 1975, attended the Howie Meeker Hockey School at Stanstead College in the Eastern Townships. I was 14 years old. On a Saturday morning, after the first week, we go out onto the ice, and there shooting pucks into the net and skating around was none other than Guy Lafleur! He would have been 24 years old, and almost as quiet and shy as I was. I had every reason to feel that way, but Guy? He had just finished his first 50-goal season. We talked, passed each other the puck, showed me how to improve my wrist shot. We had a scrimmage that day with Guy on the ice. I had never been away from home before and my parents came for the day. I scored two goals (we won 2-1) and did that with my hero on the ice and my parents watching the whole thing. When it was time for him to leave, Guy sought me out said to me in English: “Work hard, Danny. You’re a really good skater and you know how to put the puck in the net”.

      I missed school for five Stanley Cup parades. Many of us did. It was almost a rite of passage in those days. I still remember the scent of the Montreal Forum, the sounds of the puck making contact with a stick after a pass, the roar of the crowd when Lafleur touched the puck at centre-ice on the right side as he was picking up speed. It is all deeply evocative for me and for millions of us, past and present.  

      My ex-wife, Dominique, never understood why I would cry like a baby watching those beautiful ceremonies at the Forum, and later the Molson/Bell Centre, featuring Canadiens oldtimers, retiring jerseys, and the passing of the torch. I couldn’t explain it to her then, because I didn’t really understand it myself. It was the same flood of emotions that I felt with the passing of Richard, of Beliveau, and now even more intensely, of Guy Lafleur. 

      They were part of my childhood, my growing up, my coming of age. They were part of my identity as a proud Québécois, and as a proud Canadian. There’s the bonding of families, of friends, of communities, and of a people—the Quebec nation—around the Montreal Canadiens and the players who meant so much to us and gave us so much excitement, pride, joy, and hope that is incredibly hard to explain. But the emotion runs marrow deep. 

      Over the past few days, I have heard comments from people who are genuinely perplexed by the outpouring of emotion they have witnessed since Guy’s passing. They’ve said to me “Is this a Quebec thing?” To an extent, I believe it is, and it is more profound than that, and almost mystical. 

      I am grateful for what hockey, the Montreal Canadiens, the players, and game I love gave to me. I cry with gratitude for the pride and hope that these giants inspired in me, as they did in many generations of young men and women, a culture, and a society—the French Canadians of Quebec. I also cry when these greats go because when they do, a part of me goes with them. In the past few days, I have cried quietly Guy Lafleur. But the truth is, I have also cried for that young boy that still lives within me.

      Merci, Guy.