Three French Canadiens and the torch

Now what? Now that Guy Lafleur is gone, who will be next to catch the torch that is symbolically passed from the greatest of Montreal’s French Canadiens? For the first time in eight decades, there is no active nor retired player ready to be that “legend of legends.”

Since Lafleur’s death last week, so many stories have anointed him (again) as one of the greatest Canadiens ever. Always, his name has been linked with two others, and only two: Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau. They are the three deities of Montreal hockey…les plus grand legendes.

Perhaps you had to live in Quebec, as I did for 11 years, to have even a small understanding of the DNA that connects Quebecers with these three French-Canadian players. The depth to which they penetrate francophone hearts is linked to players when they’re at their peak, or when they retire (and are toasted with seven-minute standing ovations, as Richard was), or when they die.

Before the Rocket, there was Howie Morenz. He died from complications of a broken leg suffered during a game at the Forum, and the province mourned him for months. But Morenz was from Ontario, a dearly-loved import in their hearts, yet not one of “them”…not a Quebecer entrenched by birth and loyal for life to La Belle Province. To a lesser extent, that was true of Newsy Lalonde and Aural Joliat.

Richard was from working-class Montreal, Beliveau from Trois-Rivieres and Lafleur from Thurso. They covered the three population demographics in a province always regarded as insecure and outcast from its country. All three were “them.” All three are bronzed in statues near the Bell Centre. All three had nicknames: Rocket, Le Gros Bill, Le Demon Blond (or just Flower). Richard’s style made the game electric, Beliveau’s made it look easy, and Lafleur’s did both.

The search for their successor, after Lafleur retired in 1991, sometimes settled on Patrick Roy. He was fiery but he was also a goalie and if a Canadiens’ goalie was to penetrate the hearts of Quebecers, it would have been Jacques Plante, who never got past the lungs.

As someone lucky enough to have interviewed the three greatest Canadiens, I think that in the big picture, being so fortunate may be understated. As I tell my American friends, it’s like interviewing Babe Ruth, Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle, who also defined their team’s eras, as Richard, Beliveau and Lafleur did theirs.

“He absolutely was on the line of Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau…” Lafleur’s teammate Ken Dryden told Sportsnet, “as if it had been predetermined.”

For 70 years, words from In Flanders Fields have hung in the Canadiens’ dressing room: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.” Or more appropriately: “Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau a vous toujours de la porter bien haut.”

At Richard’s state funeral, Beliveau was a pallbearer. At Beliveau’s, Lafleur was a pallbearer. There will surely be great players carrying Lafleur at his state funeral next week. Alas, none great enough to carry a torch that belongs only to Richard, Beliveau and Lafleur.