MONTREAL — Hockey fans in Montreal gathered Friday near the Bell Centre to pay tribute to Guy Lafleur, who was described as a player who represented Quebec with grace on and off the ice.
Bouquets of flowers, notes and a pair of hockey gloves were placed at the base of the Lafleur statue located outside the Montreal Canadiens' arena, as a steady trickle of fans stopped by to pay their respects following the announcement of his death at age 70.
Dominique Vinson, 64, said the flashy star with the scoring touch was his hero growing up.
"It was almost a guarantee he would score every time he'd go down the ice with the puck," Vinson said. "He was one of a kind."
He said Lafleur's career hearkens back to the Canadiens' glory days, when fans could count on the Quebec-born superstar known as "the Flower" to bring the Stanley Cup home to the province. Vinson said that in later years, he came to respect Lafleur for his demeanour off the ice and community work.
"He did represent (Quebecers) very well on the hockey scene and also as a human being," Vinson said. "He was a nice man; no wonder he was my hero."
Quebec Premier François Legault said Friday the province has offered to hold a national funeral for Lafleur if the family agrees. He called Lafleur the "greatest player in the history of the NHL" and invited the public to sign an online book of condolences on the government's website.
Legault spoke next to a framed, autographed Lafleur jersey and said the player, who won five Stanley Cups with the Habs, helped show Quebecers how to be winners.
"It's important to win if we want to have a culture of winners, and Guy Lafleur was a winner," he said.
The fans on Friday who visited the Bell Centre spanned all ages, from toddlers in tiny Habs jerseys to 73-year-old Nona Thomassie, who laid a tiny Inukshuk figurine at the base of the statue.
She said her family in her northern Quebec hometown of Kangirsuk had all been big fans of Lafleur "because he was a fast and a good scorer."
Len Gladson, a former Montrealer who now lives in Vancouver, said it was Lafleur's grace, as much as his skill, that set him apart as a player.
"The way he gracefully skated and got open somehow — he wasn’t the fastest and he didn’t have the greatest shot but he just knew where to be," Gladson said.
Some fans outside the arena were too young to have seen Lafleur play. They included Patricia Néron, who stopped by to lay flowers along with a handwritten note. While she never saw Lafleur play live, she grew up hearing stories about his exploits.
"He was my father's idol," she said. "When I was young, he was telling me stories of what Guy Lafleur did instead of telling me bedtime stories."
Éliane Rioux, 16, said she started to appreciate Lafleur while watching old Canadiens games during the pandemic. Doing so connected her to her father, who is a big Lafleur fan, she said.
"We pass hockey symbols down through the family," she said.
Legault said it will be up to Lafleur's family to decide if they want the national honours, which were given to Canadiens stars Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau when they died. The government, he added, is also looking at other tributes, including the possible renaming of a highway in the Outaouais region, where Lafleur was raised.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2022.
— With files from Pierre Saint-Arnaud.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press