Lafleur was the first among 12 players chosen by the Canadiens in the 1971 Amateur Draft, three more than Montreal selected on Friday and Saturday in the 2021 NHL Draft.
On June 10, 1971, the Canadiens made Lafleur the No. 1 pick in the draft. But the 19-year-old forward from Quebec of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League wasn’t in the ballroom of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel to hear his name called by Montreal general manager Sam Pollock, rushing down a hotel corridor having just arrived with his parents from his hometown of Thurso, Quebec.
“I’m sorry I missed it,” Lafleur apologized upon arrival, the name of the second pick — center Marcel Dionne by the Detroit Red Wings — having been called by the time he charged into the ballroom. “But I feel a great relief now. All I’ve heard the last few weeks is how I’m going to be drafted first and all that. I think it’s easier playing hockey.”
It already had been a momentous two days for the Canadiens, who a few weeks earlier had defeated the Chicago Black Hawks in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final for their 17th championship.
On June 9, Montreal captain Jean Beliveau announced his retirement during an emotional news conference in the packed ballroom of the Queen Elizabeth, ending his illustrious, Hall of Fame-bound career with 10 Stanley Cup victories — seven more to come through 1993 as the team’s senior vice-president.
Guy Lafleur with freshly retired Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau at the Montreal Forum in the early 1970s.
The following morning, draft day, would be Scotty Bowman’s first day on the job as coach, replacing Al MacNeil. That news shared the headlines with another huge story — the Canadiens were for sale, put on the block by brothers David, William and Peter Molson and ultimately sold six months later.
Pollock, a hockey visionary who had one of the shrewdest minds in the game, fashioned a powerhouse in Montreal by trading Canadiens depth players for many first-round draft selections during his tenure as GM from 1964-78, winning nine Stanley Cup championships during that time.
Without question, Pollock’s grandest larceny was committed on May 22, 1970, when he picked the pocket of the California Golden Seals, trading the Canadiens’ 1970 first-round pick (who turned out to be center Chris Oddleifsson at No. 10) and minor-league forward Ernie Hicke for Golden Seals defenseman Francois Lacombe and their 1971 first-round pick.
Guy Lafleur (second from left) with Canadiens teammates Marc Tardif, Pete Mahovlich, Murray Wilson and Henri Richard during an early 1970s practice at the Montreal Forum, and in a Quebec Remparts portrait.
The road to the Canadiens’ historic 1971 selection seemed smooth until the Los Angeles Kings began challenging California for the NHL’s 1970-71 basement; only a last-place finish by the Golden Seals would give Montreal the No. 1 pick. So Pollock traded veteran Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles, a destination the forward desired, and Backstrom’s 27 points (14 goals, 13 assists) over the final 33 games of the season helped to push California into last place, assuring the Canadiens of the first choice in 1971.
It seemed a coin toss for Pollock between two prolific juniors: Lafleur, who in the two previous seasons with Quebec had scored 379 points (233 goals, 146 assists) or Dionne, a 19-year-old native of Drummondville, Quebec, who scored 275 points (117 goals, 158 assists) in the same span with St. Catharines.
Imagine this: There was white-hot speculation heading into the draft that Montreal would make a trade with Detroit for its No. 2 pick, in effect locking up each French-Canadian star. The Canadiens apparently were ready to deal goalie Rogie Vachon or Phil Myre and a defenseman for the Red Wings’ pick, but the deal never materialized.
As the Lafleur-or-Dionne debate raged, Montreal chief scout Claude Ruel said there was no doubt in his mind.
“Lafleur is a smart player,” Ruel said. “He carries the puck, he’s tough and he backchecks, too. He never lets his team down and that’s the mark of a star.”
So it was that the Canadiens drafted Lafleur, followed by the Red Wings’ pick of future fellow Hall of Famer Dionne, then defenseman Jocelyn Guevremont by the second-year Vancouver Canucks. The third future Hall of Famer in the 117-member Class of 1971 was Montreal defenseman Larry Robinson, chosen in the second round (No. 20), a selection Pollock had acquired from the Kings in a Jan. 23, 1970 trade that sent forward Dick Duff out west for the pick and forward Dennis Hextall.
Seven of the 12 players taken by the Canadiens in the 10-round 1971 draft would play in the NHL, four skating for Montreal — Lafleur, forwards Chuck Arnason (No. 7) and Murray Wilson (No. 11) and Robinson.
Marcel Dionne in action with the Detroit Red Wings.
In a scrum with the media, the freshly drafted Lafleur said he had no concern about his first pro contract.
“How much do you think I’m worth?” he joked. “How much do you think I’ll get? I’ll tell you, it won’t be for less than I was making with the Remparts.”
Represented by Gerry Patterson, who managed business for Beliveau and then-Montreal Expos outfielder Rusty Staub, Lafleur would sign a two-year contract reportedly worth $105,000 — $25,000 per season with a $55,000 signing bonus.
He was slow out of the gate with the Canadiens, shouldering the crushing demands of fans and media who expected him to instantly fill the skates of the legendary Beliveau.
Lafleur’s first three seasons saw him score 64, 55 and 56 points; in the same span, Dionne scored 77, 90 and 78 for Detroit, with Canadiens fans complaining loudly that Pollock had drafted the wrong player.
Marcel Dionne (left) and Guy Lafleur, a tossup in the eyes of many for who would be the first selection in the 1971 NHL Amateur Draft.
But then Lafleur went on a tear as one of the most thrilling and creative offensive threats of his generation, quickly becoming one of the most beloved players in Montreal history. He scored at least 50 goals in six straight seasons between 1974-75 and 1979-80, winning the Stanley Cup four consecutive times from 1976-79 after having won it in 1973.
Dionne enjoyed a tremendous career, even if he never won a Stanley Cup title. He, too, had six seasons scoring at least 50 goals, all with the Kings. With Detroit, Los Angeles and finally the New York Rangers, Dionne scored 1,771 points (731 goals, 1,040 assists) in 1,348 NHL games.
Lafleur scored 1,353 points (560 goals, 793 assists) in 1,126 NHL games for the Canadiens, Rangers and Quebec Nordiques.
Each a multiple individual award winner, Dionne was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992, four years after Lafleur. Each was named among the NHL’s 100 Greatest Players in the League’s 2017 Centennial year.
In 1971, each promised to be a great catch for whichever team came calling in the draft. As it turned out, No. 1 Lafleur and No. 2 Dionne — or No. 1 and No. 1A — delivered on that promise, and then some.
Photos: HHoF Images/Getty Images/Dave Stubbs