For years, while they finished first, all that the Montreal Canadiens watched was the top of the NHL standings. But this season the Canadiens are skating along in third place with no hope of catching the Boston Bruins, and their eyes are directed down—way down. The goal in Montreal is this: to make sure the California Golden Seals finish last.
To that end—and to that end alone—the Canadiens traded Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles a few weeks ago, when the Kings began a dangerous slide toward the cellar. For that reason and no other the Canadiens gave Center Gordon Labossiere to the Minnesota North Stars when the fading Stars were desperate for goals. The very next time the North Stars met the Seals they beat them 7-1, and three of the seven were scored by Labossiere. Smart trade, noted all of Montreal.
There are those in the know who say that if any team in the NHL should show signs of displacing the Seals at the bottom of the combined East-West rankings, Montreal General Manager Sammy Pollock would show up at rink-side offering a Beliveau or Cournoyer to pull them out of the slump.
The reason is the latest flower of Canada's junior hockey program, Guy Lafleur.
There was a time when the two Canadian members of the NHL—Montreal and Toronto—did not have to concern themselves much over acquiring top junior hockey players; they owned them practically from birth. But new draft rules adopted some years back changed matters to give the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs only a slight preference in choosing young players, and three years ago even that advantage was taken away. Now the Canadian teams must compete in the draft on equal terms with everyone else. And everyone else has his eye on Guy Lafleur.
Last season the flashing right wing of the Quebec Remparts scored 146 goals in 83 games. Already this season this 19-year-old 6-footer, who is cast in the mold of Rocket Richard, has scored more than 100 goals, and only recently he helped his team beat Rosemont by making seven goals himself and assisting on four others. It is obvious to every scout in the league that young Lafleur could play as important a part in the Canadiens' future as his idol, Jean Beliveau, who also played in Quebec, did in their past. It is obvious, too, that the Canadiens will do everything in their power to sign him up. The first and best way to do that is to keep the California Seals in last place, for the Seals, you see, traded their first draft pick to Montreal last year.
When and if the Canadiens get Guy Lafleur, sportswriters on this side of the border will surely begin calling him "another Orr." But in French-speaking Quebec they have long been calling him something like that. "Il est en or," the Quebecois say of Guy, meaning that he is their Golden Boy.
When Jean Beliveau left their city some 17 years ago to play for the Canadiens, the Quebecois began to lose interest in Canada's national sport. Over the years the city's team, the Aces, averaged barely 1,000 customers a game at the arena they built for Beliveau. Then came Lafleur and later a new name for the team: the Quebec Remparts. Suddenly the box office at the 10,000-seat Coliseum began to hum again. "Everyone is coming to see Les Remparts," crowed one official of the team. "Ah, no," Roland Mercier, who once signed Beliveau for the Aces, corrected him. "They come to see Guy Lafleur."
Like most Canadian boys Lafleur grew up with his eye on a puck. His family lived in Thurso, a lumbering town about 25 miles from Ottawa. "My father is a welder, and he took me out to play hockey for the first time when I was 4 years old," says Guy. "I played in all the various leagues—Mosquito, Peewee, Bantam and Midget—and when I was 14 I received a letter from a Paul Dumont asking me if I'd come to Quebec City and play hockey in the junior program there."