All of which makes it slightly startling that the Lafleur-Shutt-Mahovlich line survived relatively intact for more than two years. The line was formed in November 1974, at a time when each of the three had reached a critical point in his career. Lafleur, one of the most highly touted players ever to don the Canadien bleu, blanc et rouge, had not lived up to his notices in his first three NHL seasons, and there was speculation he would be traded—or that he would jump to the WHA team in Quebec City, where he had been a legend during his amateur career. Shutt, drafted No. 1 by the Canadiens in 1972, was unhappy about his lack of playing time and wanted to be traded. And the word was that Mahovlich was more interested in carrying the puck than passing it.
As for what made this unpromising combination click—and it clicked spectacularly—it should be quickly suggested that the man teammates call the Flower was ready to blossom no matter what line he was on. That is, Lafleur would still have excelled in the things—playmaking, shooting and forechecking—that made him a first-team NHL all-star the last two seasons. He would still have scored something like last season's league-leading 125 points. And he would still have enjoyed the trappings of success that have, for better or worse, come his way. These include a line of men's toiletries produced under his name (a women's line, "Guy," is due soon) and the fact that he found it prudent to learn to handle a .357 Magnum—practicing three times a week at a local police station—after a reported kidnapping plot during last spring's Stanley Cup playoffs. For more than a month Lafleur was shadowed by private detectives.
But Lafleur believes that going onto the new line helped things along. "At first, with the Canadiens, I played with Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer," he was saying the other day. "They were great names and older than me, and I think I was too impressed with them. I did too much thinking about them. It is more comfortable with Steve. We're the same age and good friends, and it is great to be on the same line."
Shutt relishes the friendship, too. A gregarious Torontonian, he was confident enough to have begun tooling around in a 1956 Bentley before becoming a star; nevertheless, he had been stung when Montreal's French-language papers were quick to criticize some of his early mistakes on the ice. Lafleur unfailingly defended him, and Shutt says now, "I really appreciated Guy for that." It might have eventually silenced his critics that Shutt married a Montreal girl, but he also answered them in more relevant ways. He got to the ice in a hurry, worked hard and was tough in front of the net, where his quick release justified his nickname of Bullet. Last season he scored 45 goals, second on the club to Lafleur's 56.
The senior citizen of the three, Mahovlich, is a clubhouse comedian who was only too glad to join Lafleur and Shutt in the banter that NHL linemates feel duty-bound to exchange. Thus, when his wings inevitably complained that they played on a "donut line" that had no center, Mahovlich replied, also inevitably, that he played on a "helicopter line" that had no wings. When the line was first formed, Mahovlich's play justified the criticism that had been leveled against him; he insisted on stickhandling his way up the ice, a hulking, jut-jawed figure who used his great reach to coax the puck past defenders. The trouble was that this obliged Lafleur and Shutt to wait for him at the blue line. But Mahovlich soon enough saw the wisdom of adjusting his style and "head-manning" the puck to his wings.
"When you've got wings that move like Steve and Guy do, you want to get the puck to them on the break," he now concedes. Mahovlich's reach also helped him snag loose pucks at the offensive end. It was no accident that he led the Canadiens in assists both seasons the line was in business.
But any glowing references to Mahovlich—and therefore to the entire line—must be phrased, for now anyway, in the past tense. The trouble began when the line played as a unit in last fall's Canada Cup. Mahovlich, a dedicated reveler, was huffing and puffing on the ice. Lafleur remembers chatting with him over a beer at the Hotel Bonaventure. "I told him he should start taking care of himself," Lafleur relates. "I told him he wasn't doing Steve and me any good, or himself, either." In the regular season Mahovlich scored four goals in the first 16 games, then lost his touch completely, getting just two more goals in the next 23 games. He also was giving the puck away, and there was that back-checking problem.
Ken Dryden says of the situation, "Last year Pete, Guy and Steve were a true line. They worked the puck around the zone, keeping it in until one of them got an opening. The best thing about keeping it in the zone like that, of course, is that the other team can't score. But this year Guy and Steve were involved in a lot more two-man breaks. They were scoring a lot but they were also getting trapped up ice, which made us vulnerable on defense."
In breaking up the line, Bowman was, as usual, playing more than one angle. Of the decision to switch Mahovlich to left wing on another line—with Doug Risebrough and Mario Tremblay—Scotty says, "Sometimes Pete loses concentration. The way to get him going is to give him some new responsibility. Besides, I'd like to get a little more size on the wings." The decision to bring in Lemaire rather than somebody else? "Jacques is a good back-checker, which is what this line needs. But I'd also like to see him become a bit more offensive-minded. Playing with Guy and Steve should help."
May all of life's problems be so resolved. In a recent four-game stretch, while playing alongside Risebrough and Tremblay, Mahovlich got two goals and two assists, and the smile he had been wearing for weeks suddenly seemed real. Moreover, Lemaire had already equaled last year's total of 20 goals and was plainly enjoying the fast company he was keeping. The baldish Lemaire likes to scoot around making short, quick passes, a different style from Mahovlich's. "Jacques passes more than Pete did but not as well," says Shutt. "Pete passes longer but Jacques gets up the ice quicker. Pete uses his size to get the puck while Jacques darts in there for it. Each guy has his own style."