Friday marks the 25th anniversary of the biggest trade in hockey history, when Wayne Gretzky was dealt from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.
The Gretzky deal had a huge impact on hockey and also played a role in Guy Lafleur coming out of retirement.
About a week after the Kings acquired Gretzky, Lafleur, who had retired in 1984 – 19 games into his 14th NHL season with the Canadiens – asked the Kings for an invitation to their first training camp with the Great One.
“If I wasn’t in good enough shape, I wouldn’t waste anybody’s time,” Lafleur, who was 36 at the time, told the Los Angeles Times, adding that he had been thinking about a comeback for a couple of months.
“L.A. was my first phone call,” Lafleur added at the time. “It’s a good place to play, especially now that Wayne is there.”
Rogie Vachon, the Kings’ general manager at the time, said he was intrigued by Lafleur’s proposal, but added: “I don’t know if we’re ready to commit ourselves. A guy like this would be expensive, and we can only go so far, budget-wise. We’ll talk to them later this week.”
The Kings took a pass on Lafleur, but he did make a comeback during the 1988-89 season with the New York Rangers, posting 18-27-45 totals in 67 games. He would go on to play two more seasons with the Quebec Nordiques before retiring again for good.
Below is a column Michael Farber wrote for The Gazette in the summer of 1988 about Lafleur and a possible comeback following the Gretzky trade:
(Postmedia News file photo)
Who are we to say Lafleur shouldn’t make comeback?
PUBLISHED IN THE GAZETTE ON AUG. 17, 1988
Guy Lafleur comes back, or Godhead Revisted.
The first reaction to the news is: Who’s next?
“I think my retirement from philosophy some millenia ago was a tad premature. I’ve seen a lot of the younger fellows do quite well – your Rousseau, your Hobbes, your Nietzsche – and at the risk of being immodest, I’d like to think there are some pretty profound thoughts still floating around these old synapses. If any school of thought figures I can help, I’d be delighted to strap on my thinking cap for another two seasons or so.”
Sad? Of course not. Infinitely sadder than the thought of a 37-year-old Lafleur taking a fourth-line shift in Los Angeles or Detroit or wherever is the prospect of the Demon Blond stewing for the rest of his life over having left the game before his time.
He is a person, not merely a personage.
Lafleur has the right to exorcise the personal demons that haunted his retirement from the moment he said “I quit” on Nov. 26, 1984.
Lafleur was 33 then. His career had been in gentle decline since the 1979-80 season, the last time he scored more than 30 goals in a season.
He thinks playing on a line with Wayne Gretzky in Los Angeles would allow him to score 30 again, and in what appears to be a gross act of self-deception, this is the one line of thought that makes perfect sense; John Ziegler and Pee-Wee Herman could pot 30 if they were Gretzky’s wingers.
The fact remains that in his final 23 playoff games for the Canadiens, Lafleur scored two goals. The player who used to lift wonderful Montreal teams on his slender shoulders had to be carried in the 1980s.
But Lafleur was never a burden because he was Lafleur, an ornament to his age and an icon in a city where the Morenz-Richard-Beliveau-Lafleur succession is treated with a reverence befitting the secular religion of Quebec.
Lafleur owes Montreal nothing now.
His contemplated comeback desecrates nothing and no one.
Lafleur paid his debt in 13-plus seasons – most brilliant, some ordinary – in which he illuminated the sport and reflected glory on those who watched it.
His responsibility is strictly to himself, and if the sight of Lafleur laboring down the wing in some garage-league uniform deprives you of cherished memories of a once dashing right winger taking a hockey game and making it his own toy, it is your problem, not his.
The sports fan takes a proprietary interest in his heroes that is not his to take.
A Guy Lafleur or a Willie Mays or Joe Namath at the height of art can’t be trapped like a bug in amber and trotted out of the footlocker of our mind every time we want to feel young again.
The decision to quit – no matter what the endeavor – should be a question of personal preference and dignity, not something as vague as a notion an athlete “should know when it’s time” or something as specific as age 65.
Lafleur has chafed ever since retiring, huffy over the feeling the Canadiens rushed him to that judgment.
As Serge Savard, Canadiens managing director and Lafleur’s former teammate, said yesterday, “An athlete never says it’s over in his heart.”
If Lafleur thinks he can dipsy-doodle for Detroit the way he did for the Petro-Canada all-stars, if the Red Wings will pay a King’s ransom in salary, and if there are enough ticket-buying suckers around to underwrite it, then everyone agrees, right?
Lafleur would be the first person in the history of the league who might have to skip his own induction to the Jockey Hall of Fame so he can go to training camp.
The best part about the Lafleur comeback is it would occur outside Montreal, outside Quebec.
There is too much history here for Lafleur to return to the scene of his prime.
“For us, it would be a step backwards,” Savard said.
“He was a fine player who ran into difficulties at the end.
“You get a guy who doesn’t score in 20 games in a row and you’re used to seeing him score 50 or 60, well, the standards were different.
“I understand why he thinks he can still play.
“He’s on our retirement list, but we won’t stand in his way. But I haven’t heard from any teams or from either Lafleur or his agent.”
The Kings say all the talk has come from Lafleur, that they have no interest.
Lafleur always has been one of the blessed, without guile, a man with the childlike tendency to say whatever was on his mind, especially after a second drink.
But when he said he wants to try again if he is allowed to “play his game” – whatever that might be after a break of almost four years – he spoke out of a heartfelt conviction.
The Lafleur comeback is a return of the naif. Godspeed.