Guy Lafleur might have been one of the biggest stars who ever wore the blue-blanc-rouge, but he hasn't always been the world's most verbally prudent ambassador for the Montreal Canadiens. Witness back in 2008, when he publicly mocked the team for having "four fourth lines." Or in 2009, when he ripped both former teammate Bob Gainey for mishandling Alex Kovalev, and Guy Carbonneau for failing to distribute ice time properly. Or, again in 2009, when he announced it was time for long-time captain Saku Koivu to leave Montreal. No, Lafleur's shoot-from-the-lip style hasn't always endeared him to modern fans, or, likely, to team management.
The thing with Lafleur is, when a hockey player does what he did on the ice for this particular team, he ascends from mere mortal to godlike status. Even trouble with the law or a reputation for partying to excess can never really tarnish the status such a player enjoys. With that status comes respect. When he speaks, people listen. In the past, Lafleur has chosen to use that power to jab at his former team and stir the pot of controversy that constantly bubbles just below the surface of hockey in Montreal.
This week, however, he chose to put himself out there on the issue of Randy Cunneyworth, in a surprisingly sensible and positive way. Cunneyworth has been gelded by his own team's management at least twice, all over his inability to speak French. Some members of the media and the gaggle of nationalist fans who will demonstrate against the anglo coach at the Bell Centre today were delighted to see the team hang Cunneyworth out to dry. Lafleur, interestingly, took the opposite view.
He told the Vancouver Sun that winning games should trump whatever language the coach speaks.
"Times change," he said. "It's not the same anymore. I know it's important to the French people in Quebec, but, in the end, they only need a winning team. That's it. When I played, Bob Berry was our coach and didn't speak much French. Scotty Bowman didn't speak to us in French when he was coaching. We won games, we won Stanley Cups and everybody was happy."
He went on to add, "If I was hiring the coach, I would try to get the best guy out there for the job, to make sure the team got to the playoffs and had a chance at the Stanley Cup."
He also criticized the constant demand for the coach to hold press conferences, after every game and every practice. The media, he believes, should speak one-on-one to the players and coaches and leave it at that. His point of view puts him in a familiar place: directly at odds with what the GM and ownership of the team are doing. In this case, though, he's got the backing of the majority of fans...merry band of Bell Centre protesters notwithstanding...who think the same thing. Fans want a winning team. They want a Cup, and that's it. Not one real Canadiens fan would say, "Oh, no thanks. I'd rather have a bilingual coach than a championship." These things become important only when the team is losing.
So, although he so often sticks his foot in it, in this case, Lafleur is speaking for the majority. And this time, he's right.