Lafleur vs. Dionne: What Might Have Been?

Most of the posts I write for this web site — and much of the work I’m known for — is about finding the true story behind old sports tales. This story isn’t as old as many of those. Still, it dates back 53 years now, to the very beginning of my personal hockey memory. But this one is very different from what I usually write. Instead of searching for the facts, this story is sort of speculative hockey fiction.

I attended my very first NHL game (my very first hockey game of any kind) on December 30, 1970. California Golden Seals versus Toronto Maple Leafs. I have no hockey memories from before that date. That spring, the 1971 Stanley Cup Final between the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Black Hawks was the first one I ever watched. So, I was at least slightly aware of some of what was going on as the NHL Draft approached on June 10, 1971. For example, I knew who Jean Béliveau was. And many of his Montreal teammates. Béliveau retired after a brilliant 20-year career the day before the 1971 Draft. I may have known that, but I didn’t know anything about the drama behind who the Canadiens would find to replace him.

Montreal had the first pick in the 1971 NHL Draft. This is usually attributed to the brilliance of Canadiens GM Sam Pollock. Pollock was most certainly a hockey genius, but in this case there was plenty of good luck along with his good management. Yes, Pollock may have fleeced the Golden Seals at the end of the 1969–70 season, when he sent them Montreal’s first-round pick in 1970 (California used that 10th choice to select Chris Oddleifson) along with farmhand Ernie Hicke. In return, Montreal received former Canadiens prospect François Lacombe (who they had dealt to the Seals in 1968, and who they then exposed in the 1970 Expansion Draft to be chosen by Buffalo). They also got cash and California’s first pick in 1971.

Pollock would have been well aware that two French Canadian junior superstars — Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur — were going to be available in the 1971 NHL Draft … but he couldn’t have known the Seals pick he acquired would wind up being number one. California was a playoff team in 1968–69 and 1969–70 and wasn’t expected to be last overall in 1970–71. But they were, which gave Montreal the first pick.

As another example of Pollock’s genius, it’s been said that when it looked like the Los Angeles Kings might actually fall behind the Golden Seals in the 1970–71 standings, the Canadiens GM sent Ralph Backstrom to Los Angeles to bolster the Kings’ roster. In point of fact, Pollock had only dealt Backstrom because the veteran player had requested a trade to a warmer climate … and the Kings were the only team to make him an offer.

So, shrewd moves for sure, but a bit of luck too.

Having acquired the top pick, newspapers in the days leading up to the draft were fairly certain the Canadiens would select Guy Lafleur. In truth, the Canadiens were undecided between Lafleur — who’d scored 103 and then 130 goals in his last two seasons with the Quebec Remparts of the Quebec Junior Hockey League — and Marcel Dionne, who had won two straight scoring titles in the tougher Ontario Hockey Association. Dionne had plenty of supporters in the Canadiens’ front office, but ex-coach-turned-scout Claude Ruel championed Lafleur as the heir apparent to Béliveau. In the end, Ruel’s enthusiasm carried the day and Pollock selected the Quebec league star with the Seals’ pick.

But what might have happened if the Canadiens chose Marcel Dionne? Does Dionne go on to become the beloved star of a Canadiens dynasty? Is Lafleur destined to become a high-scoring phenom playing mainly in obscurity and the greatest player never to win the Stanley Cup?

Newspaper coverage in The Montreal Star (left) and The St. Catharines Standard.

Both Dionne and Lafleur became superstars who went on to Hall of Fame careers, so this isn’t like the Canadiens choosing Doug Wickenheiser with the first pick in 1980 when they could have had future Hall of Famer Denis Savard. Still, how might hockey history have changed if the Canadiens picked Marcel Dionne and left Guy Lafleur for the then-dreadful Detroit Red Wings, who later traded him to the Los Angeles Kings?

It’s impossible to know for sure, but I hoped this would be an interesting thought exercise for those who had some experience with the two men. So, I reached out to several hockey people I know, and got some further help when some of those people (most notably Bob Borgen, former L.A. Kings TV producer) reached out to others on my behalf.

First on my list was Scotty Bowman, who, of course, coached Guy Lafleur on the great Montreal teams of the 1970s. He wasn’t really willing to play along, but he did share an important fact with me. Scotty was officially hired as the new Montreal coach on the morning of the 1971 NHL Draft, but he’d known Sam Pollock (and worked for him in the Canadiens system) since the 1950s. Scotty confirmed that the Montreal brass really was undecided as to who to pick between Lafleur and Dionne, but told me the Canadiens actually hoped to draft them both! “Pollock tried to acquire the #2 choice from Detroit,” Scotty said in a email, “and came so close to pulling off a huge trade the night prior to the 1971 Draft.”

I had only just heard the possibility of this when I first started reaching out to people. Turns out, the Montreal Gazette, on the day of the draft, reported the Canadiens had offered either goalie Rogatien Vachon or Phil Myre plus a defenceman to Detroit, so it wasn’t a secret. And I obviously wasn’t the first person Scotty had shared this with. Former L.A. Kings TV analyst and longtime Nashville Predators play-by-play man Pete Weber told me that Scotty had told him the story at the start of this season. “Think about how that might have gone,” said Pete, “and what that would’ve been like in Canadiens land!”

As to Montreal’s ultimate decision to go with Lafleur over Dionne, “All in all it was a good choice,” says Scotty, “but not an easy one.” When it came to my question about how their careers might have flip-flopped if Montreal chose Dionne instead, Scotty would only say: “A lot of hypothetical views for sure…. There was never a question as to the strength of the Canadiens roster compared to Detroit or Los Angeles, so my answer will always be IF IF IF.”

Rookie Cards for Lafleur and Dionne.

Another name high on my list was Dick Irvin, who covered those great 1970s Montreal teams on television. Dick also thought the strength of the rosters was the key. “My not-so-deep-thinking opinion,” he told me, “is that the Canadiens would still have won Stanley Cups and the Red Wings not. Dionne would have had better help such as good wingers (like Steve Shutt) and power-play help (like Jacques Lemaire) plus better offensive help from the Big Three on defence [Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe]. Lafleur would not have had the same calibre of support in Detroit. He would have been their best player, but the team didn’t have nearly as many ‘best players’ as the Canadiens did.”

Most people I spoke to also assumed Dionne would have thrived in Montreal. Ron McLean said, “I think Marcel was a playmaker a la Wayne [Gretzky] and would have fed [Steve] Shutt the way he fed [Mickey] Redmond in Detroit and [Charlie] Simmer/[Dave] Taylor in L.A.”

Dionne was a star from the start of his career, but had a breakout year with the Red Wings in his fourth season of 1974–75. He had 121 points (47 goals, 74 assists) to finish third in the NHL in scoring race before moving on to Los Angeles. Conversely, Lafleur struggled in his first three seasons in Montreal to the point where people thought he was a bust. His breakout came that same 1974–75 season when he had 53 goals and 66 assists for 119 points. (Bobby Orr led the NHL that season with 135 points, ahead of teammate Phil Esposito who had 127).

“Guy emerged, it is, said when he ditched the helmet,” wrote Ron of the Lafleur legend that says the added element of danger in playing bareheaded brought out the best in him. If their careers had been flipped, “Hollywood would have nudged that,” thought Ron, “but in Detroit who knows?”

Stan Fischler was a big part of the hockey scene during the careers of Dionne and Lafleur. Though he never covered them directly, he believes Dionne would have thrived in Montreal and been welcomed by the fans there both for his francophone heritage and for his talent. He also feels Lafleur would have succeeded in L.A. because the Hollywood crowd would have welcomed him as as they later did Gretzky. “Genius will out,” says Stan.

But I wasn’t sure. “I definitely think Dionne is a star in Montreal. Less sure how Lafleur makes out. Yours is a good theory, but Gretzky brought his star to L.A. Would ‘The Flower’ have blossomed in Detroit first?”

The back of Lafleur’s Rookie Card.

“Good question,” said Stan. “So much also depends on linemates; media treatment. As my Dad would say, ‘You can guess til the cows come home.’”

And really, guessing is all anyone can do. Still, a few people were unsure how Lafleur might have fared if he’d started in Detroit.

Roy MacGregor has covered plenty of hockey in his long career as a journalist and author. (The Washington Post once declared him to be “the closest thing there is to a poet laureate of Canadian hockey.”) He’s written features on both Lafleur and Dionne, and mentioned on the phone how insecure Lafleur was as a young player. He needed the intensive coaching he got in Montreal — and the star talent around him — to bring out his best. Feeling there was no way he would have gotten that if he’d begun his career in Detroit, Roy wondered if Lafleur may have withered as a Red Wing.

Ted Mahovlich doesn’t think so. The son of Frank Mahovlich (and author of a book about him), knew Lafleur mostly as a young fan when his father played in Montreal and later got to know Dionne (and write a book about him) while travelling with the NHL Oldtimers. Like the others, he feels the big difference between the two players was the talent they played with.

“In Guy’s first eight seasons with the Habs, how many Hall of Famers did he play with? In Marcel’s first eight years in L.A., how many Hall of Famers did he play with?”

Even so, Ted believes Lafleur’s talent would have made him a star in Los Angeles. He also believes that, even if they might not have worshipped Dionne and his more workmanlike superstardom in the same way they lavished their acclaim on Lafleur’s showmanship, Montreal fans would have loved Dionne differently. “Think about the people you’ve loved in your life. Did you love them all the same way?”

Stu Hackel offered a more critical voice than anyone I spoke to. Stu is a former NHL executive — Director of Broadcasting, Publishing and Video — a lifelong hockey fan and a longtime hockey (and music) writer who I got to know during my years working for the NHL in my publishing role with Dan Diamond and Associates. “I think both careers would have been different,” wrote Stu, “and history might have been somewhat different too.”

The back of Dionne’s Rookie Card.

Like Roy MacGregor, Stu wondered what would have become of Lafleur if he’d been drafted anywhere but Montreal. “As you know, he wasn’t GUY LAFLEUR during his first three seasons in Montreal and there [were] even rumours they’d trade him. There’s been lots suggested about how and why he came into his own, from taking off his helmet to personal maturity, his marriage to Lise and birth of his first son Martin, on and on. But I think the reason has more to do with the Canadiens commitment to developing him, making him better, working him tirelessly during and after practice, and his own desire to improve.”

Especially important were the long hours put in by Claude Ruel in helping Lafleur reach his full potential and greatness. “The question,” said Stu, “is would the Red Wings or Kings have done that, or even been able to do that, considering the relatively ramshackle nature of those franchises compared to the Canadiens? There’s only one answer. No.”

Stu believes Ruel is “the secret ingredient” and a necessary one in Lafleur’s rise to greatness. “Plus,” he adds, “Lafleur had the greatest head coach of all time behind the bench and Scotty knew exactly how to handle Lafleur. (He didn’t pressure him.) I can’t imagine that happening in Detroit, where they seemed to change coaches every few months…. I don’t think whatever other club he theoretically might have played for as a young man other than Canadiens would have had the benefit of his superstardom.”

As for Dionne in Montreal, “[He] would have made them a different team,” Stu believes. “Think about their top centers in Lafleur’s first few seasons and his prime: Jacques Lemaire and Pete Mahovlich. One of those top centers would have to go in favour of Dionne. I don’t know how they’d decide which one. Lemaire was such a smart and complete player and Pete had size that Dionne did not. Going head-to-head with the other top teams of the time, the Flyers, the Sabres, the Bruins, I don’t think the matchups are as favourable to Canadiens without one of Lemaire and Mahovlich, despite Dionne’s motor and excessive skill. Those are all big and physical clubs. I don’t think Dionne fares as well as either Lemaire or Mahovlich against them. He’s no slouch, of course, so maybe the Habs still win a few Cups. But five? And four in a row? Seems to me unlikely.”

My old boss, Dan Diamond, who’d spent some time in Montreal during the Canadiens ’70s dynasty, disagreed with Stu. “Lafleur would have found a way to be a top star,” Dan believes, “and Dionne would have played a different but powerful role with a differently configured Habs team on which the top forwards would assume slightly different roles. [Ken] Dryden, Scotty and the superior defence unchanged.”

Most of the opinions so far have been somewhat Montreal-centric.

So, what about the view from Los Angeles?

Bob Miller spent 44 years as a play-by-play announcer on radio and TV with the Kings from 1973 until his retirement in 2017. Like the others, he believes the key difference was the supporting cast Lafleur had in Montreal that Dionne lacked in Los Angeles. “Lafleur was surrounded by numerous Hall of Fame candidates as his teammates,” says Bob. “When Dionne joined the Kings, he and Rogie Vachon were the only true superstars.” But Dionne “had unlimited passion, drive, and desire,” and Bob believes that would have served him well if he’d landed in Montreal.

“In my opinion,” writes Bob, “Marcel would have been equally as revered as Lafleur because Dionne was also a native of Quebec and was a TRUE goal scorer and superstar. He may not have had the speed of Lafleur, nor the ‘flowing locks,’ but with the popularity and publicity the Canadians received in Montreal and Quebec he would have benefited from that publicity blitz and from the success the team enjoyed.”

As for how Lafleur would have fared in Los Angeles, “I believe Kings fans would have been thrilled with his talent and especially his goal scoring ability,” says Bob, “but, off the ice, since I didn’t really know him that well, I wonder how he would adapt to the overall reception in L.A.?  With 12 pro teams and two major college teams, the widespread notoriety he received in Montreal might not be the same as in that hockey-crazed market.”

Bob further wondered about Lafleur’s relationship with the fans in Montreal and how that might have translated to Los Angeles. “Was he involved, approachable, friendly and down to earth? Or was he aloof? At that time, it was very important that he join the efforts to try and promote the game in the L.A. market.”

Would Marcel Dionne have been the heir had the Canadiens picked him?

I didn’t know the answer to that, but I knew who would.

“Guy Lafleur, early on in his career, had a very shy personality,” said Scotty Bowman, “but he was always the most pleasant guy you could ever imagine.”

Dick Irvin elaborated. “Lafleur was terrific with the fans. In my experience, I never heard of him refusing to sign an autograph or not showing up at a charity event. I was involved in organizing a few of those over the years and whenever Guy was asked he showed up right on time. And not only in Montreal. I recall the first time the Canadiens played in Calgary when, after the game, security finally had to get him out of the mob of autograph-seekers so the team bus could leave for the airport to get on their charter. He was signing everything for everybody.

“I am sure he would have worked very hard to help sell the game in L.A.,” said Dick.

There’s no real way to know how their careers — and hockey history — might have been different, but Bob Miller sums it up nicely when he says: “Montreal could not go wrong whether they picked Lafleur or Dionne. Both are all-time great players.”

6 thoughts on “Lafleur vs. Dionne: What Might Have Been?

  1. Another great story…thanks for sharing. Fun for you to think back to your first NHL game too.

  2. Superb idea and comprehensive opinions. The idea that The Flower got special treatment and help because of the Canadiens may seem logical; but Jean Beliveau was a total failure in his early Hab years. It wasn’t until 55-56 when rookie coach Toe Blake told him to hit back and from then on Gros Bill was a star.

  3. Great rehash of this decision, and Sam Pollock didn’t make too many wrong ones. Your story prompts some other thoughts. Is Marcel Dionne indeed the greatest player to never win the Stanley Cup? If not, who else is in the running? And…my recollection of Lafleur’s early Habs career saw him skating on their third line as a checking winger, while all fans were wondering if and when he would ever emerge as the superstar he was in junior. Happily, he did. And he became “must see TV” every second Saturday when HNIC showed Montreal games in western Canada.

  4. Once again, an excellent text and a lot of research. If I may add my two cents, having written a book about Guy Lafleur, then with the Remparts, the Canadiens made the best possible decision. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had just been established and was often considered, quite rightly, as the poor cousin of junior hockey in the country. Choosing Dionne, who had opted for Ontario to play with St. Catharines, would have been seen as a signal of Lafleur’s unimportant records. It is also interesting to note that the Montreal Junior Canadiens, owned by the Montreal Canadiens, had just won 2 Memorial Cups in 1969 and 1970, and they were playing in the Ontario Junior League and had tried to acquire Lafleur.

    Regarding the trade of Ralph Backstrom to the Kings, the goal was not only to prevent the Kings from finishing last, but also to keep them as far away as possible from top picks, as their first choice belonged to the Boston Bruins, the Canadiens’ arch-rivals. If the Bruins had drafted Guévremont, Richard Martin, or Dionne (instead of Ron Jones at 6th choice…), the Bruins may have won a few more Stanley Cups in the 70s.

  5. A great (and fun) speculation of Dionne now as a center in Montreal with Lafleur as ailier droit in the la-la land of Lakers, Dodgers, Rams and Juha Widing.
    Taking it further – now with Dionne as the Canadiens number one center, the need may have arisen for a right wing as compliment. This may have opened the door for the Habs to draft the young right wing Mike Bossy of Laval, a player Maurice Richard begged the team to draft but instead they took Mark Napier with the 10th pick, leaving Bossy to the salivating Islanders to take at #15 in the ’77 draft. Now the mind is boggled. WOW!
    Thank you for your writing and website.

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