“They’re going to be a contender and there’s no doubt in my mind they’ll make the (Stanley Cup) Playoffs,” the legendary Canadiens defenseman said then. “They reinforced every position this offseason, in goal, on the blue line and forwards. They’ll have no excuses this year. They’ll have to deliver.”
For the next seven months, Lapointe watched incredulously as the Canadiens, for whom he won six Stanley Cup championships in their glorious 1970s, finished fourth in the seven-team Scotia North Division and then pushed through three rounds of the playoffs before finally falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning, losing the best-of-7 Stanley Cup Final in five games.
Guy Lapointe on Nov. 8, 2014 at Montreal’s Bell Centre, the night of his jersey retirement, between Big Three teammates Serge Savard (left) and Larry Robinson, and on Sept. 25, 2021 with a photo of his banner-raising that night.
“A lot of people asked me for a prediction about Montreal last season and I’ll be honest, I never predicted them to go to the Final,” Lapointe said Saturday, appearing at a collectibles signing in the suburbs of Montreal.
The 73-year-old spoke with his glass half full, as it always is, his oral cancer in remission, his raspy voice shrugged off as just a speed bump in his life.
“The Canadiens surprised a lot of people,” Lapointe said. “They came together, played as a team, and that should help them this year. They have memories of what they did to get where they did last year, play hard every shift, every game, as a team.
“It’s not going to be easy for them to repeat what they did last year, back in the Atlantic Division with an 82-game schedule. But they made a lot of changes in the offseason, some good, positive changes. And they’re in a good position with Carey Price and Jake Allen in nets.”
Guy Lapointe in 1970s action, defending in front of goalie Ken Dryden.
A 6-foot-4, 230-pound canyon is that of Canadiens captain Shea Weber, a defenseman expected to miss the season while mending a shopping list of injuries.
“I think they’ll miss Weber’s leadership,” said Lapointe, who with Serge Savard and Larry Robinson was a member of the Canadiens’ “Big Three” on defense, all elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, the numbers of all three retired to the rafters of Montreal’s Bell Centre.
“Shea’s a good player, a good competitor who’s well respected by his teammates. I’m sure that will be a big hole to fill. It’s going to up to the other guys now to take over.”
For two hours Saturday, Lapointe greeted a steady stream of fans, many of whom were too young to ever have seen him play a game. He wore his Hall of Fame Class of 1993 ring on his right hand, his 1979 Canadiens Stanley Cup ring on his left.
Guy Lapointe wearing his Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 1993 ring (left) and his 1979 Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup ring, the last of his six championships with Montreal.
Earlier in the week, Lapointe joined a handful of former teammates to celebrate the 70th birthday of Canadiens icon Guy Lafleur, six Hall of Famers among the group. The combined winnings of Lapointe, Lafleur and former Canadiens captains Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Yvan Cournoyer and Savard were staggering: 37 Stanley Cup championships; Frank J. Selke Trophies (7); Conn Smythe Trophies (4); Art Ross Trophies and Ted Lindsay Award (3 each); Hart Trophies (2); Bill Masterton Trophy (1).
Lapointe, Cournoyer and Savard were also teammates with Canada against a Soviet all-star team in 1972, the historic Summit Series having stopped hockey in its tracks 49 years to the week that they feted Lafleur.
Lapointe’s played 884 games over 16 NHL seasons from 1968-84, the first 777 with the Canadiens before playing 62 for the St. Louis Blues and his final 99 for the Boston Bruins. He scored 622 points (171 goals, 451 assists), his plus-329 tied with Hall of Famer Stan Mikita for 20th in NHL history.
Six Montreal Canadiens Hall of Famers gathered on Sept. 20, 2021 for Guy Lafleur’s 70th birthday. From left: Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Yvan Cournoyer, Lafleur, Guy Lapointe and Serge Savard.
A physical, rock-solid defenseman, Lapointe sometimes was deployed by Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman as a forward on Montreal’s fearsome power play, Big Three teammates Savard and Robinson anchoring the attack on defense.
Retired from his latest work as a scout for the Minnesota Wild, Lapointe is counting his blessings every day after the debilitating battle he’s waged with oral cancer since it was diagnosed in December 2019. Treatment included three rounds of chemotherapy and 36 doses of radiation, “pretty aggressive treatment,” he says.
The cancer was declared to be in remission last year. Having lost half his tongue, Lapointe’s speech can give him problems; he calls his water bottle “my best friend,” his mouth constantly dry. A connoisseur of good food and wine, his diet is severely limited given his difficulty swallowing, even chicken noodle soup a challenge in the early days after treatment.
Guy Lapointe as member of Team Canada during the historic 1972 Summit Series.
A year ago, Lapointe lost his sense of taste but not his legendary sense of humor.
“I feel like a garbage can: You open the lid, throw the food into it and put the lid back on,” he joked at the time.
But Lapointe said Saturday that his taste has returned, “so that’s very positive. I’ve been spending a lot of time playing golf but any time I do, I have to bring my own special lunch so I can eat between holes. My game isn’t too bad, I play in the low 90s and still hit a few good shots. Some days are tougher than others but being on the golf course is good for my mind. I can relax and think about something else.”
Cancer hasn’t been Lapointe’s first health scare. He recalls having taken a deflected puck in the face during a game in 1977, dangerously close to losing his left eye.
Guy Lapointe in a 1970s portrait taken on the team’s Montreal Forum bench.
“It took me a while to recover from that and even when you come back, you’re a little nervous with flying pucks,” he said. “I used to block a lot of shots and when I returned, I didn’t change my style.”
Nor has Lapointe changed his happy-go-lucky style with people that made him one of the most popular Canadiens of his era, and still today. If the pandemic and a weakened immune system during cancer treatment kept him from mingling with the fans he loves, he’s now gently dipping his toe back into the public and enjoying every second of it. He’s eager to return to Bell Centre this season for as many Canadiens games as he can attend.
“I miss having a good steak and a glass of wine, but I look on the bright side,” he said. “If I’d had this cancer even just a few years ago, I might not be here today. I give thanks for the advances in medicine and technology. They were able to save my life.”
Photos: Dave Stubbs; Hockey Hall of Fame; Getty Images