'He was a gift for us': Thousands come to say goodbye to Guy Lafleur at Montreal Bell Centre
Visitations continue Monday at Montreal's Bell Centre, ahead of Tuesday funeral
Thousands of people from near and far flocked to Montreal's Bell Centre on Sunday for the chance to say their final goodbyes to hockey legend Guy Lafleur.
Public visitations began at the Bell Centre Sunday and will resume Monday morning, before ending at 3 p.m. A national funeral will then be held on Tuesday.
Michel Labrosse travelled with a group from Lafleur's hometown of Thurso, Que. and lined up nearly three hours before the arena doors opened to pay their respects.
"He was a gift for us in Thurso — a very important guy," Labrosse said.
He said Lafleur would often come and visit the city, sharing his favourite memory of getting to play against the hockey star with his recreational hockey team during one of Lafleur's trips.
"It's very important for us to be here because it's a pleasure to return [our presence] to him."
Lafleur died just over a week ago at the age of 70 following a battle with lung cancer.
He led the Canadiens to four straight Stanley Cup titles in the 1970s and is still the all-time points leader for the Habs. He had struggled with health conditions, including a recurrence of lung cancer in 2020.
For Greggory LaBerge, no distance was too far and no wait was too long to keep him from saying goodbye to his hero.
"I don't care about the wait — could be 20 hours," he said.
WATCH | Fans say their farewells to hockey legend Guy Lafleur:
Originally from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., LaBerge grew up as a Habs fan and now lives in Denver, CO. Despite the distance, he decided to fly out to Montreal to be among fellow mourners.
"It just hit me in the heart, and I said, 'I have to go there. I have to be amongst our people in Montreal. Because these are our people — the Habs fans are our people," he said tearfully.
Quebec Premier François Legault was among the first dignitaries to offer his condolences to members of Lafleur's family next to his casket inside the Bell Centre.
"Quebecers of my age will certainly never forget him," Legault later told reporters.
"I lost my father young, he was 59-years-old. I remember moments I had with my father watching Guy Lafleur and hearing the crowds saying Guy! Guy! Guy! That was something."
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante also spoke to reporters, acknowledging people from all over the world who came to the city for this occasion.
"It shows that Guy Lafleur was loved," Plante said. "I spoke with a lot of residents who told me Guy Lafleur made them proud. He touched a lot of people with his generosity, authenticity, passion, and talent."
She said the city will honour Lafleur by naming a street or another location after him.
Speaking to reporters, Montreal Canadiens greats Yvon Lambert and Réjean Houle paid tribute to their former teammate and friend, reminiscing about his generosity and laughing about his lead foot.
"Guy Lafleur, he was going 100 miles an hour everywhere. [...] One hundred miles an hour when he went to Quebec by car, 100 miles an hour when he went on the ice rink," joked Houle.
Noting the number of people at the Bell Centre, both young and old, Lambert pointed to the impact Lafleur had on all generations.
"It's not just the world of the 60s and 70s. You will have people from the 90s and 2000s. That's when we will realize the impact that Guy Lafleur had on the public," he said.
'He did a lot for Montreal'
About 30 members of the Royal Canadian Air Force were also there to pay homage to another side of Lafleur's legacy — one that many people may have not known about.
Lafleur served two terms as honorary colonel in the Royal Canadian Air Force, first with 12 Radar Squadron between 2005 and 2008, then with 3 Wing Bagotville from 2013 to 2016. He participated in activities and visited soldiers in Afghanistan.
Major General Sylvain Ménard said Lafleur personified the motto of the force, which is "such is the pathway to the stars."
"Guy saw stardom in his living and now we wish him the best as he reaches the stars," he said.
Some fans brought souvenirs, such as jerseys and photographs signed by Lafleur — a symbol that speaks to his generosity and commitment to the community.
"He was a major legend of our hockey team ... and he did a lot for Montreal," said fan Paolo Caterina, sporting a Canadiens hat, mask and jersey.
Among the fans who came out to pay tribute to number 10 was Maureen McKinnon, who fondly remembers watching Lafleur play numerous times in person at the Montreal Forum
"Just watching him on the ice with his hair blowing in the wind [...] it was something," she said through tears.
"He was so great and he was so honest and just a nice person."
A national funeral for Lafleur will be held on Tuesday at the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral in downtown Montreal, beginning at 11 a.m.
National funerals are reserved for "people who, for example, have made an impact on political life, as decided by the government," the province says. The announcement of a national funeral for Lafleur follows similar honours for fellow Canadiens icons, Maurice Richard and Jean Béliveau, in 2000 and 2014 respectively.
WATCH | Thousands pay tribute to Guy Lafleur at the Bell Centre:
With files from Matt D'Amours, Kwabena Oduro, Radio-Canada and the Canadian Press