September 17, 2019

Trading Places: Marcel Dionne and Guy Lafleur

Guy Lafleur was destined to be a superstar in Montreal.

In junior hockey with the Quebec Aces (later renamed Remparts), Lafleur emerged as one of the greatest prospects of all time. And Les Canadiens went great lengths to ensure he would be theirs.

Lafleur was not eligible for the NHL draft until 1971, but Montreal wanted him badly. In May 1970 they made their first move to secure the 1st overall pick in '71. They traded Ernie Hicke and their own 1st rounder to lowly Oakland.

As the 1970-71 season progressed, the Habs gamble was working well as the Seals toiled and threatened to finish dead last, giving Montreal the top pick. To make sure the equally terrible Los Angeles Kings did not fall beneath the Seals in the standings, the Habs basically gave away Ralph Backstrom during the season to prop up the Kings and make them good enough to finish strong.

Mission accomplished. The Seals finished last. The Habs drafted first, landing Guy Lafleur essentially for the price of Hicke and an aging Backstrom. Pure brilliance.

While there was no doubting Montreal had wanted to pick "The Flower" all along, another Francophone player was the obvious #2 choice in the 1971 draft - Marcel Dionne. Dionne may be best remembered as an LA King, but it was the Detroit Red Wings that drafted him in '71. He would play in the Motor City for four years before an unceremonious departure to California.

In hindsight, some might argue Dionne may have been the better player, and should have been chosen 1st overall by Montreal. He found near-instant success in the NHL, unlike Lafleur. He had a longer career, and he dwarfed Lafleur's career stats. And he did it all with very little supporting cast. Mind you, he never had any luck whatsoever in the playoffs.

There has always been some feeling of sympathy for Dionne. He was an amazing scorer with great drive and passion for playing hockey. But he always played on terrible teams. Many wonder how his career, and for that matter Lafleur's career, would have been drastically different had Dionne been selected by Montreal, and Lafleur had to toil with the weak Red Wings. Would Dionne's stature in the world of hockey been that much greater?

"All through my career it's like people feel sorry for me," Dionne told Ted Mahovlich in the book Triple Crown: The Marcel Dionne Story. "They tell me it was too bad, that Montreal should have drafted me. Well, I played eighteen years in the NHL. What do you want me to do about it? If I had scored 200 goals and won ten Stanley Cups, would that make me a happier person? Or you score 700 goals and have no Stanley Cups? The reality is that we can't all play for the Montreal Canadiens."

In 2008 a more confident Dionne told RDS that he could have scored 1000 goals if he had played for Montreal.

"In Montreal, I don't know what would have happened. There's a big difference between playing in Montreal and Los Angeles. Considering the strong teams, loaded with talent the Canadiens had, and that they had a style of play that I adored, with speed and quick puck movement, it's not exaggerating to say I'd have scored a 1000 instead of 731, of course, if they had room for me."

There would have been no guarantees for Dionne in Montreal. He would have been brought along slowly, like Lafleur was. Dionne's instant success in the NHL would likely not have happened in Montreal. Especially considering the pecking order would have had Dionne, a center, playing behind Jacques Lemaire, Peter Mahovlich and Henri Richard in his rookie year.

Moreover, the atmosphere in Montreal may have eaten Dionne up early in his career.

"For sure I might have been fully appreciated in Quebec, and Canada even. Here, we know our hockey. The advantage of playing in Los Angeles was that the pressure was less, maybe even non-existant. I had peace of mind. My career was intimate and private. I liked it like that. There's no way I'd have gotten that in Montreal."

Had Dionne jumped instantly into the fire that is Montreal he may have fizzled. Dionne cracked under similar pressure while playing in his hometown of Drummondville. With all the attention on him he nearly quit the game. Instead he found his way to St. Catherines to play with the Black Hawks with relatively no pressure at all. It was a trend that would follow Dionne through out his career - he played extremely well, putting up huge numbers while never facing the same pressures Lafleur did in Montreal, or others did in other NHL cities.

Had Dionne joined the Canadiens later in his career, after he was an established NHL star, a more mature Dionne likely would have been okay in the environment. In fact, that may have nearly happened.

Legendary reporter Dick Irvin often tells a story of Scotty Bowman asking him of all people about a possible trade with the Red Wings back when Dionne was forcing his way out of Detroit. The proposed trade on the table - Marcel Dionne for Ken Dryden, straight up.

Obviously the Habs never went for it. Sticking with Dryden, who had his own history of contract problems, proved to be a smart move, as he led the Habs to four consecutive Stanley Cups to end the decade. Even with all the spectacular offense a line of Marcel Dionne centering Guy Lafleur would have created, there was no guarantees the Habs would win with Bunny Laraque, Michel Plasse or Wayne Thomas in nets.

If you believe the reports, that was the second time Montreal and Detroit had an offer on the table for a trade involving Dionne. The first, which was revealed only in hindsight, was back at the draft table in 1971. Montreal had offered three roster players - veteran defensemen Terry Harper and J. C. Tremblay and goalie Rogie Vachon - for Detroit's 2nd overall pick, guaranteeing Dionne.

It would be an interesting exercise to travel to a parallel universe where Dionne was drafted by Montreal and Lafleur went to Detroit. I would probably concede that in many ways Dionne turned out to be better than Lafleur. But The Flower had a certain mystique Dionne could never have. He was a special player destined for a special place in Montreal's hockey history.

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