Given an opportunity last summer to sign Guy Lafleur, the Kings passed on one of the top 15 scorers in National Hockey League history.
Lafleur made it seem that way Monday night at Madison Square Garden, where he ignited an already boisterous crowd of 17,482 by scoring three goals in the New York Rangers’ 6-4 victory over the Kings.
Lafleur’s 17th career hat trick was his first since Feb. 9, 1984, when the seemingly withering Flower scored three goals against the Vancouver Canucks in his 13th and last full season with the Montreal Canadiens.
This hat trick was probably the most emotional of his career, too.
And, as hats of all shapes rained down onto the ice during a prolonged ovation, Coach Michel Bergeron nudged the man who had caused the commotion.
Lafleur, though, sat quietly on the Ranger bench.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “Bergeron wanted me to stand up, but I’ve never done that. I’ve never seen that in hockey.”
But baseball players frequently make curtain calls.
“I’m not a baseball player,” Lafleur said quietly.
He might as well have been, though, for all the interest shown in him by the Kings, who were the first team contacted by Lafleur last August when he was inquiring about making a comeback.
Nineteen games into the 1984-85 season, Lafleur had quit in a dispute over playing time with former Canadien Coach Jacques Lemaire.
And the two-time NHL most valuable player and three-time NHL scoring champion stayed retired, too, overseeing his business interests and playing each winter for a touring club team before inquiring about a return.
He asked the Kings for a tryout but was rebuffed, in part, because of his insistence that he be signed to a contract before training camp.
Lafleur later said that General Manager Rogie Vachon of the Kings spurned him because of Vachon’s friendship with General Manager Serge Savard of the Canadiens, whom Lafleur said didn’t want him in the league.
“Nobody will say it, but I knew my chances (of signing with the Kings) were very slim because of that,” Lafleur said.
Lafleur turned his attention to the Rangers, who signed the balding right wing last Aug. 19, a month before his 37th birthday.
“I gave him an opportunity,” Ranger General Manager Phil Esposito said, “because, if Guy were in my position, he’d give me a chance, too.”
Despite missing 11 games with a foot injury, Lafleur has played well, moving from 11th place into ninth place on the all-time NHL scoring list while scoring 17 goals and accumulating 40 points in 51 games.
Still, when he joined the Rangers in camp last September, Lafleur had no visions of hat tricks and standing ovations.
“I was only thinking about making the team,” he said.
On occasion, though, he has displayed his old magic.
This was one of those nights as Lafleur helped extend the Kings’ winless streak to four games, scoring twice in the first period and adding a third goal at 14:26 of the second period to put the Rangers ahead, 4-3.
Kelly Kisio scored the game-winning goal for the Rangers, breaking a 4-4 tie on a shot from the left circle with 4:43 left.
As for Lafleur’s part, he said: “The puck seemed like it was following me. You have to take advantage of that. It’s too bad it doesn’t happen every night.”
Even though it doesn’t, Lafleur is a crowd favorite. The support from the fans, he said, has been instrumental in his comeback.
“When you jump on the ice, you work twice as hard because you feel like you have maybe 20,000 legs pushing for you,” Lafleur said.
At least one fan got a close look at Lafleur.
Wayne Gretzky, whose three assists for the Kings gave him a club record 138 points, described Lafleur’s performance as “electrifying.”
What did Bruce McNall think?
“I wish we would have done something with him after what I saw tonight,” said the owner of the Kings. “He was great.”
Was he admitting a mistake?
“In hindsight, who knows?” McNall said.
Lafleur holds no grudges.
“I turned the page when I came here,” he said. “I respect their decision. You can’t force somebody to pick you up.”
You can, however, make them look kind of silly.
But even that didn’t interest the gentlemanly Lafleur.
The success of his comeback, he said, has been one of the most satisfying aspects of his career.
Somebody asked if he felt he was rewriting hockey history.
“My thing is to play hockey,” he said. “I don’t want to be a writer.”
What motivates him?
“I want to be back here next year,” he said.
Wayne Gretzky’s three assists increased his point total to 138, eclipsing a club record of 137 set by Marcel Dionne during the 1979-80 season. Interestingly, Gretzky also had 137 points that season, but Dionne won the scoring title because he scored more goals. . . . Gretzky, shut out in the Kings’ previous two games, has been held without a point in three consecutive games only three times in his career, the last time in March, 1987. In 858 career games, he has been held without a point only 75 times.
Guy Lafleur was the No. 1 pick in the 1971 National Hockey League draft. . . . The Kings are 2-7-4 on the road since beating the Vancouver Canucks at Vancouver, 5-2, on Dec. 23 and are 5-11-3 overall since beating the Hartford Whalers, 9-6, at the Forum on Jan. 14. . . . A second-period goal by Doug Crossman was the first for the King defenseman in 23 games.