The sight of Montreal Canadiens right wing Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur gliding effortlessly at breakneck speed down the ice with his long blonde hair blowing in the breeze is one which is emblazoned into the memories of many NHL hockey fans. If not for Lafleur making a decision early in his career to forego wearing a helmet, this iconic vision would have been quite different.
Lafleur broke into the league in 1971 with extremely high expectations, on a team which had set the standard for excellence. In the QMJHL, Lafleur scored over 100 goals in two consecutive seasons with the Quebec Remparts. After his spectacular stint with the Remparts, Lafleur started the 1971-72 season with the big club.
In his rookie season with the Canadiens, Lafleur managed to score 29 goals and notch 64 points. It was a very good debut season for the sniper, however, he did not win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year, as that honor would go to his teammate, goalie Ken Dryden.
The following two seasons were a bit of a disappointment for Lafleur, as he averaged 25 goals and 56 points. Lafleur had underachieved and had not met the very high expectations of the Canadiens faithful. However, all that would change in his fourth season, 1974-75.
It is a little known fact among non-Canadiens fans that Lafleur played with a helmet during his first three seasons. During the start of the 1974-75 campaign, he decided to ditch the helmet and would go on to score 53 and amass 119 points. It would be the first of six consecutive seasons where Lafleur would score over 50 goals and put up over 100 points. The “Flower” had finally blossomed.
In today’s NHL, it would be unthinkable (and against league rules) for a player to play without a helmet. Compared to Lafleur’s era, today’s players are faster, stronger and wear much more equipment, which increases the chances of serious head injury. Therefore, Lefleur’s decision to forego the helmet was not given a second thought. Most probably, judging by his vastly improved performance from his first three seasons, his decision to go helmetless was welcomed.
The serious skull injury sustained by Canadiens prospect Blake Geoffrion recently emphasizes the importance of helmets in today’s game. When Geoffrion’s father was recently interviewed, he stated “We’re lucky that he’s alive.” If Geoffrion had not been wearing a helmet, the affects from his injury may have been much more severe and he may not have been as “lucky”.
In the forty years since Lafleur broke into the league, not only has the business of the NHL changed drastically, but so has the players’ approach and preparation for the game. What was once commonplace four decades ago, such as players wearing helmets and a full season being played, has become unthinkable today.