It was a simple gesture.
But one that former Vernon Mayor Wayne McGrath has kept since December 1997.
While in office that year, McGrath received a Christmas card at city hall from none other than NHL Hall of Famer, the then-recently retired Montreal Canadiens superstar Guy Lafleur, who had played in an NHL Oldtimers exhibition game against McGrath and the Vernon RCMP at the Vernon Civic Arena a month earlier on Nov. 9, 1997.
Lafleur died April 22, 2022, of cancer at age 70 and McGrath dug out the card, still in the envelope which was addressed to The Mayor of Vernon, and from Le Club de Hockey Canadien.
“He signed the card, ‘Hope you’re in better shape in 1998,’” laughed McGrath, now 79. “And he did come back in 1998.”
McGrath suited up for the Vernon RCMP squad, lined up against the NHL Oldtimers in a game that raised more than $5,000 for the local branch of Crime Stoppers, RCMP Citizens On Patrol and the RCMP Crime Prevention Unit.
“It was a thrill for me to be out there with guys I’d listened to on the radio or watched on TV,” said McGrath.
Same held true at the time for Vernon businessman Bob Sattler, who got to play for the NHL Oldtimers as one of the event’s sponsors for the evening.
“It’s a dream come true, an incredible thrill to be on the same bench as these guys,” said Sattler to the Morning Star after the game in 1997. He played with the likes of former Toronto Maple Leafs star Jim Dorey, Habs defenceman Gaston Gingras and former Winnipeg Jet Jimmy Mann.
“It’s not as fast as I thought it would be but it’s a lot crisper than what I’m used to. They all play position so well and when they make a pass, it’s crisp and right on the tape. You’re not expecting some of the passes they make. They definitely showed what they can do out there.”
RCMP goalie Todd Beck of Vernon was in agreement, though he stoned Lafleur on a number of occasions.
“It’s definitely neat making saves off guys like Guy Lafleur. They definitely know how to shoot the puck,” said Beck. “When they want to score, they score. When these guys shoot for a corner, it’s in the corner and there’s not a lot you can do about it.”
Without question, Lafleur was the most popular player on the ice in front of a capacity crowd of nearly 2,300 fans at the Civic.
According to former reporter Scott Douglas’ article, “fans joined in a roaring chant of ‘GUY’ as Lafleur took to the ice for warm-up, and then saved their loudest applause for the holder of five Stanley Cup rings when he was introduced.”
After the game, at a reception at the Vernon Lodge Hotel, McGrath recalled Lafleur happily posing for pictures with fans.
“What amazes me the most when we travel to all these different cities is the popularity of Guy,” said 15-year NHL veteran Mario Marois. “It doesn’t matter where we go in Canada, Guy is always the favourite.”
Lafleur, who finished his career with 560 goals, 793 assists in 1,126 NHL games for Montreal, the New York Rangers and Quebec Nordiques, was on his third tour of duty with the Oldtimers.
“We’re just out there having fun,” said Lafleur after the game to Douglas. “There’s no pressure out here. We’re just out having a good time playing the game we love.”
Lafleur’s body will lie in state Sunday and Monday, May 1 and 2, in Montreal prior to his national funeral Tuesday, May 3.