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Lafleur lays bare his family 'nightmare'

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Pointe-Claire, Que. — “Nice gift.” The smile was subtle – the sarcasm not at all.

Guy Lafleur was thinking about his and Lise's 35th wedding anniversary, which fell on Monday. Next month, their new restaurant, Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, is scheduled to open in nearby Rosemère. Their first child, Martin, a full partner in the business, is currently building a house, which has his father looking tanned and fit from his new life as contractor, landscaper and manual labourer.

Life, you would think, couldn't be better for the 56-year-old hockey legend known in Quebec as the “Flower.”

But his wife has not been well. Twice, recently, Lise's voice mysteriously vanished. Neither of them sleeps well. Guy Lafleur – winner of five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens, one of the province's greatest heroes since that February day in 1962 when the 11-year-old sensation from Thurso scored seven goals in a single game in the Quebec Peewee Invitational – is still in shock from having a warrant issued for his arrest in January. And their other son, Mark, appeared in Montreal court yesterday to plead guilty to 14 charges, including uttering threats to his now-19-year-old former girlfriend who was a minor, forcible confinement and assault.

“I look back on all this,” says the elder Lafleur, “and say it's a nightmare.” And it is far from over. There will be more court days, as Mark Lafleur also pleaded not guilty to two charges of sexual assault. And Guy Lafleur will have his own day in court this fall.

The police records and newspaper clippings will say the nightmare began a year and a half ago with that long list of charges being laid against the younger son, who has been in custody for the past nine months since he broke the strict conditions of his bail – police say with his father's assistance.

More accurately, it is a shared nightmare, and it goes back 23 years, virtually to the moment of Mark Lafleur's birth and a nurse's comment to Lise that her squirming, squealing second child had a “big personality.” Perhaps too big. The records and the clippings – and now the courts – speak to the demon side, but the family and friends will tell you of a young man who has remarkable people skills, who can be charming and funny when he is not lashing out irrationally.

Guy Lafleur is not here to argue his son's innocence in all that he has been accused of, and now in part admitted to.

“I have nothing against my son paying for what he did wrong,” he says.

But he has agreed to talk so that people know what it is like to have been a child such as Mark Lafleur.

And, by extension, what it is like to be a parent of such a child.

A difficult childhood

Guy Lafleur tells his friends, “ Ton enfant reste ton enfant” – once your child, always your child.

Three weeks after that squirming, crying baby was born, Mark Lafleur had surgery for a digestive problem. He was not much more than a child when he was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that is more often associated with curious tics – sometimes in action, sometimes in voice – and less often with sudden outbursts of obscenities and cruel insults.

Mark Lafleur is one who has no tics to signal this disorder to others, but has had the outbursts in quantity.

The outbursts worsened as he hit puberty, the boy screaming terrible threats – including “ I'm going to kill you!” – at father, mother, older brother and others from the time he was about 12 right up to his arrest.

The strange thing, the father says, is that the son would carry no memory of such moments, claiming, “I can't remember,” and then falling into often-tearful spasms of remorse.

Compounding all this was the discovery, early on, that Mark suffered from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. By the time he began elementary school, he was on four different medications, chief among them Ritalin.

Before he even made it to kindergarten, he had been kicked out of two daycares that could not handle the whirling dervish and the angry outbursts.

The Lafleurs took their younger child – Martin, now 31, had no such difficulties – to a long series of doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists, each seemingly with a new idea of what to do. When the ADHD medication kept him awake at night, one added on sleeping pills. At one point, when Mark was 14, he spent two months in hospital while doctors tried to find a proper chemical mix for him.

By the time he left school, he had attended 13 different institutions, including two private schools in Ontario especially designed to accommodate children with learning disabilities and behavioural problems.

“All that medication made him look like a zombie,” Guy Lafleur says. “When you give that to your kid at five, six, seven years old, you're giving him drugs. I know it's supposed to be that you're helping him out, but you're still giving him drugs.

“I'm not saying everyone is affected this way. We know people who take Ritalin and are okay with it. But then, if you don't give them that, what are you going to give them to help out?” The problems with this severe disorder prevented the youngster from finding a place for himself in the same sports world that had been such a sanctuary to the father: hockey. Martin, who had been only mildly interested in his father's game, had played briefly but preferred skiing. Mark, on the other hand, showed early talent, but his temper was soon the ruin of him.

“Maybe this is a result of all the rejection he has had in his life,” the father wonders.

“I don't know if he understood from the first moment when we tried to find help. It's tough. You don't have the answers of what to do to get them out of trouble. You try to make him understand what's wrong and what's right. …

“They are a type of kid who are very – miserable – inside. They're unhappy. They're trying to find a way out and they cannot.

“People who don't have kids like that, they can't understand.” Guy Lafleur thinks he understands, to an extent. “I truly believe I was ADHD,” he says of his youth in a small mill town along the Quebec side of the Ottawa River.

“But I trained a lot. I worked on the farm. I wasn't on Valium or Ritalin. Nothing.” He threw himself into hockey as there was little else for an active child to do. He worries that today's privileged youngsters have too much opportunity granted by parents with too much themselves.

“It's tougher for them to hear a ‘no' than it was in our day,” he says. “Because our parents had so little.” Guy Lafleur was never fabulously wealthy by today's hockey superstar standards – the most he made in a single season was $400,000, and about $5-million for the 17 seasons he played in the National Hockey League – but he made superb money and was always generous to his boys. As with most parents, perhaps generous to a fault.

Guy Lafleur believes people can change. He did himself, several times. The hockey star who was once known for his between-period smokes and postgame beers hasn't had a real beer in more than 15 years. He sees himself today as not a hockey god, but a simple restaurateur trying to get a family business off the ground – hopefully, at some point, with all the family involved.

He says his son never got in much more trouble than the odd traffic ticket prior to his January, 2007, arrest. But that is only officially, as trouble was long brewing. The young girlfriend was one thing, drugs another.

As yesterday's plea was tabled, the court was told this had been a highly abusive relationship, and given that it also involved a girl who was a minor at the time, one that most assuredly would have been torturous to the young unnamed girl's family as well as difficult for the Lafleurs. And the hurt, on all sides, is not over yet.

Lafleur, rightly or wrongly, believes young people with severe ADHD are more “immature” than their peer group, and he and Lise had always hoped maturity would come for their son before serious trouble. They tried to talk their son and his young girlfriend into going back to school. They tried to give them jobs. But nothing seemed to work.

When Mark's bail hearing came up after his arrest, Guy Lafleur agreed to watch over his son and ensure that the court-imposed curfew was kept. He made a serious error, however, when he drove Mark to a hotel rendezvous with the girl last August and allowed the court to believe that Mark had, in fact, been at the family's home in Île Bizard. The older Lafleur said the 12:30 a.m. curfew was still being met but, of course, it was the wrong thing to do.

Since that time, Mark Lafleur has remained in jail – his parents' best hope now being that whatever his sentencing and whatever the outcome of the other charges, that his incarceration will eventually come to an end.

“It's been hell for her,” Lafleur says of his wife. “She's been sick ever since Mark got arrested.”

But then, almost exactly one year later, there was a warrant issued for the arrest of Guy himself.

“How do you think she felt?” Lafleur asks. “‘My son is criminally charged – now my husband is, too.'”

Looking to the future

The warrant for the arrest of one of the province's most beloved sports icons caused outrage in Quebec. Lafleur's closest friends – former players Jean Béliveau, Gaston Gingras, Yvan Cournoyer, Stephane Richer, Réjean Houle and powerful sportswriters such as Red Fisher and Bertrand Raymond – were furious.

Why a warrant? people wanted to know. Why would the police officer involved not simply ask Lafleur to come down to the station? “She phoned me on my cell,” Lafleur says. “So, if I'm tough to reach?… I just don't know why she would do that.” Lafleur is now suing Montreal police and the Crown for $3.5-million, claiming that the warrant was unnecessary and that it, along with his subsequent arrest, severely damaged his reputation and potential earnings from that reputation.

That, however, is less important to the father than his son having a chance to one day build a new reputation and a new life.

“There's time for him to go back and think about what he did,” Lafleur says.

If there is any silver lining to this very dark cloud, it may lie in the fact that Mark Lafleur has had time for some, hopefully, clearheaded reflection. After his arrest, he underwent a month of psychiatric assessment. The family then got him into a detox centre, where he spent four months. Then came the nine months in jail. With luck, the father says, that could soon add up to two years of being away from drugs.

“I tell him, ‘When you get out, we'll help you out. But go slow. Be patient. Try to understand what happened and why.'

“I will tell him, ‘If you want to do that type of life, it's your call. If you want to change, fine. We'll help. But if you choose that life, that's it. You're going to have to forget us as a family. There's not going to be a second time.'

“We have a life, too. It's something that if you let it happen, he will ruin his mother's life, my life, too. So I say, ‘If you want to ruin your life, ruin it on your own.'”

The tension of such talk plays on the familiar face, but Guy Lafleur is determined.

“Mark is capable of doing well and changing his life,” he says. “I'm not going to change his life. But he's 23 years old and he's going to have to do it himself.” It takes a fourth fill of coffee for the smile to return, and even when it does it is small and uncertain.

“I always say, ‘There's only one past – but there's a lot of futures.' It's going to be up to Mark to make the best of it. The most important thing is to get him out of there and on the right track. There's no other choice.”

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