Five hours before tonight's Stanley Cup game against the Boston Bruins, the world's greatest hockey player will arrive in the Montreal Canadien dressing room. He will pull on a sweatshirt, hockey pants and socks, then relax until 8:05 p.m., when he takes up his position on right wing, every move scrutinized by the majority of residents of French Canada.
Guy Lafleur is someone truly special, the scoring champion of the NHL for three years in a row, the catalyst of a team that is heading for its third straight Stanley Cup, loser of only four of its last 37 playoff games. Yet Lafleur still feels his nerves jangling before a game.
"If I stay at the hotel or at home," Lafleur said, "then I think more about the game and I get more nervous, that's the way I am. If I come into the dressing room, I can tape my stick, dress slowly, joke with the trainers. I know I'm there. I'm in the building. I can relax more. I feel more comfortable."
It would seem an easy, carefree life, playing for the most successful team in professional sports. It is far from ideal, however, because everyone expects the Canadiens to win. Any defeat is a disappointment to the fans. Loss of a playoff series, such as the 1975 semifinals against Buffalo, is a disaster.
"It is more difficult playing for Canadiens," Lafleur said. "There is lots more pressure on you. But I'm sure most guys on our team would not want to go to a team that's not winning. You never get tired of winning. When you're tired of winning, it's time to quit."
"All our guys are very proud to play for this team. We have guys 21 years old going for their third Stanley Cup. Compare that to (Jean) Ratelle, still trying for his first after 17 years.
"We actually have a young team, and guys are hungry for that. Why play well all year long and quit in the playoffs? They're the most important thing. When the playoffs start we have one thing in mind, to win the Stanley Cup. And if we need a push, there are all those pictures in the dressing room of the Hall of Famers who played for the Montreal Canadiens. You look at them and sometimes you think they'll give you - if you don't play well."
Camil Des Roches had followed the Canadiens for 40 years, as newspaperman and publicity director, and he compares Lafleur to Rocket Richard and jean Believeau in his impact on French-Canadians fans.
"When you leave church on Sunday morning, you hear people talking about what Guy did," Des Roches said. "Not what Canadiens did, but what the Flower did. When he gets on the ice, there are 15,000 pairs of eyes watching him. He has that magnetism, that charisma.
"I like to compare the three of them chelangelo, tempestuous and fiery. Believeau was DaVinci, the master who did everything so well. Lafleur is Rafael, still young, still not completely accepted as a master, but one day he will be."
Ron Caron, the Canadiens' chief scout, believes Lafleur has already achieved the master's reputation.
"He is a hero with French-Canadians," Caron said, "and that's remarkable in this day and age. When Rocket was playing, it was during the war and after it, when people were looking for heroes. Now they see, observe, praise and forget. But Guy they don't forget."
Lafleur and his teammates are a mutual admiration society. Lafleur has changed brands of sticks several times in recent years, promoting defenseman Guy Lapointe to say, "Give Lafleur a broom and he'll still score plenty."
Rookie Pierre Mondou, after assisting on a Lefleur goal, said, "A pass is a pass, but a pass to Lafleur is a goal."