Mary Picard knew life would be different in Canada as soon as they crossed the first Montreal toll bridge late last summer.

"Monsieur picard?" the uniformed guard asked her husband as he peered into the cream-colored van with Maryland plates.

"Oui," replied Robert Picard, the then-new Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman, traded from the Washington Capitals.

"Bienvenue," said the guard, grinning broadly. Welcome back.

"We still had to pay," recalls Mary Picard. "But I couldn't believe he was being recognized at toll booths . . . and that's the way it's been up here."

Last week Picard was traded again, this time from Toronto to his home-town Montreal Canadiens.

Toll guards were not the only ones rejoicing.

Montreal radio hosts saturated the air waves with nonstop talk about Picard. Newspapers dedicated the better part of their sports pages to the return of this native son. And Picard's parents, who live in suburban Montreal, collected congratulatory telegrams and letters addressed to their 23-year-old offspring who suddenly has become the city's favorite.

"This has always been my dream," said an ecstatic Picard. "I've lived here all my life . . . played junior hockey here for five years, I always wanted to play for Montreal.

"This is a hockey town," he said. "The guys here are winners and that makes all the difference."

But Picard knows it takes more than victories to generate the kind of celebrity status hockey players enjoy in Montreal. It takes a single-minded love of hockey that is found only in Canada.

"There's no basketball season to complete with up here," said his U.S.-born wife, explaining here theory on why American hockedy players seemed doomed to obscurity. "The papers here are full of hockey . . . it's the only sports the people see all winter long."

In Washington, members of the Capitls are rarely recognized outside of their favorite Prince George's County haunt, Faunsworths Bar. Several players have been known to frequent downtown topless clubs and even Georgetown watering holes without so much as a single autograph request.

"I could have gone to landover Mall when I was in Washington, gone wild and made a total fool our of myself and no one would have noticed me," Picard said, joking. "But up here whenever we go out, even shopping, there's a chance a kid will recognize me -- once one does it's all over, everyone wants an autograph.

"Kids even come to the front door," he added, clearly relishing the attention he was deprived of during his three seasons in Washington.

Since he arrived in Toronto last August, Picard said, he has been surprised by the form his sudden fame has taken. There were persistent fans, a real estate salesman who lured prospective buyers into Picard's neighborhood by pointing out his home and piles of fan mail.

Last month Picard was named honorary president of a French-Canadien club in English-speaking Toronto.

"Gosh, in three years nobody ever asked me to do anything like that in Washington," Picard said.

But there's more than honorariums at stake.

Or, as Mary Picard said, "When you play for a Canadien hockey team you get a lot of things free."

In fact, Picard, like most Canadien hockey players, is a skating billboard.

He glides on free skates, courtesy of the CCM Company. Swings free sticks, thanks to Koho. And drops his free Cooper gloves when fighting.

While in Toronto, Picard drove a free 1981 Honda Accord, courtesy of a local car dealer who asked only that Picard drop into the showroom occasionally in return.

And one can only imagine what rewards await Picard in Montreal, where it's easier for a hockey player to help win the Stanley Cup than to pay for equipment. Sporting goods manufacturers there are eager to bestow their products on Canadien players who promise to use them on the ice. In Canada, where 80 percent of the games are televised, that's the best advertising available.

Free equipment and adoring fans aside, the move to Montreal was more than a homecoming for picard, who says it is a chance to revitalize his game. A No. 1 choice by the Capitals, Picard got off to a slow start last fall in Toronto and was in the midst of a comeback when he was traded.

But the determined defenseman thinks his playing finally will reach its predicted potential on the ice of the Montreal Forum.

"This is it for me," he said. "I want a (Stanley Cup) ring and I want my name on that cup. That's all I'm thinking about right now.

"I like it here and I want to stay. I'm not going to miss my chance, i'll tell you that.