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24 hours with Guy Lafleur takes trip to Newfoundland with Canadiens legend, documenting every step along the way

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

Guy Lafleur was awake in his west suburban Montreal home at 3:30 a.m. on Friday, 15 minutes before the alarm he had set.

"My wife likes when I get up before the alarm," the Montreal Canadiens legend joked three hours later, sitting at a very quiet Gate 50 at Montreal's Trudeau Airport.

Lafleur is impeccably dressed in his crested Hockey Hall of Fame blazer, red patterned tie and a tan trench coat, two copies of a luxury-lifestyle magazine under his arm for in-flight reading that he wouldn't do should he doze off on the plane, which he said was likely.

We are headed to St. John's, Newfoundland, where the five-time 1970s Stanley Cup champion is scheduled to participate in the ceremonial faceoff at the home opener of the St. John's IceCaps, the Canadiens' American Hockey League affiliate.

It's the final season of the IceCaps in a hockey-mad city in Canada's easternmost province. In 2017-18, the IceCaps will relocate to Laval, north of Montreal, where they will be rebranded the Laval Rocket.

The IceCaps, seeking star quality for their final home opener, called their NHL parent about a month ago, which is when Canadiens alumni president Rejean Houle called Lafleur.

Along with Houle, who does tremendous work in the community and with the team's alumni, and fellow former teammate Yvan Cournoyer, a winner of 10 Stanley Cup championships, Lafleur is an ambassador for the NHL's most successful team, making 25 official appearances per season throughout Quebec and sometimes far beyond.

Of course, when you're as famous as Lafleur, going to the grocery store is an appearance.

"This will be a short trip, but a fun trip," he said, as a few passengers start to arrive at Gate 50, kegs of coffee in hand.

Indeed, this journey will redefine "short." Lafleur and I are scheduled to depart at 8:20 a.m. Friday, attend the IceCaps game, then board a 5:10 a.m. local time Saturday flight in St. John's (3:40 a.m. ET) putting us on the ground back home at 6:30 a.m.

"We'll have a 2:45 a.m. wake-up call tomorrow," I said to him as we boarded the flight to our first stop in Halifax. "Do you miss team charters?"

"We only had them in the playoffs, and they were propellers. I won't wake my wife up when I get in tomorrow," he said. "I'm going straight to bed."

So between his 3:30 a.m. Friday wakeup and return to still-dark Montreal on Saturday morning, here is a day in the life on the road with Guy Lafleur:

Friday, Oct. 28

6:30 a.m.: Lafleur arrives at Gate 50, 80 minutes before we'll board Air Canada Flight 7672 to Halifax. Within minutes, a fan headed home to Vancouver is in front of us, saying, "Holy [heck]." He tells Lafleur that they've met many times in different cities and how The Flower was the idol of his youth. I take a photo of the two men -- "I need another one," the fan explains -- and then he's off to his gate, his feet barely touching the ground.

7:20 a.m.: A Calgary-bound traveler wanders over, looks at me and says: "You look like an intelligent person. What are you doing flying with this guy?" It turns out the traveler, Rob MacDuff, is a retired Bell Helicopter test pilot whom Lafleur has known for years. Lafleur has flown helicopters since 1995, and he and MacDuff are soon poking fun at each other, talking about the horsepower of such-and-such a machine and a trip around the world by helicopter that MacDuff will make next summer, Lafleur joining a small part of it.

7:55 a.m.: We're aboard our flight, Lafleur in Business class, front-row Seat 1A, and I'm in economy, where I belong, first row behind the curtain that shields those up front from the riff-raff. Before we board, Lafleur shares a story about former Canadiens teammate Terry Harper, a licensed pilot. "Terry would get into the cockpit of the old [four-prop] Viscount on our road trips and they'd let him fly the thing." Then he adds, with a grin: "That probably wouldn't happen today."

10:25 a.m. Halifax time (9:25 a.m. ET): As Nova Scotia grows larger in the window 15 minutes before we touch down, I see through the reopened curtain that Valerie, a flight attendant, is politely asking Lafleur for an autograph. She beams the rest of the way, which isn't a coincidence. "Yes, the autograph was for me," Valerie tells me, star-struck, as passengers disembark.

10:50 a.m., Gate 15, Halifax International Airport: Newfoundland businessmen Tim Benoit and Marcel Pitcher, on their way back home, spot Lafleur and come over for a photo. Other fans appear at his side for an autograph, a photo or just a handshake. One speaks to Lafleur about a boat the latter once owned in this part of the country. Another has a story: "Nice to see you again, Guy. We met back in 1977…"

2 p.m. Newfoundland time (12:30 p.m. ET): Touchdown, into scattered snow showers. I check my email and there's a note from Marcel Pitcher, from the Halifax airport: "Thank you to you and Mr. Lafleur for taking the time to have a quick chat and allowing us to take our picture with one of the best ever. Enjoy our tremendous province and trust you will also enjoy the tremendous hospitality you are about to endure."

We endure it immediately when we're met at the airport by Trevor Murphy, the IceCaps' Senior Director of Hockey Operations and Community Relations, who drives us to our downtown hotel -- but not before a fan has Lafleur autograph his vintage Canadiens jersey at the baggage claim.

Just before we pull away, a woman sprints through the airport parking lot for Lafleur's signature and a photo with him, which Murphy happily takes. "My son got your autograph when he was 4," the woman exclaims. "And now he's 32!"

3:30 p.m.: Lafleur takes more photos with fans and signs more autographs in the hotel lobby. We have a late lunch in the hotel dining room as fans and even wait staff drop by the table for a word, a selfie, to share a story or with a hockey card to be signed.

6:45 p.m.: David Salter, the IceCaps media relations director, meets us in the lobby for the short, pedestrian-passageway walk to Mile One Centre. Faceoff is 75 minutes away. We pass two women on the way to the rink. "Big night!" one calls out, to which Lafleur replies, laughing, "A big night because I'm not playing."

7 p.m.: Lafleur works the Mile One Centre with graceful ease, moving from the packed suite of team owner Danny Williams, the former premier of Newfoundland, to a suite where team contest winners have gathered for autographs and photos.

7:15 p.m.: With the pregame warmup complete, fans notice Lafleur in Williams' suite and surge up in the stands toward him. He signs everything they hand him, telling them he'll be back for more after the opening ceremony.

Video: Lafleur signs autographs at St. John's IceCaps opener

Near 7:30 p.m.: Lafleur and Williams are ushered by Salter to ice level, where they participate in the ceremonial faceoff. Lafleur poses first for a photo with linesman Joey Maynard.

7:45 p.m.: After the faceoff, for which he's greeted with a raucous standing ovation, sweaters and programs and foam fingers are dropped from the stands to Lafleur to sign as he exits the rink, every one being returned with an autograph.

On the way back up to Williams' suite, Lafleur detours to pose for a photo with IceCaps fan Heather Best, who, like other fans he meets in this area, is in a wheelchair. You get the sense that the two minutes he spends with these people will be remembered by them forever.

8:50 p.m.: Lafleur never stops smiling, even though he's been on the go for more than 12 hours. "It's just like playing a hockey game," he says of the energy expenditure, "but without the sweat."

We arrange for IceCaps fan Renee Ryan to bring four young boys, Thomas Windsor, Alex Thomas, Daniel Thomas and Brett Dicks, up to Williams' suite for a meet-and-greet, bumping into team mascot Buddy, an enormous puffin, on the way. Buddy comes along for the photo.

9:20 p.m.: Lafleur visits with IceCaps broadcaster and lifelong Lafleur fan Brian Rogers after the second period for an interview, then returns to Williams' suite for the final period. The IceCaps send their fans home delighted with a 5-3 victory.

10:15 p.m.: The game is over, but scores of fans have flocked from the stands to Lafleur, who leans over the suite railing to sign autographs and pose for photos for nearly an hour. He signs one to a Boston Bruins fan named Jim with the inscription, "Sorry about 1979," a mischievous reference to Lafleur's last-gasp tying goal in the legendary too-many-men Game 7 of the Semifinals of the 1979 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and puts his name on more IceCaps and Canadiens jerseys than you could count.

A fan arrives for a photo, saying he's a friend of former Bruins goalie Gilles Gilbert, whom Lafleur burned for the tying goal in that 1979 game. Lafleur gives the camera an enthusiastic thumbs-up, then tells this fan to tell Gilbert "that I'm sorry … kind of."

10:40 p.m.: Lafleur poses for his final photos at the arena, with emergency medical personnel who were on duty for the game, and we leave with Salter to return to our hotel. Over a glass of wine in the lobby bar, Lafleur poses for more photos and signs yet more autographs; several customers are awestruck by the Hall of Famer in their midst.

The IceCaps were thrilled to have had this Canadiens legend with them for a few hours on a Friday night, team owner Williams having marveled at Lafleur signing every single autograph request and posing for every photo until it seemed building security was ready to lock the arena doors.

"Guy could have left at the final siren," Williams said as we finally left Mile One Centre late Friday night. "But not one person who wanted his autograph is going home without one."

About this, Lafleur merely shrugged.

"My night is over," he says, "only when there are no more photos to take and nothing left to sign."

Saturday, Oct. 29

12:55 a.m.: Lafleur and I retire to our rooms with a 2:45 a.m. wakeup call in our futures.

3:30 a.m.: Trevor Murphy from the IceCaps picks us up for the trip back to the airport.

5:10 a.m.: Air Canada 7611, non-stop from St. John's to Montreal, is airborne, though not before more autographs are signed at Gate 4. Lafleur, eager for some sleep that ultimately he will not get on a choppy flight, is laughing as he settles into his business-class seat. "This will be the first time," he says, "that I'll get home for breakfast at this hour and my wife won't give me [heck] for it."

6:31 a.m., Montreal time: We touch down in Montreal 22 hours after we'd left, docking at a gate that seemingly is 20 miles to the airport's exit. Lafleur gets plenty of stares and double-takes on the long, slow walk, and with a tired smile he acknowledges every greeting from passengers headed to their flights.

7 a.m.: Lafleur steps into an airport cab, headed home in the rainy darkness.

"Let's do this again sometime," I said to him as I headed to my car.

And the great thing is, he didn't say no.

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