Jean Beliveau died yesterday; December 2, 2014.
A year ago my son Adam and I were watching an NHL game together. He turned to me and asked, “Who’s your favourite player , Dad?”
I didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t even close. “Jean Beliveau.”
“Still ? But didn’t he retire in 1971 ?”
It doesn’t matter. Even though my hockey hero had retired forty three years earlier no one else had ever come close. There may have been a handful of better players throughout hockey history, but only a very small handful. But no one, absolutely not anybody, combined his hockey ability with such consummate class and integrity.
Back in the days when kids actually had to wait until Christmas and hope that they would get what they wanted, I can still remember my greatest Yuletide present ever. It was a Montreal Canadiens’ sweater; not the old-fashioned woolen variety with the turtleneck that some of the kids wore on the outdoor ice, but the more modern variety with a lace at the neckline. I put it on right away and didn’t even take it off at bedtime. It was 1965. The only thing lacking was that Santa, or my mother, had not sewn the number ‘4’ on the back.
I wore it every day playing road hockey on the deadend street beside our house where all the kids would keep their road hockey sticks leaning against our outside wall and where I kept our net when we finally did get one. It prevented a lot of arguments as to whether a shot had really scored or not, because before that we had to use stones or clumps of snow as the goalposts. Before the game started we would call out what NHL team we were, and which player we would imitate as best we could.
I usually had started the game and provided the tennis ball. I would always yell out, “We’re the Montreal Canadiens and I’m Jean Beliveau.” The other kids usually conceded me that. If they didn’t I had to fight them. Besides, a lot of the boys in the neighbourhood hated the Habs, and cheered for the new young glamour stars like Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.
Not that I ever fooled myself into thinking that I was anything like the captain of the Canadiens. He was tall and handsome, darkhaired and dignified. He never lowered himself to the level of the shenanigans that flew around him: the scrapping, swearing, pushing and shoving. I was always short and scrappy and I don’t ever remember being told I was handsome. I usually had some stitches in my face and my nose was crooked from being broken so often; I didn’t get it set until the last time it was fractured in my twenties. And I never had a fraction of his talent.
But in my heart and soul we were kindred spirits. I was born in 1956 and that was the year that ‘Big Jean’ won both the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP and the Art Ross as the leading scorer. I still swear that it was no coincidence. And in 1965 he was the first winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the Stanley Cup playoffs; that was the year I received my first Montreal Canadiens’ sweater. I also attended the seventh game of the finals that year when the captain of the Canadiens scored on Chicago Black Hawk goalie Glenn Hall after seven seconds of play. Hall picked up the puck from the back of the net and threw it into the crowd in disgust. Some lucky guy just two seats over from me was lucky enough to catch it. But I know Jean would have wanted me to have it.
Throughout the years I was lucky enough to meet a lot of my hockey heroes in my hometown of Montreal. Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire bought houses on the West Island’s Lac St. Louis and during the winter would sometimes come out of what we considered their mansions and join us for a game of shinny on the frozen lake. Pete Mahovlich, outgoing character that he was, would sometimes pick me up when I was hitchhiking on Highway 2 and 20. Scotty Bowman lived in Dorval during his first days of coaching the Montreal Canadiens in the early 1970s and on Friday nights could sometimes be seen up in the stands, watching the Dorval Jets Junior ‘B’ team for which I played. John Ferguson, the Habs tough guy also could be seen at the suburban arenas. I played for Jimmy Moore at Bishop’s University and he often had me over to his house. There I met his brother Dickie, another Canadien Hall of Famer who later made his fortune after starting up his own rental equipment company.
But I never met my ultimate idol. I don’t know if that’s what I really wanted; it would be like being ushered into the presence of God. Ten years ago at Christmas my kids gave me a painting of Beliveau, in action. Of course he was wearing that famous Canadiens’ sweater with the ‘C’ for captain. I have it hanging on the wall where I watch all the Habs games these days.
It’s the second-greatest Christmas present I ever received.