2016 Canadian draft list
Letters of Intent
By Bob Elliott
Ned Colletti sat in his office at Dodger Stadium watching TV this week.
He felt it was like witnessing a nation mourn to the death of a beloved leader.
Instead, he was viewing people pay tribute and respect of the great Jean Béliveau … Colletti’s favorite player.
How does a man who grew up in Franklin Park on the southeast side of O’Hare airport in Chicago have a Montreal Canadiens centreman as a boyhood idol?
Especially when the Black Hawks were contenders with Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall?
“Hawks home games were blacked out, but Channel 9 showed road games, Montreal and Toronto were always home on Saturday nights,” said Colletti recalling his days as a nine-year-old lying on the living room rug watching the family’s black and white TV.
“There was something about the Canadiens captivated me,” Colletti said. “Jean Béliveau was the first athlete I ever wanted to meet. I grew up in a financially challenged family. One year they saved up, bought me a Canadiens jersey and slapped a No. 4 on the back.”
Colletti skated onto ponds and rivers around Franklin Park darting amongst the No. 9s (Hull) and No. 21s (Mikita). Think Roch Carrier’s The Sweater … except instead of praying for moths Colletti was happy to be only youngster wearing a different coloured sweater.
Millions of kids grown up wanting to meet their heros.
The slugger or the rebounder.
The running back or the goal scorer.
Few get the chance.
* * *
Colletti grew up, attended North Illinois University, landed a job covering the Philadelphia Flyers for the Philadelphia Journal and joined the Chicago Cubs working in the P.R. department in 1981.
The Cubs were in Montreal a few years later and Colletti, now working in baseball operations, was walking down St-Catherine Street and came across the Montreal Forum.
So, he did what any Franklin Park kid would be walking by a temple … he went inside, introduced himself and asked a secretary:
“Would Mr. Béliveau be in?”
“Have a seat.”
Two minutes later out came Béliveau.
The two chatted for a short time.
Béliveau welcomed him to the city.
They met again at the NHL all-star game at Chicago Stadium in 1991. Béliveau mailed Colletti a hand-written note telling of vivid memories of playing at Chicago Stadium, the organ player, the largest theatre organ in the league, with Al Melgard at the keys.
* * *
As assistant general manager of the San Francisco Giants, Colletti was in manager Dusty Baker’s office at the Olympic Stadium in 2001. Baker had introduced him to Alvin Guttman, a Baker acquaintance and ball fan. The two had met at a Los Angeles Dodgers fantasy camp.
As Guttman put on a uniform for batting practice the executive and the ball made small talk and shared stories. Guttman told about living on Rue Atwater. Colletti explained how he was a hockey fan, the only Canadiens fan in Franklin Park and Béliveau was his favorite.
Half an hour later the two were in the third base dugout. Eventually Guttman asked to borrow Colletti’s phone and headed to the other end of the dugout. In five minutes Guttman was back holding out the phone:
“Someone wants to say hello,” Guttman said.
Colletti said hello and heard “So … you know my friend Alvin?”
It was the unmistakable voice of Jean Béliveau. Then, Béliveau invited Colletti for lunch.
Again Béliveau mailed another hand written note to the coast.
When Béliveau’s autobiography came out Guttman bought a copy and mailed to Colletti, who opened the book to find in pen:
* * *
Colletti took his family on a trip to western Canada in 1999: he’d watch the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers play at home, then take his wife Gayle, and their children Lou and Jenna on side trips to Banff and Lake Louise.
The Flames were having an auction for a good cause. Colletti bid and won the 4-by-3 foot Jean Béliveau print which was too big for the trunk.
“I bought it the first day of the trip,” said Colletti, who then made like Chevy Chase’s Family Vacation driving from Calgary to Edmonton back to Calgary to Banff to Lake Louise to Banff to Calgary to Edmonton to Calgary with the poster-sized picture in the back seat between the kids.
“On the last day Jenna, who was 12 asks ‘Dad I know you really like Jean Beliveau, but do I need to spend my vacation with him? He’s pushing me out of the car!’”
* * *
After he joined the Dodgers as GM in 2005, he would pick up his phone in his office down the left field line and hear a message from Beliveau “how are you doing? How is life? I’m following your Dodgers. Good luck.”
Colletti would hang up and look at the huge picture of Beliveau — purchased in Calgary — hanging on his office wall.
During his days with the Giants Colletti got to know Vincent Damphousse of the San Jose Sharks. Colletti plus Dodgers executives Rick Ragazzo and Bill Mueller were at the Bell Centre in January of 2009 on a hockey trip. Damphousse stopped by their seats before the game and former Canadiens captain told the three baseball execs to follow him.
They walked into a room off centre ice underneath the stands and there were former Canadiens and ex Maple Leafs. Damphousse approached Beliveau wearing his red, blue and white Canadiens jersey and said to Colletti “this is your man right?”
The response of a surprised Colletti? It was something like “Aye yai yai.”
Beliveau asked “how are things with the Dodgers?”
Colletti was introduced to Henri Richard and Johnny Bower that night.
Ragazzo took a picture of Beliveau and Colletti … despite the fact his hand shaking.
It was the last time Colletti ever saw Beliveau.
* * *
Beliveau loved baseball and was a regular at Olympic Stadium.
Three times the two of us rode the elevator together alone over a nine-year period.
I grew up cheering for the Boston Bruins but was in awe, too timid to say hello to the man we’d watch on Saturday nights lying on the living room floor, watching the black and white TV at the corner of Johnson and College in Kingston.
On the fourth trip we took together I took a deep breath said “Monsieur Beliveau … ” he turned, shook my hand and … I couldn’t get another word out.
He had a regal, stately, bearing years after leaving the game.
* * *
Colletti, now a senior adviser to the Dodgers president Andrew Friedman, has told great stories.
This is a worldy man, who has worked for the Cubs, the Giants and then ran the Dodgers. He’s been to Hollywood parties, has met Sharon Stone and the other stars and starlets that come to Dodger games. He’s been invited to the Oscars awards ceremonies.
He has seen a lot.
He does a lot.
He is a busy man. Former class-A St. Catharines GM Ellen Harrigan (Toronto, Ont.) director of baseball administration tells him where to go.
Yet Colletti’s voice changes as he says: “I was with him at the Forum, Chicago Stadium and the Bell Centre and I was always like a little kid.
“He make it an easy conversation, the man was so genuine, so kind. There was no presumption. He was never cold or unapproachable.”
“This is precious stuff the older we get, this one is hard,” said Colletti. “Sometimes you meet the people you admire and they meet your expectations, sometimes they don’t.
“He exceeded expectations. Always.
Colletti was in awe at age eight in Illinois.
“And my awe never left.