(ISN) – What more can you say about Jean Beliveau that’s not been said already by award-winning wordsmiths whose skill level sets the bar at unreachable heights for a plugger like me? That’s why I initially decided to leave Beliveau alone after news of his passing, underlined by the fact that I never met the man, and recently devoted space in Left Field to Gordie Howe.
That changed, however, when a workmate who actually reads my random rants and misguided muses disguised as columns said he was surprised by my decision, considering how fiercely I defend the Canadiens crest on my sleeve. So goaded on by that suggestion from as close as I have to a devoted reader other than my wife and a faithful few obligated by friendship or family ties, I changed my mind and topic for the umpteenth time this week.
I’ll steer clear of dwelling on Beliveau’s 17 Stanley Cups as a player and team executive, and will stick handle around the kind of classy individual he was on and off the ice because it’s been done in far more fitting fashion by teammates, friends, dignitaries and people who knew firsthand of what they speak.
My earliest recollection of Beliveau dates back to the early 1960s when Montreal faced Toronto in the playoffs. We were a two channel family in the stone age of television when hockey was a once a week Saturday night ritual, except during the playoffs when the Flying Frenchman dominated our 14-inch black and white fuzz box every second night. I was allowed to stay up later on school nights for the games, and even my mother would watch with the rest of us while my dad chain smoked his way through three periods and, God forbid, overtime.
Mom took enormous pleasure in pushing dad’s buttons in a way that only happily married couples with six kids can understand. She would set the stage early by cheering for Eddie Shack every time he stepped on the ice, insisting he was the class of the league, much to my father’s chagrin and fraying patience. Inevitably Shack, a world class agitator with limited skills and Beliveau, the epitome of everything that made hockey so exciting to watch, would clash along the boards. Mom would wait for the whistle and shout “Hit him with your purse, Jean!” A few well-timed remarks questioning big Jean’s sexuality would follow until my father’s blood pressure reached the level my mother was aiming for. Only then would she defuse the bomb with a smile and a simple “Take it easy, Jimmy, it’s only a game,” and a wink aimed my way.
The last time I saw Beliveau play was May 18, 1971 in Wildwood, New Jersey. A motley mix of myself and fellow Montreal hippies working as carnys on Fun Pier trudged from bar to bar in search of any dodgy joint with a liquor license willing to change the baseball game to game seven of the finals between Montreal and Chicago. Even though it offended some of his regulars, an obliging bartender finally agreed to make the switch, no doubt spurred on by the way we tipped while knocking back the watered down version of what passes for beer in the States. It was the last game Beliveau played and he went out in a way others can only dream of, hoisting the Stanley Cup one final time as a player.
One of the most moving tributes to Beliveau unfolded on Tuesday night, the first home game for the Habs after his death the week before. The Canadiens have played to a sold-out rink filled with fervent fans for every game since the first night the Bell Centre opened. That night, however, the streak came to a solemn halt as the television cameras closed in on one empty seat, the one often filled by Beliveau. A final, fitting tribute for a player and a career that left a lasting impression on even the most ardent Habs hater. Fans will always share their favourite moments and memories and revere Le Gros Bill for what he meant to the game, the city and the country. For me, I will miss the captain, Number Four, almost as much as I miss watching the playoffs with my parents.