Suzanne and I have had the honour of meeting with Jean Béliveau at a private function many years ago. I don’t get impressed easily but I have to admit that Mr. Béliveau was one of a kind. We were complete strangers to him but, during the 10-12 minutes of our conversation, we felt like old friends to him. Kevin Simpson of the Denver Post wrote this great note for the WSJ:
When I learned on Wednesday that Montreal Canadiens hockey legend Jean Béliveau had died at 83, the news hit me harder than I would have expected. Maybe I figured I had moved beyond my boyhood attachment to a sporting idol. Or maybe I imagined Béliveau, whose dominance of his sport was exceeded only by his reputation as its ultimate ambassador, to be some eternal fixture.
I certainly never had any geographical claim to him. Growing up in St. Louis, my friends and I became obsessed with hockey after the National Hockey League expanded for the 1967-68 season. And though we pledged our initial allegiance to a Blues roster stocked with talented castoffs from the league’s original six teams, some of us experienced a hockey epiphany. The Canadiens—at that point in the midst of a dynasty—played on another level, winning Stanley Cup championships with a scintillating blend of speed and skill. Béliveau, their captain, inspired an adjective rarely heard in hockey—elegant. On or off the ice, he defined class.
At that point in St. Louis’s early hockey history, there were few organized opportunities for a fledgling youth player. But I dutifully bought a Canadiens sweater and had my mom iron Béliveau’s No. 4 on the back. I wore it proudly during those precious few weeks of winter when the weather let us play shinny on frozen ponds, or when my schoolmates and I pooled our money to rent indoor ice for a makeshift game.
After college, armed with a journalism degree, I worked as a sportswriter for 10 years, though my career only rarely intersected with hockey, and Béliveau had long since retired. I covered many talented performers and great personalities, but frequently was reminded that sometimes even the best athletes prove disappointing on closer inspection. When I eventually moved from sportswriting to the city desk, I was a more discriminating fan.
With one of my newspaper colleagues, I made a 1993 pilgrimage to the Montreal Forum, in its waning days as hockey’s ultimate cathedral. We had bought standing-room tickets, the only ones available in the Canadiens perpetually sold-out venue. Since we planned to write off our vacation by collaborating on a piece about the aging arena, we arranged a guided tour of the Forum in the hours before the opening face-off.
Our host led us through the building, eventually ending the tour in the Canadiens’ alumni lounge. Vintage photos of the franchise’s pantheon of stars covered the walls. I pointed to a picture of Jean Béliveau and confessed my boyhood hero-worship.
“Well,” our host said matter-of-factly, “I believe he’s right upstairs. Let me call him.”
Moments later, Béliveau appeared in the lounge, silver-haired and regal in suit and tie. An undeniable presence, but without pretense. I can’t honestly recall much of what we discussed. But what remained with me was his command of the room coupled with a kindness and humble demeanor so striking for someone who had been a player of his skill and accomplishment. The qualities that drew me to him as a fan decades earlier, the aura that transcended sport, remained undiminished.
I did ask if he would stand for a photo with me. It has remained a fixture on my desk ever since—the two of us, with images of the Canadiens’ glory years on the wall behind us. I stared at it for a good long while when I learned of his passing. He is standing tall and dignified, looking straight into the camera.
At his side, I am trying a little too hard to contain a smile.
Unlike Simpson, I was born a Montreal Canadiens fan and the great Béliveau years were part of my boyhood. Curiously, the only professional hockey jersey I ever bought was the home jersey of the Chicago Black Hawks with Bobby Hull’s number 9. I simply thought it was the best looking jersey. Yet, I remember watching Canadiens-Hawks games wearing my Chicago jersey but nonetheless remaining a dedicated Canadiens supporter.