“He was their man, and he was their people. They discovered each other, and the moment was enormous. Montréal was his town. He felt himself at the exact centre of the country’s heart. At the meeting points of ships, railroads and people-at the precise point where the interlocking directorates of Canada found a balance…I’ve never seen anything more beautiful”.
Hugh MacLennan: “Two Solitudes”
The above quote, from one of the greatest Canadian books ever written, wasn’t written about Jean Béliveau. It wasn’t even written while he was playing…the book being published in 1945, six years before “Le Gros Bill” started his rise from young Hab to giant of the game of hockey.
But it might as well have been. Béliveau, who died early this morning aged 83, wasn’t the highest-ever scorer in NHL history (though he did lead the Canadiens for many years until surpassed by Guy Lafleur) nor will you find him listed often as the greatest exponent of stick-and-puck ever to lace up skates (although you will assuredly find him in the top ten of every list). But with his passing the hockey world has lost one of its true titanic figures…a man known as much for his pride, elegance and sheer class off ice as on it.
It may seem strange for a British hockey fan to be writing about Béliveau-particularly one born 13 years after the end of his playing career. But, as a fan of hockey played as an art form as well as a bruising, gladiatorial battle, watching the 6’3, 205lb gentle giant from Trois-Rivieres play hockey was like being an art student being exposed to every single great artwork humanity ever produced at once.
To watch Béliveau stride across flickering (usually black-and-white) pictures in his iconic number 4 jersey, with his long, elegant, deceptively languid stride, while seemingly holding the puck and everyone around him under a spell that he could break at any moment he chose with an unerring pass or accurate shot, was to watch art create itself and to look upon the face of the hockey gods.
In an era of legends being made and alongside more flamboyant names like the Richards and Bernie Geoffrion, Béliveau was the quietly beating heart of arguably the greatest single collection of talent ever to play in one jersey…the great Montréal Canadiens dynasty that won 10 Stanley Cups in 20 years. As the faces around him changed, Béliveau was an ever-present throughout the 50’s and 60s, leading the team to five of those Cups as captain, and quietly and modestly changing from mortal to god first in Québec and then, eventually, across all of Canada.
The effect Béliveau had on hockey and the Canadiens can’t be measured by mere statistics, but they can certainly give an idea. 1287 NHL games, all for Montreal. 1395 points. 586 goals. Ten Stanley Cups as a player (and another seven as a team employee). 13 times an All-Star.
But more than just numbers, Béliveau did things and caused others in hockey to do things that would be unthinkable today. Even before he was an NHL player, the Canadiens liked him so much they bought an entire league (not a team, a league, the QJHL) in order to make sure he became a Hab. He was also responsible for a fundamental change of hockey law…pre-Béliveau, a player served the full penalty for every powerplay whether or not there was a goal. After a night in which Béliveau scored a hat-trick in 44 seconds on a PP (against Terry Sawchuk, no less) the NHL governors decided to change the rules so that it could never happen again, voting 5-1 in favour.
Off the ice, Béliveau became a man known for his pride, elegance and dignity-a prototypical leader of men who took an immense amount of pride in personally replying to every piece of fan mail he received. The stories of his grace, selflessness when interacting with fans and sheer humanity are legion, but none are better than this one-the story of Béliveau personally phoning men suffering from cancer regularly, at the request of their wives, simply to offer support after winning his own battle a few years ago. He was offered a seat in the Canadian Senate, but turned it down. Today, the Canadian Parliament offered him a standing ovation in tribute…a gesture that very few political giants will ever get, never mind hockey players, w
Supremely talented on the ice and supremely humble off it, the man who was always proud of his Acadian heritage and who felt himself unworthy of leading the Canadiens even after being chosen to do so unanimously by his team-mates was the soul of the bleu, blanc et rouge…a towering colossus whose mere existence and presence at Habs games put fire into the hearts of Montrealers. Much is made of the Habs using the quote from “In Flanders Fields” as their motto…
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch – be yours to hold it high”
Jean Béliveau carried that torch with pride, the living embodiment of John MacLean’s words that are read by everyone who crosses the threshold of the Bell Centre dressing room.
There are great hockey players, and there are great men. Béliveau was one of that rare breed who are both. Today, the hockey world mourns with Montréal. Even here in Britain. And we hope that somewhere, Béliveau and his great friend Maurice Richard are once again skating together and making magic in Heaven’s own hockey rink.
Au revoir et merci, Capitaine Canadien. Hockey will miss you forever.