Let’s keep it short and sweet. I believe that’s how these things are meant to be.
Mr. Beliveau, I never saw you play. All I have to go on are the crackling black-and-white films from your day – when the gloves were brown and cardboard stiff, when the goalies would fling and dance in the crease, making saves as if by accident. So I’m afraid I have nothing close to a personal testimonial, a real eye-built obituary (like Gare Joyce’s), a signed hockey card, or anything from my childhood to offer.
But I know you were great, Mr. Beliveau. Because it’s all anyone talked about.
As a kid who wasn’t born until 1987, the stories of your greatness – and of your peers, like Rocket Richard and Bobby Orr (not until later, I know) and Doug Harvey and Stan Mikita and Mike Bossy (again, later) – were held over me, dangled like a set of keys I could never grab. The people who came before me and who told the game to me like it was some grand story sprawled over a previous century – the people like my father and grandparents and aunts and uncles, who taught me to love the game by teaching me all there was about the game – always held their heroes in the highest regard. I know it’s a cliche, but we in Canada really do have hockey players first, everyone else some mutant-type, irrelevant second.
And to anyone who can remember him, who saw him as a hero, who admired him, nobody was held in higher regard than Jean Beliveau.
To talk about him now, second-hand, it’s like listening to Elton John sing about Norma Jean. A great, great person you weren’t lucky enough to know but somehow are trapped with tragically remembering.
10 Stanley Cups. 507 goals, in a time when nobody scored 507 goals – except for the Rocket, and at one time there was only the Rocket. Beliveau won the NHL’s first-ever Conn Smythe Trophy, a fitting stat since it seems the award was made for him. What kind of mad man wins 10 Stanley Cups, anyway? And all of them with one team, the Montreal Canadiens, the club he played 18 seasons with. The team he won for. The team that won for him.
(It says a lot about how ‘ahead of his time’ Beliveau was that he is still the second-highest scoring player in Montreal Canadiens history, on a franchise that has won a league-record 24 Stanley Cups and enshrined 44 Hall of Famers. Beliveau retired in 1971 and in the past 43 years, only the great Guy Lafleur has put up more points. Truly incredible.)
Beliveau is on hockey’s Mount Rushmore. It seems like there never was a time he didn’t exist or wasn’t revered. He’s so legendary, he’s almost forgotten. He’s so entrenched in the league’s all-time first all-star team, you forget to re-induct him whenever the discussion comes up. Like when you play that game where you try to list all the American states in under 10 minutes, but the one you forget ends up being California or New York or Florida.
Very few think of him anymore when the discussion shifts to ‘Who’s the greatest of all-time?’ Even among centres, most people in 2014 would be quick to throw out Gretzky and Lemieux, followed by even Crosby or Sakic or Yzerman or Messier.
But Beliveau was the man who made the number 4 cool. He made the game beautiful. He was the idol that defined what the sport meant to everyone who knows it as it is now, the legend who infused grace and humility into what was once an isolating, only gritty, sometimes ugly Canadian pastime. Like Bill Russell in basketball or Lou Gehrig in baseball, Beliveau was the ambassador for a game that didn’t even know it needed one until it couldn’t live without him.
Beliveau wasn’t just a great Hab, he was hockey’s ultimate gentleman. He was the compass, and it’s North Star.
He’ll be badly missed. But what would you expect?
Few have been so loved. Even fewer have earned it. Jean Beliveau did, and always will.