I was born a generation too late to see Jean Beliveau in action, but as an avid Montreal Canadiens fan, as a kid I remember reading about the unrivaled skill and elegance of the lanky centreman whose hockey career spanned two decades in the 50s and 60s.
Beliveau died Tuesday night at age 83. The longest serving Canadiens captain played 18 seasons with les Habitant, scoring 507 goals and 1,219 points in 1,125 NHL games. He was a 14-time All-Star and a two-time Hart Trophy winner and took home the first Conn Smythe trophy in 1965. He won 10 Stanley Cups as a player, and seven as an executive.
Despite his success with the bleu, blanc, et rouge, the Quebec native was even more highly regarded for his generosity off the ice, his interaction with fans, and his proclivity to answer every piece of fan mail, email, and phone call he received.
I remember my ‘Mr. Beliveau moment’ came shortly after I began my tenure as Times sports editor in 2011. Editor Guy Bertrand suggested a story to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Beliveau and the Montreal Canadiens’ visit to Trail in September of 1961.
With a healthy degree of skepticism, I fired off an email to the Canadiens executive Rejean Houle with the hope of contacting Beliveau. Much to my surprise, a week or so later, I received a phone call at the Times and the thick Quebecois accident which I’d heard so many times in interviews and archived recordings was unmistakably Beliveau.
I asked him about the 1961 exhibition match in the Silver City between Montreal and the Spokane Comets, a game where Beliveau was too sick to play, but laced them up regardless.
“The arena was full and I said, ‘I’ll try,’ but just the same I had no business being on the ice but the arena was packed and the Trail Smoke Eaters represented us so well for many years at the world championship, what could I do?,” Beliveau told the Times in October 2011.
In the first period the Canadiens centre fell hard to the ice and suffered a torn ligament. Beliveau missed 30 games that year, the most due to injury in his career.
But ‘le Gros Bill’ never regretted the decision to play in that game at the Cominco Arena, or ever complained about the mishap. Throughout his hockey career and life he was the consummate gentleman. He recognized that the small, singular moments, that perhaps held little significance for him, were monumental to the people with whom he stopped and talked, shook hands, or signed an autograph.
I will always remember that one phone call and his extraordinary willingness to relate his experiences with humility and charm, to speak as a friend about his family, his career, and his brief time in Trail.
When I thanked Mr. Beliveau, he replied with typical grace, as if it was I who paid him the honour.
“It is a great pleasure for me because I remember Trail well, because of its fans and its people,” Beliveau said. “You can see they were great hockey fans.”
Repose en paix Jean.