Jean Beliveau has died in Montreal at age 83. 10 Stanley cups as a player, 7 more as team executive. One of the top 10 players of all time, more than a point a game. But he is mourned across Canada and in original six cities for his effortless grace on the ice, his class on and off the ice, his tenaciousness, his love of hockey, his fights against cancer and other illnesses. I'll leave it to others to write his story.
But here's mine. I grew up in Montreal. Rocket Richard was the hero, Beliveau came along in his twenties, from the senior team in Quebec City. We ordinary folks could not get into to see the Canadiens very easily (too many big corporations had the tickets), so we contented ourselves with the second and third periods on Saturday nights on CBC tv, Hockey Night in Canada. Zambonis had not been invented yet, so rinks were cleared by many shovellers in lines, then flooded with two barrels pulled by two men each. Intermisssions had to be longer, so were interviews. One got to know the players.
Anyone who has heard Beliveau speak will know his deep baritone voice, in measured, cadence, whether in English or French. I never met him, I saw him play only twice, from way up behind the pillars in the nosebleeds. Players did not wear helmets, nor names on their sweaters. We recognized all of them from their skating and their hair, on a 17 or 21 inch tv in black and white, and we knew them from the interviews.
Fast forward to the late 90's and we are visiting and shopping in the outlet malls in Kittery, Maine. We decided on a late lunch in a MacDonald's, on the mall lot. We put purchases in our car, and headed to the washrooms first. I said to my spouse I would meet her at the cash. I came out and the women's line had been very long, so I figured I was out first. I was walking up the aisle between tables, from the back of the restaurant to the front. I was not looking at anyone, but as I passed a table I heard this voice from my boyhood, speaking French. I'm English. But I just knew it was Jean Beliveau and there he was, sitting with his wife and another couple, at this point in his sixties, as handsome as ever.
There was a vacant table across the aisle, so I just sat down, right beside him. I figured my wife would be out soon and walk that way. After a minute or two, I got jabbed in the back and she said to me, ” Your mouth is open!" So I got up and we walked to the cash. We did not disturb him.
I shall never, ever, forget his voice, now stilled.
About this time, this fine, gentle giant turned down the offer of the Prime Minister to become Governor General of Canada, our Head of State representing the Queen. He decided to spend his time with his two young grandchildren. His only daughter had married a Montreal policeman, who committed suicide in the police station locker room, right beside the Forum on Closse St. He decided it was more important to be a father to them.
Rest well, Gros Bill. Thanks for the memories.