Canada's History - - TRAD­ING POST -

Ihad grown up a fan of Jean Béliveau on the back nine of his ca­reer: I was four­teen when the leg­endary Mon­treal Cana­di­ens cap­tain re­tired as a ten-time Stan­ley Cup-win­ning player.

But Mr. Béliveau’s im­pact and in­flu­ence on his team, on his coun­try, and on the game of hockey as a whole was felt ev­ery day un­til his pass­ing in De­cem­ber 2014. To­day, his spirit re­mains strong in the Cana­di­ens or­ga­ni­za­tion, and he re­mains in a very large way the con­science of the team.

This fan be­came a jour­nal­ist in the late 1970s, and I would see much of this grand gen­tle­man in the time I spent around the Cana­di­ens. In 1999, when his team was suf­fer­ing through a dis­mal spell, it oc­curred to me that the proud Jean Béliveau must be hurt­ing, too. Twenty-eight years af­ter he’d scored the last of his 586 ca­reer goals, a half dozen years af­ter he’d re­tired from a vice-pres­i­dency with the team, Le Gros Bill, as he was nick­named in the 1950s, re­mained the face many as­so­ci­ated with the Cana­di­ens’ great­est team.

What must it be like for him, then six­tyeight, to sit in his fa­mil­iar seat night af­ter night at the Mol­son (now Bell) Cen­tre, three rows be­hind the Cana­di­ens bench, and see the shoul­ders of the play­ers sag with one loss piled atop the one be­fore it? “Join me,” he said sim­ply when I asked. And so I did on Novem­ber 11, 1999, for the most mem­o­rable night of my pro­fes­sional life.

As I sat be­side this hockey icon and boy­hood hero, I was aware that he was as grace­ful and com­mand­ing a pres­ence in a finely tai­lored jacket as he had been in a Le Bleu-BlancRouge jersey. At the spot where his cap­tain’s “C” had been stitched from 1961 to 1971 he wore a Re­mem­brance Day poppy and his Or­der of Canada lapel pin.

With him were Élise, then his wife of fortysix years, and Ma­galie Roy, then thir­teen, one of their two grand­daugh­ters. From the seats you could see Béliveau’s re­tired No. 4 jersey hang­ing in the arena rafters, among the ban­ners cel­e­brat­ing the Cana­di­ens’ twenty-four Stan­ley Cups.

Béliveau was at once a de­light­ful and painful re­minder of the days in Mon­treal when Lord Stan­ley’s ster­ling chal­ice was more than just a ru­mour.

Twenty-four hours ear­lier in Pitts­burgh, the Cana­di­ens had folded their tent faster than a Boy Scout, blow­ing a three-goal lead in the fi­nal ten min­utes to lose 5-4 to the Pen­guins. They now faced the Ana­heim Mighty Ducks with a nine-game win­less streak be­hind them.

“They’re prob­a­bly hurt­ing more emo­tion­ally than phys­i­cally,” Béliveau said. “Just look at Alain. He’s grey.” He was re­fer­ring not to coach Alain Vigneault’s hair but to his com­plex­ion.

The air be­hind the bench was both pun­gent and blue. Béliveau chuck­led when, af­ter a waved-off ic­ing call, Vigneault spec­tac­u­larly be­rated a fran­co­phone lines­man in the colour­fully pro­fane slang of both of Canada’s of­fi­cial lan­guages.

“You’d have a bet­ter view of the ice a few more rows up,” said Béliveau. “But imag­ine when I bring a fa­ther and his son here, some­one who couldn’t other­wise af­ford it, and let his boy see and hear the play­ers this close. It’s a dream for him.”

He watched the ac­tion as both a fan and an au­thor­ity, study­ing a play as it de­vel­oped at one end of the rink and pre­dict­ing with un­canny ac­cu­racy how it would fin­ish fif­teen sec­onds later at the other end. Any au­to­graph seeker — and there were many – was po­litely asked to re­turn at pe­riod’s end, lest the ad­mirer block the view of a spec­ta­tor be­hind.

We all watched coach Vigneault pace, shout, fid­get, and — fi­nally — cheer as the Cana­di­ens bat­tled to a 2-1 win over the Ducks.

At the fi­nal siren, Béliveau was stand­ing to ap­plaud the end of a nine-game skid. Vigneault, with a lit­tle more colour in his cheeks, sighed his re­lief.

“There are great hockey fans in this town,” Béliveau said as we headed back to the team’s alumni lounge.

“But do you think,” he added play­fully, “that maybe we’ve just spoiled them with all those Stan­ley Cups?”

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