Death of a legend
Jean Beliveau, a Montreal Canadiens player for his whole career, has died at age 83. After he stopped playing, he remained with the Habs in various roles. He was known as “Le Gros Bil,” a French folk hero, but he was known as Gentleman Jean throughout the hockey world. It was a title he epitomized.
Beliveau began with the team in 1953 and played 18 full season with the Habs. He was team captain for the last ten of those seasons. Beliveau’s list of records is long: first and only player to win the Conn Smythe trophy the same night he scored the game-winning goal (1965); his name appears on the Stanley Cup 17 times and in 1968, he became the second NHL player to reach 1000 points (Gordie Howe was the first).
Beliveau’s aura extends far beyond the ice. Habs fans of all ages hold him in the highest esteem. The Montreal Canadiens boast many legends: Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Elmer Lach, Georges Vézina, and more recently Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy. But on any home opener night, when Jean Beliveau made his inevitable appearance to pass the team’s iconic torch to the first player of the current team, it wasn’t hard to find awe and reverence in the eyes of the youngest attendees. Even if they never saw him play, never even saw video of him on the ice, Mr. Beliveau’s reputation and stature resonated in every hockey fan. He was a universal role model.
I have been at the Bell Centre for just those occasions. Having grown up in Montreal, and been a Habs fan all my life, it was almost the status quo to me that my team boasted such legendary names, who still made appearances on television, at games and in interviews. Being a Montrealer, we were just used to the team winning the Stanley Cup, having famous players and being so renowned in the hockey world.
My first time seeing Jean Beliveau live and in person at the Bell Centre, I had never experienced anything like it. The Habs know how to create dramatic, spectacular ceremonies and their home openers are always exceptional. The night I was there, the torch was being brought out to the arena from various levels of the stands, and in various sections. Right next to my section, Guy Lafleur entered carrying the torch and that was sensational enough. Each alumnus who entered got thunderous applause.
But when the torch was brought out at ice level by none other than the very-recognizable Jean Beliveau, the arena–21,273 attendees–exploded in applause and cheers the likes of which shook the building. We felt the floors vibrate. The electricity was overwhelming. And I admit it, I got emotional. There, in our midst, was a living legend.
He carried that torch with him symbolically, wherever he went. He was widely recognized in public; he was a star. He never made his fans feel intimidated. He always had a smile, a greeting, a handshake for the young and old. He was known to hold a door open for those in front of him. He understood his audience, accepted his prestige and was always the model of class and dignity.
Many articles will be written outlining his achievements. I am not at the level of historians who can do so. But as a fan, as someone who came into full-fledged hockey understanding later than most, as someone who loves the Montreal Canadiens and is proud to be part of this city’s culture, I am, along with everyone who is just hearing the news, devastated by the loss. I am grateful to him; love of the game, the Habs and the city is something I can say I shared with him, as do hundreds of thousands of fans.
Celebrity is afforded to many, but true legends are those who give back to the people who revere them and earn that respect time and time again. Jean Beliveau was humble, unassuming, utterly classy and a true paragon of the gentleman he was known to be.
No doubt much will be said about Le Gros Bil in days ahead. The hockey world will extend condolences to his family for their personal loss, as do I. Right now, it is a collective loss. He knew he “belonged” to the city. He always will.