An awe-inspiring experience
(Originally published December 8, 2014)
It’s been six days since the passing of Montreal Canadiens‘ great Jean Béliveau, and he remains in the forefront of everyone’s minds. It was announced that the family would open visitation to all who wished to pay respects and that Mr. Béliveau’s casket would lie in state at the Bell Centre. This was, already, an incredible showing of recognition for the man he was and remains in the hearts of the city and hockey fans worldwide. But the Canadiens organization — renowned for how beautifully they pay tribute to their own — outdid itself.
For two days, the Bell Centre became a makeshift chapel. I chose to go downtown and be a part of this historic event because of my love for the game, the Habs, the city and my deepest respect for a man I’d never even seen play, but whose enduring larger-than-life reputation transcends hockey.
After a half-hour in line, we began to move. People filed in from two sections of the arena. The arena was draped with black cloth, floor to ceiling. The ice was covered with black flooring, and a floodlit red carpet, leading from both sections and converging in the center, led up to the makeshift alter where the casket lay.
In the darkened stands to our left, lit by white spotlight, was Mr. Béliveau’s regular seat, draped with Habs colors and his number. The sight of that empty seat was what started my emotions.
Hanging from the ceiling were two banners with Mr. Béliveau’s photos: one recent, wearing his Habs jersey, holding the iconic torch in hand, and the other from his playing days, where he is hoisting the Stanley Cup. In the center was his No. 4 banner, lowered from its usual place in the rafters. The casket stood in front of two flower arrangements, both of which depicted the Canadiens’ logo. Also present was his bronze statue which normally graces the outside square of the Bell Centre. And in a row, four trophies: the Conn Smythe, Hart Memorial, Art Ross and the Stanley Cup.
But it was the presence of the Béliveau family which shone brighter than the trophies. Mrs. Béliveau, her daughter and granddaughters stood in a receiving line, greeting each visitor personally, tirelessly shaking hands, thanking us and taking the time to receive our own words of condolences and gratitude. This was the second day of visitation, and they were present on the first as well, from 10:00 a.m. till 6:00 p.m; this speaks loudly for them, their humanity and their generosity of spirit.
The Bell Centre seats 21, 273 usually-screaming, cheering, chattering fans. To see it that somber, hear it that hushed was startlingly surreal. But it illustrates the respect this man commanded that the room was absent its usual noise and instead filled with the reverence and emotions of thousands who came to say goodbye to a hero.
When it was my turn, I stood in front of the casket and said a few silent words of thanks. I walked toward the family, shook Mrs. Béliveau’s hand and offered my sympathies. I thanked her for allowing us the opportunity to honor him and to be a part of his farewell. She was incredibly gracious and I was humbled in her presence, able to express my gratitude to her. I went down the line, was thanked by each member of the family even as I thanked them, then made my way up the steps, unabashedly choked with emotion.
A few rows up, I stopped and turned; I had the need to take it all in. I watched the hushed crowd — people of all ages — and faces of those who were feeling the same awe that I was.
This was more than a visitation; it was a moment in history. In the history of Montreal and of hockey, but in the history of humanity. Because Jean Béliveau was of an era gone by. His class and his dignity, his humility and generosity of spirit is known to everyone who knew of him, whether they had seen him play or not. Everyone has a story about him. Everyone has a memory.
And now, even in death, he is providing memories for those who have filed past his casket and felt what I did: a sense of having paid respects to a man whose very nature embodied the word.