The outpouring of public mourning at the death of a hockey player has not been seen in Quebec since -- well, since the death of another hockey player, Rocket Richard. Both men were laid out at centre ice in the new Forum. Hundreds came to their biers to pay silent tribute.
Everyone it seems, has a story about "Le Gros Bill", Jean Beliveau, practically making him a secular saint in Québec.
But there is always more to the story.
Béliveau hung up his skates over 40 years ago, after a stellar hockey career. He lead the team in career points, Stanley Cups, and was the "Habitant's", or Habs, as the team is known, longest serving Captain. Number 4 had his name inscribed on the Stanley Cup 17 times-first as a player and then as a member of management. After retirement he sat in splendour behind the Habs goal at hundreds of games, presiding with his wife Élise.
Jean Béliveau was unusually tall for a man of his generation at 6 foot 3 inches. He was handsome, and well spoken, though he had no formal education. Trent Frayne, the legendary Toronto sports writer, called him "bland and bashful". Frayne explained that Béliveau got the nick name "le Gros Bill" from Roland Sabourin, a Quebec City reporter, who was quoting from a Québec folk song "Le voilà, le Gros Bill" -- here comes Big Bill.
Béliveau played for the Québec City Aces, and was the object of a hotly contested chapter in the hockey rivalry between the provincial capital of Quebec City and the metropolis of Montreal. In a book entitled "Le Colisée contre le Forum" La Presse sports reporter Philippe Cantin tells the story of the campaign to move Béliveau to Montréal in the early 1950s. Beliveau, born in Trois-Rivières and raised in Victoriaville, was happy playing with the Quebec City Aces of the amateur Quebec Senior Hockey League. Habs General Manager Frank Selke was so keen on recruiting Béliveau that he had the Canadiens management buy the whole QSHL in 1953, turning it into a professional league and snagging Béliveau.
Béliveau's Dad was a lineman for Shawinigan Power, later nationalized to become Hydro Quebec, and his Mum stayed at home to care for his 7 siblings. In a Québec emerging from the repressive religion dominated Duplessis era, he was a new baby boom success story. The Rocket was the pugnacious street fighter who fought the stereotype of the "Québécois né pour un petit pain"-the Quebecker born for a small life. When the owners decided to exclude the Rocket from the playoffs in 1959 there was a riot in the streets of Montréal.
Béliveau admired the Rocket, Maurice Richard, who was 10 years older than him, but Béliveau was not a guy who challenged the status quo. Where the Rocket was taciturn and almost brooding, with a fiery light in his eyes as he torpedoed down the ice, Béliveau was a golden boy. But his career path wasn't completely smooth.
Béliveau replaced Doug Harvey, his team mate, as captain of the Habs. Harvey, possibly the greatest defenceman ever to play in the NHL, was a working class Irish kid from Notre Dame de Grâce, NDG, then a modest Montreal neighbourhood, and instrumental in getting the player's association off the ground. At the peak of his career Harvey was making $30,000/year, while the owners, as Harvey publicly pointed out, were making millions. Despite his stupendous talent as a player, the owners put Harvey on a black list, and didn't hesitate to cut off his head, trading him to the mediocre Rangers in 1961. Harvey still played well, but he never recovered, living for a time in rail way car, eventually drinking himself to death.
No one stood up in his defense. Jean Beliveau was elected Habs captain after Habs management dumped Harvey. In an interview with Radio-Canada Béliveau said his success was due to discipline and respect for authority.
Béliveau was much admired for his fidelity -- to his team, to the church, and to his family.
Béliveau was that rare thing -- an athlete who could comfortably rub shoulders with the mucky mucks, the Desmarais' of Power Corporation, the Gillettes and Molsons who owned the team.
He traversed class lines from the locker room and the ice, into the Canadiens front office.
As a member of management, by then known for his elegant suits, he spoke out against the players during the lock out of 2005-6.
Béliveau turned down then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's offer of the Governer Generalship because he wanted to spend time with his family. His son-in-law, a policeman, committed suicide, leaving Béliveau's daughter a widow with two young children. He also declined a seat in the Senate, unlike other pro athletes who have not acquitted themselves particularly well in the Red Chamber. Béliveau was of the opinion that Senators should not be appointed, but rather elected.
Jean Béliveau, who eclipsed Rocket Richard, was in his turn eclipsed by Guy Lafleur, an incredibly effective hockey player, and a modern man with modern problems. Guy Lafleur was one of the first celebrity hockey players, famous for his play, but also for his partying lifestyle.
The outpouring of tributes for Béliveau reflect collective mourning for the game as it was, for Québec as it was. For the Habs that won 10 Stanley Cups in a row, the Habs of the Sainte Flanelle, or the holy cloth, the Habs jersey, proof that Quebeckers were winners in a period when they were still locked in Duplessis' Grande Noirceur.
Today the NHL is much changed, with expansion teams across the U.S. in places where there is no winter or ice, and the players are from all over the world. Jean Béliveau is part of the mythology of the time when Quebeckers and Canadians dominated the game, when hockey was more of a religion than a business.
The people who lined up to say good bye to Gentleman Jean were saying goodbye to the game as it was.
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