MONTREAL - The ovation went on and on for Jean Beliveau.
After a long moment of silence ended, the Bell Centre crowd stood and cheered as Beliveau's widow Elise Couture Beliveau wept, prayed, thrust out her arms in thanks and finally motioned for them to stop.
It was a throat-catching moment of a sombre, moving 15-minute ceremony for the legendary Canadiens captain, who died last week at 83, ahead of Montreal's game against the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday night.
"It was the most emotional night I've ever experienced in Montreal," said Canadiens centre Tomas Plekanec, who scored the winning goal in the home side's 3-1 victory. "I had chills all through the ceremony."
The scoreboard screen was focused throughout the ovation on Beliveau's widow, standing at her usual seat behind the players bench beside her daughter Helene and granddaughters Magalie and Mylene and other family members.
The seat beside her, where Beliveau watched nearly every home game, was left vacant except for his number four covered in Canadiens red, white and blue. To underline that, the Canadiens listed the attendance at 21,286— one below capacity.
Public grief and sympathy for one of the Canadiens greatest and most admired players has been directed largely at his widow, who greeted and accepted condolences from thousands of fans and team members at two days of public visitations at the Bell Centre this week.
A state funeral, to be attended by many Canadiens greats from the past, will be held for Beliveau on Wednesday at Mary Queen of the World cathedral near the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens responded with an inspired game, ending a three-game losing run with what coach Michel Therrien called one of their best games of the season.
When Plekanec got the game-winner on a dazzling rush at 15:44 of the third period, the smiling Elise Beliveau was dancing at her seat. At the end of the game, Plekanec handed her the game puck.
"I grabbed the puck at the end and I talked with Manny (Malhotra) and we said it would be nice to give it to her, so I did," the Czech centre said.
Forward Max Pacioretty, who scored into an empty net at 19:59 of the third period, was still buzzing with emotion after the game.
"I could see she was so appreciative of the response they got," said Pacioretty. "I kept looking over.
"She waved to me on the bench and blew us a kiss and said good luck. I think it was one of the most special moments of my hockey career. I'm not trying to be weird about this, but I'm really honoured."
The pre-game ceremony, set for the occasion to soft piano and organ music, left the usually boisterous crowd silent. One could almost hear them breathing in their seats.
It opened with a simple chronology of his life and hockey career in pictures on the screen, starting as a baby and ending with an older Beliveau holding the torch that symbolizes passing the team's success from generation to generation.
Another video tribute was shown after players from both teams went onto the ice and lined up at the blue-lines, then backed up a little so they could look up at the screen.
Then a long moment of silence was followed by an even longer ovation for Beliveau, who won 10 Stanley Cups and served 10 years as captain of the Canadiens in a 20-year career from 1950 to 1971.
He was part of the Canadiens administration for another seven Cup victories.
The number four was painted on the ice behind both nets. And the usual ads and features on the scoreboard between whistles were replaced by images of Beliveau throughout the game.
Such was the fans respect for the Hall of Famer, who never turned a fan or autograph seeker away, that when an old message from Beliveau was played on the screen during the third period, the building fell silent again.
The Canadiens were on a road trip when Beliveau died last week, so remembrance ceremonies were held up until they got back. It was their first home game since his death.
The current Canadiens were touched by the occasion.
"When we went out there, I was amazed. You could hear a pin drop," said Pacioretty. "They hadn't asked for silence, but that was probably the most quiet I have ever heard the Bell Centre.
"I know it sounds cheesy to say, but you could feel the amount of respect everyone had for the Beliveau family and for Jean. It was an honour to be part of this game and to play a good game in his honour was fun."
The Canucks were also moved. They had their own emotional ceremony last month when former coach Pat Quinn died.
"I thought it was an amazing tribute," said goalie Ryan Miller. "For his wife… I kind of got a little choked up right there.
"To accept that standing ovation, you could see on her face how the relationship (with Beliveau) must have meant so much. I just got choked up. We all respected him for what he did as an ambassador for the game and as a player. It was nice to see, but also tough to see."
Several stars of past Canadiens teams will take part in the funeral mass.
Speakers will be 1950s star Dickie Moore, former Habs captains Yvan Cournoyer and Serge Savard, former goaltender Ken Dryden and team owner and president Geoff Molson.
Pallbearers are Cournoyer, 1970s superstar Guy Lafleur and Beliveau's former teammates Phil Goyette, Serge Savard, Bobby Rousseau and Jean-Guy Talbot.
The mass will be presided over by Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine, Quebec City's Cardinal Archbishop Gerard Cyprien Lacroix and local priests Alain Vaillancourt and Rosaire Lavoie.
The current players will practise Wednesday morning, then head to the funeral.
"Fans, players, everyone in the organization was really touched by Jean Beliveau," said Montreal goalie Carey Price. "As long as there's a Habs logo, he'll always be the spirit of it."