It all started in a school like this one, a northern school, a school in Hay River in the Northwest Territories. 

I was six and one of the few white kids.

Residential school Hay River, NWT

David Gutnick attended a school like this one in the early 1960s in Hay River, NWT. (anglican.ca)

I knew my family was different. Better off. We lived in a government row house while most of the other kids – the "Indians" – lived at school, far from their parents.  

In the summer we played on the sandy beaches of Great Slave Lake.

Great Slave Lake

The Hay River beach on Great Slave Lake, NWT. (Hayriver.com)

But fall comes early in the North, and the sun disappears quickly in the afternoon.

So while my aboriginal friends had to go back to the residence or to their humble woodstove-heated homes on the reserve across the Hay River, I would be home, curled up on the rug in my bedroom, reading.

Every week, Weekend magazine and the Star Weekly would be delivered by plane, bundled with the newspapers from the South. I would grab them as soon as I got home from school.

I was six or seven, and there was no television.

So the magazines became my way of escaping the darkness, escaping from three younger sisters, escaping homework: School was easy. Lessons were taught slowly as the kids in my class were just learning English. They spoke South Slavey, Chipewyan or Cree with their parents.

Stars of the World's Fastest Game

'Stars of the World's Fastest Game' made a frequent appearance in the Star Weekly. (classicauctions.net)

Weekend and the Star Weekly were general interest magazines, printed in lavish colour on cheap newsprint.

I loved the smell of the ink, the feeling of the smooth paper between my fingers as I slid the pages open, and I got ready for an adventure. 

Beliveau flew over the ice

Immersed in those pages, I'd leave the forest and the cold, heading south, into an exciting world full of handsome heroes in bright uniforms who flew over the ice chasing a puck. 

Jean Beliveau and Johnny Bower

Hockey blogger and collector Dennis Kane posted this Star Weekly, part of the series 'Stars of the World's Fastest Game.' (Harold Barkley)

After reading the articles and staring at the pictures, I would get scissors, and cut out the photos and tape them to the wall over my bed.

Week after week, I read, and stared, and cut and taped the Weekend pages to my bedroom walls. 

And it didn't take long for me to pick favourite player. 

There he was: #4, Jean Beliveau, in white, whipping the puck past Johnny Bower.  

I had never seen a hockey game in real life – no television. So I would listen to the radio and stare at the photos, imagining the players' speed.  Imagining perfection.

Moore, Beliveau, McDonald

Here is No. 4 again, flanked by his teammates, Dickie Moore and Ab McDonald. (Star Weekly)

And sometimes on the radio, players would be interviewed after the game. Beliveau  sounded so confident.

It was the first time I had ever heard someone speak like that, and I loved it, loved his strong accent. My mom told he was French, that he came from Quebec.

I knew he was the best of the best.

And I knew that one day I would become part of his world. 

My Christmas gift when I was seven was a wool Montreal Canadiens sweater and a matching tuque.

A classy guy - win or lose

We left the North and moved to small-town Saskatchewan.

I learned to skate. I became a pee-wee hockey player. We got a television. And Beliveau #4 was deep in me, the way he answered questions, always polite – win or lose.

Other players had banged up noses, broken teeth and day-old beards. Jean was clean-shaven, classy....and for me, stuck in small towns, classy was elsewhere.

By Grade 6, I was going to a school in Lebret, in the Qu'appelle Valley. It was founded by Quebec missionaries.

Lebret

David Gutnick next went to school in Lebret, Sask. (saskatchewanderer.ca)

There were old people who spoke French. French was on the gravestones in the cemetery across the street from the school.

Some of my Métis friends from school in Lebret had French last names: Payan, Payant dit St. Onge, Thibault, Dumas, Rossignol, Hudon dit Beaulieu, Dubé, Soucy, Sansoucy, Paradis, Lebel, Lévesque, Michaud, Legris dit Lepine, Morin, LeMesle, Arsenault.

French was becoming a part of my subconscious self.

By the time I was 20, I was in Quebec City, going to university, exploring a whole new part of myself.  Drinking, running, chasing skirts, reading poetry and newspapers, making new friends in a new language. And still in love with #4, an elder statesman that all of Quebec adored the same way I did.

I became a journalist for CBC Radio in Montreal, and one evening I covered a hockey playoff game in the old Forum on Atwater Street.

Up in the press box, way up in the rafters, there he was: Wearing a dark suit, tall, calm and perfect. 

Jean Beliveau

Former Montreal Canadiens great Jean Beliveau had a smile for everyone. (Brendan Lee)


I debated. Then I walked up to him and said, "It all started in a school like this one, a northern school, a school in Hay River in the Northwest Territories. I was six and one of the few white kids..."