Jean Béliveau's true measure elevated after his playing days
'The most graceful and elegant athlete I have ever met'
I don't know why I get so emotional during these interviews recalling the career of Jean Béliveau on the day after he died.
He was, after all, a hockey player.
I am just a sports broadcaster who was fortunate enough to encounter him long after he retired.
But in searching for the reason behind the lump in my throat and the tears that well up, I find a deeper meaning to what the player — one of the greatest players — meant to me and I'm sure to so many Canadians of my generation.
He was gigantic.
He was an enormous personality.
He was the most graceful and elegant athlete I have ever met.
You will hear much about the 10 Stanley Cups he won as a key member in the Montreal Canadiens lineup. You will come to understand that Béliveau was not just a captain of the team, he became the captain of the team forever and for all time.
He scored more than 1,000 points, played in more than 1,000 games and accumulated more than 1,000 penalty minutes.
But these are just totals that could never portray the true measure of this remarkable man.
Béliveau was skilled, productive, tough and the consummate leader on the ice. His aura was immense and magically intensified even after his playing days were over.
My grandfather and I would watch Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday nights and revel in how we both despised the Canadiens. Grandpa Koch was a Detroit Red Wings fan and I admired the Toronto Maple Leafs. When it came to Béliveau, though, he insisted upon respect, even adoration.
"If you're not watching Jean Béliveau you're not really watching the game," he would warn.
When I went to work for Hockey Night in Canada in Montreal in the late 1980s, I was introduced to three people when I first entered the iconic Forum.
There was Red Fisher of the Gazette and Dick Irvin, who would become a mentor on the broadcasts of the games. The third was Béliveau. He welcomed me and said it was great to have someone new in Montreal to cover the Habs on Hockey Night in Canada.
From that day forward he unfailingly remembered my name and always had time to talk hockey. I worked 14 seasons on Hockey Night in Canada and many of those games were in Montreal.
When I wrote my first book, The Rink: Stories from Hockey's Home Towns, along with Chris Cuthbert, I associated with Béliveau in a more extended way. We shared hours conversing about Le Colisée in Quebec City, an arena which had been built to attract him to come and play senior pro hockey in the capital of the province.
We would subsequently linger in the studio at the Bell Centre and he would gladly weave a fascinating yarn involving his love of the game and, more importantly, the family of hockey — a family of which he had become the unquestioned patriarch.
At the end of each meeting he would always bid adieu by saying a similar thing. "It has been my pleasure, Scott," he would say with a smile. "I have all the time in the world to speak with you."
Today is an emotional day, not because he is gone, but because we have the chance to remember all that he has been and continues to be.
One of the greatest players.
An honourable and noble Canadian.
A constant presence in the game we grew up loving.
I remember all those times the television director showed us the image of you in your seat behind the Canadiens bench. He did it to reassure us that you were still there, to comfort us and demonstrate that everything was right with hockey's world.
Mr. Béliveau, I'm just like so many fans.
I couldn't help being in awe of you.