How Jean Beliveau lit the way for a boy in Hay River, N.W.T.
CBC broadcaster David Gutnick shares his memories of his boyhood hero, who died this week at age 83
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.
In the summer we played on the sandy beaches of Great Slave Lake.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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..."