Jean Béliveau: The torch passes

Jean Béliveau: The torch passes

Canadiens lose another legend with death of 'Le Gros Bill'

By Malcolm Kelly for CBC Sports
December 4, 2014
Jean Beliveau, left, reads the inscription on a plaque in honour of Howie Morenz on Feb. 25, 1978, prior to the start of a Rangers-Canadiens game. (Canadian Press) Jean Beliveau, left, reads the inscription on a plaque in honour of Howie Morenz on Feb. 25, 1978, prior to the start of a Rangers-Canadiens game. (Canadian Press)

The words of John McCrae were written in the Belgian fields of the bloody Ypres Salient, back in 1915:

“To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.”

Fans and foes of Le Club du Hockey Canadien have seen that torch symbolically passed around in pre-game ceremonies to any number of former players and coaches with the legendary National Hockey League team over recent years.

The 100th anniversary celebrations, a tribute to Saku Koivu and the retirement of Guy Lapointe’s No. 5 are among the famous celebrations.

The Canadiens bring John McCrae's words to life before home games.

That torch appears before every home game, carried by a youngster to symbolize the enduring strength of an organization that, though it is in a long drought between championships, still carries itself with the pride of 24 Stanley Cup victories.

Indeed, since 1952, when Frank Selke, the general manager, had McCrae’s words put on the walls of the dressing room, in both English and French, that call to arms has resonated in a way no other team in Canadian sports can claim.

It can be argued, however, that the torch has really been passed along by three pairs of hands, together capturing … no, a better word is encompassing … what this club has meant to a city and a province: Howie Morenz, to Maurice Richard, to Jean Beliveau.

On Sunday and Monday, two extraordinary events in the history of Montreal will become three, when the memory of Beliveau, “Le Gros Bill” (named for a French folk hero), who died this week at 83, will be celebrated on the floor at the Bell Centre.

The death of Howie Morenz rocked Montreal and the hockey world.

The tradition began with one Howie Morenz.

Famed broadcaster Foster Hewitt called Morenz "the Babe Ruth of Hockey” -- an astonishing title in the 1930s when you consider what baseball’s greatest player meant to that generation.

After 14 seasons in the NHL, including time with the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks, Morenz had returned to the Habs where, on Jan. 28, 1937, he found himself coming in on defender Babe Siebert at the Forum.

Morenz, in his 546th regular-season game, was slowing now and was unable to get around the Chicago defender, who sent him awkwardly into the boards where a skate blade stuck, Siebert landed on top of him, and the weight caused a double fracture of the leg.

Six weeks later, Morenz died in hospital.

Montreal was stunned insensible. Though he was an English Canadian, born in Mitchell, Ont., the Canadiens’ fans adored the fast, flashy winger -- a man who epitomized the Fire Wagon Hockey style of the club.

On March 11, 1937, Morenz lay in repose on the floor of the Forum as 50,000 people filed by the casket to pay their respects. The funeral directly followed, right there at centre, broadcast nationally across the still-new CBC.

Jean Beliveau gets the torch from Maurice Jean Beliveau gets the torch from Maurice "Rocket" Richard during the closing ceremonies after the final game at the Montreal Forum in 1996. (Canadian Press)

At that moment, one Joseph Henri Maurice Richard was 15 years old and already making an impact at the junior level.

He would go on to play 18 seasons and score 626 regular-season and playoff goals for the Canadiens -- great numbers but barely scratching the surface of what he meant to fans of the club, especially in the French-speaking areas of Quebec.

Richard was as close to a secular God as you could find at a time when a Quiet Revolution was beginning in the province. Quebecois historians argue today about whether the player had anything directly to do with that movement, but there is no discussion about The Rocket’s place in the culture.

Roch Carrier’s short story, The Hockey Sweater (Le chandail de Hockey), tells that story so well.

Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater illustrated hockey's importance in Quebec's culture.

When Richard retired in 1960, after eight Stanley Cups, he carried the torch high through to his own death in 2000 at the age of 78.

On March 11, 1996 -- yes, that was 59 years to the day that Morenz lay at the Forum -- the Canadiens celebrated the closing of that building and witnessed an astonishing standing ovation for Richard that went on and on in an outpouring of emotion.

When Richard died, in 2000, more than 115,000 people walked by his casket at the Bell Centre prior to a funeral that saw the city flock to the roads to pay respect as the hearse came by.

Jean Beliveau was there, of course.

Maurice Richard received an emotional and lengthy standing ovation during the closing of the Forum. What will Beliveau's ovation be like on Tuesday?

In his 20 seasons (18 full time) with the Habs, Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups, captained the club for 10 seasons and scored 586 total goals. As importantly, his aura was as gigantic as his 6-foot-3, 205-pound frame was considered at the time of his playing career.

Team executive, member of so many company and fund-raising boards, conscience of the team and in many ways of the whole game, Beliveau, it is said by his many biographers, was loved differently by the fans than Richard. He was, in many ways, above it all.

As he lies in state, honoured with the type of class and distinction that had led the government to offer him the chance to be Governor General (he politely declined), or a Senator (he politely declined), it would be natural to ask a question.

To whom will the torch now be passed, to hold on high?

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