The summation of an athlete’s career, especially those greatest at their sport, always comes down to numbers. So inevitably last week that was the case with Jean Beliveau, the sublime, larger-than-life Montreal Canadiens center, his name etched into the Stanley Cup 17 times, though his unremitting dignity, elegance, and grace truly immeasurable, unquantifiable.
Beliveau’s numbers, including the “4” he wore on the back of his Habs sweater for 18 full seasons, his 10-year captaincy, his bountiful goals and assists, will be easy to summon. They have long been engraved in silver, noted in NHL record books, inscribed on his plaque at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Those numbers are the hard facts of what he was, while his dignity, elegance, and grace, the very being of who Joseph Jean Arthur Beliveau was, are left but to the memory of those who saw him play, knew him in his life off the ice, absent his skates, his stick, or iconic CH sweater.
Beliveau, 83, died on Tuesday, and his body will lie in state Sunday and Monday at the Bell Centre, the modern-day home of his beloved Habs. Raised closer to Quebec City, he came to town in the early 1950s and made his name, and legend, down the street at the old, more intimate Forum. It will be no surprise if the line of mourners stretches from the Bell Centre to the old arena, given how connected Montrealers were to Beliveau, and he to them, over the last 60-plus years.
Hockey is life and lifestyle in Montreal. It is year-round social sustenance, beyond anything we have ever known in Boston. Seemingly forever and a day, though he played his last game for the Habs in the spring of 1971, Beliveau has been the lifeblood of that sustenance. His death on Tuesday took from the city a memory, an icon, a patriarch.
“We have lost our father,” noted ex-Habs defenseman Guy Lapointe.
Some 15 years ago, a friend of mine from Boston dined one night at Moishes, a venerable Montreal steakhouse. The clatter of the eatery came to a stop, he recalled, when Beliveau entered the room unannounced. As “Le Gros Bill” made his way to a table, diners stood and applauded — this some 30 years after his final waltz around the ice, one last Cup hoisted high over his head.
“When Jean Beliveau walked into a room,’’ noted TSN’s Michael Farber in his touching video tribute for the network last week, “he owned it.’’
The perpetuating magic of Beliveau was that grace, so obvious in every shift of his play.
A sturdy 6 feet 3 inches, considered a geant in his day, he skated with elongated, powerful strides, all of them silken, effortless.
He passed the puck with efficiency and pace and pinpoint accuracy.
His shots were lightning quick, perhaps the best Rocket Richard ever saw, the Habs great said upon first seeing Beliveau as a rookie.
Around the net, Beliveau used his strength, leverage, and infinite reach to control stick and puck as if they were knife and fork, forever feasting on goalies in a career that brought him 507 regular-season goals. The doorstep quick switch to his backhand, finished with a snap of the puck over a prostrate bamboozled goalie, was the dotted “i” — Beliveau’s signature move.
It was with that same ease and proficiency that Beliveau made his way so gracefully through life, winning people over in an instant with his attentiveness, his focus in the moment, the sense that he could make a stranger feel important. He was born with a gift of engagement. “How are you, Mr. Dupont?’’ he would say to a rookie Boston reporter then in his 20s, Beliveau at that time an ambassador for the Canadiens.
Ever polite, he had you at Mr. or Mrs. or Miss, with firm handshake and warm, penetrating blue eyes.
Gordie Howe, the legendary “Mr. Hockey,’’ now struggling mightily with health issues, recounted to the Montreal Gazette’s Dave Stubbs how Beliveau years ago journeyed to Saskatchewan, Howe’s home province, for a parade. Four of Howe’s sisters were there to meet the handsome, strapping center of the Montreal Canadiens.
“[My sisters] came home 15 minutes after meeting him,’’ recalled Howe, “and they said, ‘We used to be Detroit fans.’ ’’
Athletes still make their marks, record their greatness, with numbers. It is the basis of the industry, be it sports or other forms or entertainment. Increasingly, though, we know athletes by little more than the numbers they put up and the size of their paychecks.
Too often we grow to know athletes today for their misdeeds, their lawlessness and buffooneries. They indeed may be full of such things as dignity and elegance and grace, but how would we know? It is now standard operating procedure for them to separate the who they are from the what they are — something that never once occurred to the man being waked these next two days by a full city, if not a nation, of mourners.
“A true all-time hockey great, an ambassador extraordinaire for all he believed in,’’ noted Beliveau’s former roommate, the great Habs goalie Ken Dryden, in an appreciation he wrote for the Toronto Star. “Jean’s greatest achievement, in fact, may have been that he was a very nice man.’’
Something not to be quantified in numbers. Something to be remembered.