“This stick was signed by Jean Béliveau so don’t fuckin’ tell me where to fuckin’ go.” Jane Siberry. Hockey
“To you from failing hands we throw the torch.” John McCrae. In Flanders Fields
Jean Béliveau died last week. He will be buried tomorrow. He was 83.
Now, friends of this blog may be surprised to find a post about hockey here. After all, I don’t really know much about it, and try as I might, I just can’t seem to get into it. This is not new. I’ve always felt a little guilty that I don’t love hockey on a basic genetic level, as I suppose we are supposed to do as Canadians. When I put a game on, invariably my mind will wander after only a minute or two. I’ll start to glaze over and wonder what’s on other channels, or maybe pick up that book that I’m only halfway through. It shouldn’t be that way, right? I mean, hockey is fast and back and forth and there’s fighting and punching, right? And yet, it doesn’t hold my attention. Neither does basketball, for that matter. David Brenner used to say that they should just give both basketball teams 100 points and let them play for 2 minutes. Hockey is just like basketball but colder and with the potential for terrible, artery slicing injuries from those damn skates. Something primal happens to me when I see or think about slicing injuries. I can’t watch movies where something gets sliced. Self-inflicted wrist cutting is the absolute worst for me (which is why the Royal Tenenbaums is on the very bottom of my list of Wes Andersons) but I’ve also actually thrown up in a movie theatre’s washroom due to some graphic throat cutting scenes. That honour goes to Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd and since I was there with my Mom for her birthday, I didn’t want to let on I was feeling so poorly, so I slunk back to the theatre after puking up my lunch and just sat through the rest of movie with my eyes half closed. I am hopeful that there are no wrist or throat cutting scenes in the Sondheim’s upcoming Into the Woods, but if there is now is the time to tell me. In fact, I would love if we were warned ahead of time if were going to see any depictions of suicide on film (especially the wrist cutting variety) in the same way that we get language, sex and violence warnings. I don’t mind other kinds of violence onscreen, and I can’t GET enough sex and I’m neutral on language, but sharp objects harming people? No THANKS. And so you can just imagine how I felt in February 2013 when Zack Redmond of the Jets had an artery sliced by a skate during practice, and Erik Karlsson of the Senators had to leave a game the week before because of an injury to his Achilles tendon. HIS ACHILLES TENDON, which I think in some ways actually worse than the wrist cutting thing. I still think back to that terrible scene at the end of the Pet Sematary movie where little Gage scoots out from under the bed and slices Jud Crandall’s Achilles tendon with a scalpel….okay guys. I’m actually making myself feel sick to my stomach right now just talking about this and remembering all these things. Why don’t we also throw in the opening scene from The Last Emperor while we are at it? All of this is to say that no one’s arteries will EVER be sliced open in a baseball game, despite the old adage that “anything can happen in baseball”.
Okay, so we’ve established that I am not a natural-born hockey fan, and so why am I posting this thing about Jean Béliveau’s passing? Well, because one of the things that I love about baseball specifically (but also about sports in general) are the romantic stories that surround the game and the people we often call “giants” or “legends” that play them.
By anyone’s estimation, Jean Béliveau was both a giant and a legend, on and off the ice, and I had a chance to meet him in 1994. I happened to be walking through a local shopping mall and there was a crowd at one of the bookstores. (This was back in the day when our local mall had two bookstores. Now it has neither). In my memory, I was just a teenager, but confirming dates shows that I was actually 20. Jean Béliveau was in the store, signing copies of his autobiography. Now I had vaguely heard of Jean Béliveau before, if only from that line from the Jane Siberry song, but something compelled me to go in and flip through his book. I read the first few pages and was drawn into this man’s world and his relatable storytelling style. Do you ever do things that you later can’t quite explain, and if you HAD to explain it you would never have done them? I think lining up to buy Jean Béliveau’s book was one of those things for me. When I got to the front of the line, he smiled up at me. He was in his early 60’s at the time, and kind of reminded me of my maternal grandfather in his looks. He had the same silvery wiry hair, but his smile was warmer. He asked me my name and as he carefully signed my copy I remembered the story that he always took the time to make sure his signature was legible because he knew how important a signature was to sports fans. We didn’t talk long, but he seemed kind and he made me feel comfortable and at ease. I couldn’t wait to get home to read more about this gentle giant that I had just met.
The book itself is wonderful, full of anecdotes of growing up in rural Quebec and playing hockey at a time when goalies didn’t wear masks and players didn’t wear helmets. He told stories of what it was like to play with “Rocket” Maurie Richard and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, and the rivalries back when there were only six NHL teams. The previous summer I had visited Montreal and taken a tour of the Forum, so I could really picture everything that was described in this book: from the drafty raftered seats to the cramped dressing room with the famous lines from “On Flanders Fields” posted above the lockers. One story in particular stuck with me, and it was when Guy Lafleur, 20 years Béliveau’s junior, joined the Montreal Canadiens. He was a fan of Béliveau ever since he met him when he was 10, and would always wear Béliveau’s Number 4 through his entire junior career. When he joined the Canadiens, he actually lived with Jean and his wife for a couple of weeks to help him adjust to life in the NHL and helped him get an apartment and somewhat settled in that hockey obsessed city. When Béliveau retired, Lafleur asked for Béliveau’s permission and blessing to wear the Number 4. Although Béliveau did give his blessing, he also told Lafleur that boys and and girls all over Quebec wear the Number 4 because of Béliveau and that he really should choose a new number and that one day the children of Quebec all be wearing that number for Lafleur. Lafleur took that advice and adopted the Number 10, chosen as Lafleur’s age when he met Béliveau for the first time. And you know what? Béliveau was right? Lafleur went on to be a superstar and team leader for the Canadiens and kids all over Quebec soon were wearing the number 10.
But some of Béliveau’s greatest accomplishments never made it into the book, because they fell outside the scope of his life in hockey. For example, instead of receiving a lavish gift upon his retirement from the Canadiens in 1971, he instead asked for a donation to a new charity that he and his wife were starting for disabled children. Even to this day, the Jean Béliveau foundation raises money for children’s hospitals in Quebec. Another example: in 1993, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien asked Béliveau to become the next Governor General of Canada, but he turned the honour down, not because of any political reasons, but his only daughter had recently become a widow (she lost her husband through suicide) and he knew that his daughter and his two granddaughters needed him more than the country did. The honours went on and on: the Order of Canada, offers of being made a Senator on two different occasions by two different prime ministers, but for me I’ll remember those few moments in 1994 in that bookstore and how I wanted to learn more about this remarkable man. I might not feel like a full Canadian sometimes, but after meeting Mr. Béliveau, I knew I could be a full Canadien if I wanted.