In the hyperbolic ways we often describe our heroes in the world of sport and otherwise, Jean Beliveau was regularly called a king among men by media and fans alike. Except when we were talking about him, it wasn’t hyperbole. We meant it, because as far as hockey players go—as far as people go—Jean Beliveau had an unparalleled reputation for class, grace, and kindness.
There’s something special about stories handed down to our generation, of players we have never seen play in our lifetimes. We’re lucky that in recent years, clips of that era have slowly begun cropping up on YouTube and people have naturally been making gifs of Beliveau’s playing days. Sure, we can see his goals and dig up game footage. There is no question that he was one of the most talented centres ever to play the game and one of the greatest players in hockey history. That Frank Selke bought an entire hockey league just to secure his rights is a favourite story from Montreal Canadiens history. Our parents tell us tales of plays we wish we were around to watch live.
The best stories, however, rarely have anything to do with his on-ice talent. They are most often of encounters with the man as well as stories about how he has touched the lives of people who have never even met him. The case could be made that the real stuff of legend is found in the way he treated Canadiens fans throughout his life.
A simple search on social media today will bring up hundreds if not thousands of stories of people meeting him—and that in itself is a special thing. So many of us have met him, because until his health deteriorated to the point where he had to cut back on his public duties, he was always present at one Canadiens-related event or another. Even at the Bell Centre, in the intermission, fans could ask to go down to his section to see him and he would take the time to give every single one of them an autograph. People always remember him as an exceptionally kind man, and some remember a twinkle in his eye.
You have already heard this, and you will hear it repeatedly in the next few days, but one of the things Beliveau was famous for was that he responded to every single piece of fan mail he received, by hand. He signed any memorabilia sent to him by fans to sign, no matter where they were in the world. Think of all the emails you get in a day that you ignore or procrastinate on, even the ones that would take ten seconds to act on. Now picture writing a letter in response to every one of those emails. He didn’t just do this for fans in Montreal or even Canada. If you lived continents away and wrote to him, he made time for you.
We have been lucky in Montreal with all the history, all the Stanley Cups, the dynasties and hockey legends. Many of our heroes are still around. However, none of them can come close to Jean Beliveau in terms of off-ice representation of the Montreal Canadiens to fans and the hockey world. It's not just that they just don’t make them like him anymore, it's that I wonder if they ever did. There are still so many players from the Canadiens’ dynasty era still with us, many of whom have seen their numbers raised to the rafters, but in many respects, it feels like the last of our legends is gone.