Originally published December 2002
HUMBLED BY A HOCKEY HERO
by Greg Meakin
The other day I received a personal telephone call from Jean Béliveau.
Oh my goodness – JEAN BELIVEAU!
In the professional hockey world, Béliveau is a man Wayne Gretzky looks up to. We’re talking a BIG name here.
Mention the name Jean Béliveau to anyone remotely familiar with hockey – or anyone with a Canadian birth certificate – and the recognition will show immediately. It’s a certain “knowing” look in the eyes, a kind of formal glow of respect and admiration.
Jean Béliveau, now 71, is the prototype class act – a polished man of grace and genuine humility – and an elder statesman of his sport. Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Unitas, these names, past and present, come to mind from other sports.
Beliveau comes to mind when you say “Hockey.”
As insanely difficult as championships are to win these days, Béliveau has 17! He hoisted 10 Stanley Cups as a player and 7 as an executive – an absolutely astonishing statistic, in any era. Compare it to Michael Jordan’s six, or Wayne Gretzky’s four.
The man’s résumé and lifetime accomplishments read like a world-class TEAM, not a single individual.
Think about it. With 17 championships, Béliveau’s only rivals are the New York Yankees and Montreal Canadiens, with 27 and 24 respectively. Béliveau has more rings than the Boston Celtics, Green Bay Packers, and 16 more than the Chicago Cubs!
And unlike most athletes today, Béliveau’s accomplishments only BEGIN with championships won.
During a 20-year, Hall of Fame career starting in the 1950s, he was selected to 13 All Star teams and eclipsed the prestigious 500-goal and 1000-point marks. Béliveau was awarded NHL trophies for the leagues’s MVP and leading scorer. He was also crowned with an MVP award for premier playoff performance.
Add these awards to the 17 Stanley Cups, and we’re talking big-time hardware here.
After retiring from the ice in 1972, Béliveau brought his magic touch of winning to the executive level as president of his legendary Canadiens. But perhaps the deepest admiration for Jean Béliveau – among his peers, as well as gourmet hockey enthusiasts – lies not in his exploits on the ice or the front office, but rather his manhood.
In a sport notorious for aggression and antagonism, Béliveau was and is a true gentleman. In today’s age of nine-figure salary packages and managed entities known as pro athletes, Jean Béliveau was unconditionally dedicated and non-pretentious, putting his team and respect for the sport above all.
With the understated integrity of a Cal Ripken Jr. or a Tony Gwynn, Big John wouldn’t dream of playing for another team, period. I doubt whether the words ‘money’ or ‘contract’ are even in his vocabulary.
These financial details – so obsessively prevalent today – were pale, non-issues for Béliveau, compared to the honor of playing an entire career with one team. Not to mention the opportunity to contribute – significantly as it turns out – to a chapter of sports folklore known as the Montreal Canadiens hockey team.
His impact was felt off the ice as well. Daily, he bridged the gap between the oft contentious struggle between English and French factions in Canada. No matter the language, religion or socio-economic standing, everyone loved and admired Béliveau.
Even Toronto maple Leafs fans respected him. And that, my friends, is saying a lot.
I had attempted to contact the former Canadiens captain through Dave Stubbs, a reporter for the Montreal Gazette. Stubbs had written an inspirational piece honoring the 30-year anniversary of a wonderful program founded by Béliveau, the Canadian Sports Friendship Exchange Program.
As Stubbs described it, the exchange was designed to foster tolerance, friendship and understanding between young English and French minor hockey players. (Unbeknownst to many Americans today, the political climate of 1960s and 70s Quebec featured language barriers and French/English malcontent which was not dissimilar to the racial hostility witnessed in the United States during that era).
Béliveau’s program featured participants spending a weekend together, playing hockey on a Saturday afternoon at the Montreal Forum, and subsequently attending a Canadiens game that evening.
What a wonderful experience it must have been for these French and English youth, who up to then had lived on opposite sides of the language barrier fence.
The program now includes other sports and non-sports exchanges, and an estimated 36,000 Canadian kids have taken part since 1972.
I e-mailed the Montreal reporter, expressing my interest in the exchange program and, with little expectation, to invite Béliveau to Bremerton Ice Arena’s grand opening in the spring.
The very next day Jean Béliveau called.
A warm conversation ensued. I relayed fond memories of watching him on the old Forum ice when I was a boy – his 500th goal, which I was lucky enough to witness live, as well as other less-historic, but no less memorable Béliveau moments.
He laughed out loud when I recounted playing on the Forum ice myself as an 11-year old Pee Wee hockey player. Most of us fell on our faces as we poured onto the ice, not realizing how much of a drop it was from the entry gate to the ice surface!
Welcome to a professional hockey arena, eh?
In conversing, I noticed how clearly and resolutely this man speaks. With his trademark French- Canadian accent, his English vocabulary and grammar are perfect – a subtle testament of sorts to his commitment to tolerance and multi-cultural life in Quebec.
His voice booms in a way I can only describe as a “commanding, velvet baritone.” It’s apparent this fellow has done much public speaking and media interviews in his life.
His speech is not unlike his demeanor on the ice. At 6-3, 200-plus pounds, he was a statuesque fortress of a man – much like Superman. Check out his early photo poses – even the hair style matches the Man of Steel. But Béliveau is remembered not for his imposing physical presence – somewhat of a rarity for his time – but for his silky smooth stick-handling, elegance afoot, and playmaking brilliance.
Simply put, his grace and style remain unparalleled in the history of professional hockey. He didn’t just impact a game – he rose to become a sports and cultural icon. He serves not as a fading character in tavern war stories of a bygone era in ice hockey, but rather as a cornerstone – a sterling example of how to live one’s life as a consummate professional in a day and age of self-centeredness.
Béliveau’s name comes to mind when pondering what is missing in sports today. His name could serve as a model for what traits would be necessary for modern-day professional athletes (or the business world, for that matter) to come full circle from the recent decades of financial and personal indulgence.
The warmth and compassion of this man’s soul resonated through the phone lines from the other side of the continent. The most moving part of our 20-minute conversation was when he congratulated me for spearheading the Bremerton Ice Arena project – introducing kids to the great game of hockey. It was comparable to John Wooden complimenting the local high school basketball coach, or Joe Paterno calling with kudos for a Pop Warner football team.
Our conversation ended with a pleasant surprise. He provided his home address and phone number and invited me to keep in touch with him.
When I embarked on the Bremerton Ice Arena project in August 2000, I never dreamed I would be speaking with Jean Béliveau on the telephone a few years later. It is this type of memorable and unexpected encounter that makes this ice arena adventure so rewarding. It eases the often sleepless nights and stressful days, and reminds me very clearly why I pursued this mission in the first place.
Perhaps the most revealing thing about this man’s character was when he was considering coming out here for the grand opening. Due to health concerns, he doubted he could make the cross-country trek.
That he even WANTED to visit little Bremerton, Washington to celebrate the opening of a community ice rink, and that he actually APOLOGIZED for not being able to make it, says a lot about him.
But then again I can’t say it really surprises me. After all, this is Jean Béliveau we’re talking about.
Photo of Jean Beliveau and youngster Wayne Gretzky.