As long as anyone can remember, even before he was to become everything that was good about this Montreal Canadiens franchise, Jean Beliveau has been special.
Was there ever a player blessed with more grace on and off the ice? He was a quiet leader who led by example. He walked and skated tall -- and always will be remembered that way. We rejoiced in his accomplishments and were left limp with grief when he was struck with adversity -- on and off the ice.
Some years ago, all of us were saddened when he announced in a brief statement that in a matter of days, he would start radiation treatment for a malignant tumor doctors had discovered in his neck. This man, loved and admired by so many, who won so many battles on the ice in his 18 full seasons with the Canadiens, took on his biggest one with greater resolve and courage than any game he ever played.
"I rely totally on the expertise of my doctors," he was quoted in the statement. "I intend to follow their instructions and recommendations to the letter. I feel good and I fully intend on winning this next battle.
"During my treatments, for the next few months, I very humbly ask everyone to respect the privacy of my family and myself."
He won it, against great odds. He handled the radiation, although for a long while he lost his sense of taste. He carried a bottle of spring water with him all day to ease the terrible discomfort of dry mouth, a condition that exists to this day. However, through all this, he remained the smiling giant of a man, available to people of all ages and languages and colors. His ability to charm others never has left him because he is, after all, Jean Beliveau.
Numbers and individual achievements don't begin to describe what Beliveau has meant to his family, to the Canadiens organization, to people everywhere. Eighteen full seasons with the Canadiens, his last 10 as captain; 10 Stanley Cups; two Hart Trophies, one Conn Smythe; 507 goals and 712 assists in 1,125 games; 176 points in 162 playoff games ... only numbers. They pale in comparison to the love and respect other players, old and new, and the people have for him.
It wasn't that long ago I ran into him at Montreal General Hospital. An employee who was mopping the corridor on the sixth floor came along, stopped, his eyes widening. He said: "Ah, Monsieur Beliveau ... bonjour!"
What he got in return for the next couple of minutes were smiles and words of cheer. It was always "Monsieur Beliveau," even though he would have preferred "Jean." That's respect. That's love.
"When you talk about the great players, the superstars who've played for the Canadiens," Dickie Moore once told me, "he's right up there with the very best. As an individual, he's always been in a class by himself. As an individual, on and off the ice, nobody comes close."
Beliveau was more than a captain: he was a father figure in many ways. If a player had a problem on the ice, Beliveau was only a stick-length away. If there were personal problems that needed attention, he was available. He didn't inflict himself on anyone, but everyone knew he was there.
Wayne Gretzky has had critics among his peers. So did Mario Lemieux. Some players didn't like Henri Richard, Phil Esposito or Bobby Clarke -- but I don't recall any player lashing out at Beliveau. He almost was too good to be true. Too many among the old-time players recoil at the money being made today, but Beliveau always has gone the other way. He's glad for them.
He'd like to see the hooking and slashing and holding taken out of the game, but that's where it ends. He is gracious about today's stars, and when he played he had a special place in his heart for Gordie Howe.
"All those Stanley Cups, each one means so much. You work so hard. You start in September and you don't stop working. With Toe (coach Toe Blake), it was always first place. It's all that counted, but one of my greatest thrills -- and it's always been team-first with me -- was when I was elected captain. I was not in line for it. I was not even an alternate captain at the time. I was in a cast at the time."
-- Jean Beliveau
"Some of the people, they say that Howe did not skate too fast. He knew what he was doing all the time, so he did not have to skate too fast, they said. All I can say is that up until near the end of his NHL career, the players who had to cover him should be asked how fast Howe could skate. And if you caught him, that great strength of his was too much.
"Twenty-five years ... I do not know how anybody could play that long. With Howe, his stamina always amazed me. Lots of players can go for 40 minutes, but for the last 10 minutes they're hanging on to somebody trying to catch their breath. Not Howe. Go-go-go all the time, but that's what made him special, I think. With him, it was always that little extra that really counted. Will there be another Howe? If there is, he'll have a lot to do."
It doesn't seem so long ago that I sat with Beliveau in his home the day before his 50th anniversary with the Canadiens as a player and executive. We talked about many things -- the Stanley Cup teams he was on, the players on his line, the moments and events he remembered most.
"All those Stanley Cups, each one means so much," Beliveau said. "You work so hard. You start in September and you don't stop working. With Toe (coach Toe Blake), it was always first place. It's all that counted, but one of my greatest thrills -- and it's always been team-first with me -- was when I was elected captain. I was not in line for it. I was not even an alternate captain at the time. I was in a cast at the time.
"Two months out," he said with a sigh.
"So I'm in a cast when the boys are having the vote. Toe's fedora is being passed around the room, and we're dropping the little papers into it. You could vote for Dickie, for Boom (Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion), for Tom Johnson or for me. By then, I had been 33 days in a cast. I never thought for a second anybody would vote for me. I voted for Dickie."
There was a tie for most votes into the fedora during the first ballot, a draw between Beliveau and Geoffrion. The next vote was just between those two Montreal greats.
"What's the problem?" I asked him.
"Those bastards picked Beliveau," he snapped.
"Yeah, Boom was a little upset," Beliveau said in his Longueuil home. "But ah, you know Boom. He was upset that day, but the next morning he was all right.
"After the vote, I went up to see Mr. Selke (the team's powerful general manager of the time), 'I don't deserve to be captain of this team.'
"He said, 'What would you want me to do? Go downstairs and tell those players they picked the wrong guy?' "
Reprinted with permission from the Montreal Gazette, this Red Fisher column originally ran in early 2005. For more insights, check out the Gazette's hockey blog, www.habsinsideout.com.