Bobby Hull was in Montreal last month. It was a business trip, but he would not leave without visiting hockey royalty: Jean Beliveau.
“I called Jean’s wife, Elise, and asked if I could come over,” Hull recalled. “I knew it was the last I would ever see this great man. Jean was in bed, in pain, and he kept saying to me, ‘I don’t want to live this way, Bobby.’
And, ‘Bobby, enjoy every day.’ I had trouble keeping my tears away.”
Beliveau died on Tuesday at age 83. The Montreal Canadiens, who won 10 Stanley Cups during his magnificent career, wore patches bearing his No. 4 for Friday night’s game at the United Center. The Blackhawks honored him with a moment of silence before Jim Cornelison sang “O, Canada” in French and English.
It was a fitting tribute to one of the most admired and accomplished players in National Hockey League history, an untitled ambassador with links to all four of the Blackhawks ambassadors.
“I played with him my rookie year in Montreal,” said Tony Esposito. “I was hurting after a game and I told my wife, Marilyn, I’d be a little late. I eventually walked into the wives’ room and who’s sitting with her, keeping her company, but Jean Beliveau? Captain of the team! That’s the kind of guy he was. What a gentleman, what a player.”
Saturday nights for Denis Savard growing up in Montreal meant Les Canadiens on TV. He marveled at the regal Beliveau, how he did everything so well, so gracefully.
“Then when I got traded from Chicago to Montreal, I went to their office at the Forum,” Savard recalled. “My first day. And who do I run into right away? Jean Beliveau. Mr. Beliveau. Talk about someone who walks into a room and everybody gets quiet.”
In his recent book, “Forever A Blackhawk,” Stan Mikita recalled his debut in Chicago Stadium against the Canadiens as an emergency replacement during the 1958-59 season. He had seen only one NHL game ever when Coach Rudy Pilous tapped him on the shoulder.
“So the second game I ever saw was one in which I played,” Mikita wrote. “And who did I wind up taking my first faceoff against, but Jean Beliveau. Rudy did me a favor by putting me on a line with Ed Litzenberger and Ted Lindsay, who became a mentor of sorts for me. But I was still in a daze when I went out to take that faceoff against a legend like Beliveau, who was around 6-foot-5 and a towering presence on the ice.
“He had to outweigh me by 60 pounds. The faceoff was in Montreal’s end. I looked up at him from the circle and wound up staring at his belly button. That’s how tall he was. My knees were shaking. My head was spinning. Somehow I got my stick down and managed to get the puck to our point man. Don’t ask me who it was. I was too nervous to remember names.”
According to the Canadiens, Beliveau will “lay in wake” at Bell Centre on Sunday and Monday before his burial. It will be a state funeral, not unlike the one accorded Maurice “Rocket” Richard. If Richard had eyes that looked like two headlights when he bore in on goal, Beliveau was smooth as silk, and if it seems counterintuitive to describe a player as elegant in a collision sport such as hockey, Beliveau deserved the label.
Beliveau left home at age 16 to play baseball, but he was such a hockey prospect that the Canadiens bought an entire league to enhance their chances of signing him. Beliveau was an instant force in the NHL. He was the first hockey player to merit a Sports Illustrated cover. He earned two Hart Trophies, scored 507 goals and controlled the puck with his boardinghouse reach. Beliveau last appeared in uniform at the Stadium, embracing another Stanley Cup after the Canadiens rallied from a 2-0 deficit in Game 7 of the 1971 Final to defeat the Blackhawks 3-2.
“Jean could have played a couple more years,” Hull said. “But what a way to go out. That night still haunts me. But if it’s possible to like an opponent you played against for 15 years, Jean was that man. I am freewheeling, ridiculous. He was sublime. No enemies in the world. All the winning he did, all the good he did off the ice. A prince. Class. Gone. Sad, so sad.”