MONTREAL – For a second day in a row, thousands of Habs fans braved the cold to pay tribute to the man who spent his life warming hearts around the hockey world.
It was the final day of Jean Béliveau’s public viewing ahead of Wednesday’s planned state funeral, and fans from across Canada once again poured into the Bell Centre beginning at 10:00 a.m. – although a line formed outside the main entrance hours before the doors officially opened – to celebrate the life of the Canadiens legend.
“He was an extraordinary man. I came with my father today in his honor. We were both very emotional,” offered longtime Habs fan Josée Lebuis. “We ate next to him once on my father’s birthday and he actually he came over to wish my dad a happy birthday even though he was with Céline Dion and René Angélil. He was so kind, it was amazing. It takes a lot of patience and courage for a family to do something like this. I have a lot of respect for the Béliveaus for offering us this opportunity.”
Known for his kindness and compassion, Béliveau was famous for never turning away an admiring autograph seeker or an adoring fan, and stories of the former captain going the extra mile were commonplace during the two-day wake.
“He was my idol growing up. He was an extraordinary man, both as a person and as a player,” said Suzanne Mathieu, who lined up with thousands of other fans to pay her respects to the Hall-of-Famer. “I had the chance to meet him at a golf tournament in Boucherville once when he was the guest of honor. He was very kind. He came to greet me personally. I was 35 years old at the time but he made me feel like I was 17.”
True to the Canadiens ambassador’s image, Béliveau’s wife Élise, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, personally greeted every mourning fan who waited up to 65 minutes to say goodbye to “Le Gros Bill.”
“The tributes have been very well done. I had asked myself how the organization would honor someone of Mr. Béliveau’s stature, but everything was handled respectfully, fitting to the man himself,” shared Steven Côté. “I never actually had the opportunity to see him play, but I’ve been a Canadiens fan since I was born. Hearing all the stories, watching all the videos and seeing the impression he left on others here has given me a pretty good idea of what kind of person he was.”
Also remembered for his service to others during his time as a player and in the decades following his retirement, today, the Jean Béliveau trophy is awarded annually to the Canadiens player who best exemplifies leadership qualities in the community, an honor not lost on those in attendance.
“What I’ll always remember most is his life after hockey. All of the charitable endeavors to which he dedicated himself, and the way he carried himself among strangers,” noted Gisele Ravary, who made the trip from Hawkesbury, ON to attend the viewing. “He was very kind and humble. He was close to the people.”
Enshrined on the Bell Centre ice surrounded by some of the hardware he earned during his two decade career, including the Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe, Hart, and Art Ross trophies, the 10-time NHL All-Star will be remembered by anyone who was lucky enough to have seen him play as a champion, in every sense of the word.
“I watched Jean Béliveau at the Forum when I was very young,” recalled Alain Bellier of the 17-time Stanley Cup Champion. “He was a true gentleman, a man with both feet firmly planted on the ground. In my opinion, he was the greatest player in hockey history.”
Steven Nechay is a writer for canadiens.com
Remembering Jean Béliveau
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