MONTREAL – Hall-of-Famer Jean Béliveau touched many, many lives over the years. His former teammates can certainly attest to that.
In the aftermath of the 83-year-old’s passing on Tuesday, those who knew Béliveau best were eager to share their memories of the 10-time Stanley Cup champion, who also served as the longest tenured captain in Canadiens history from 1961 to 1971, before adding seven more Championship rings as a member of the Habs’ brass following his retirement.
“I remember my first time in the dressing room with Jean. I was just staring at him and I could hardly tie my skates. I was just so excited to be there. He was one of the best hockey players I’d ever seen,” confided Guy Lapointe, who played alongside his long-time friend during his rookie campaign back in 1970-71, which also just happened to be Béliveau’s 20th and final season with the “CH” before hanging up his skates. “He was a big man in that he had a lot of class. He had a great deal of respect for other people. He was a gentleman, and he served as an example for all of us as players.”
In addition to teaching Lapointe & Co. the importance of teamwork and playing as one cohesive unit, Béliveau also taught countless Canadiens young guns and veterans alike about being gracious and kind to the people that revered them the most – the fans.
“I remember that we were signing autographs one time when I first started out. Jean was just so patient. He was smiling and talking to everybody. I was in my rookie year, and as a younger kid I was kind of feeling like the session was going on a little long. I was being a bit lazy with my autograph,” recalled Lapointe, lauding Béliveau’s willingness to fulfill every request he could, whether big or small. “He kind of grabbed me by the arm and said – ‘Guy, the people love you. They wait for you. Sign your autograph in a way that it’s going to be legible so they can read your name. You’ve got to show your fans respect.’”
Respectfulness and humility are qualities that defined the Trois-Rivières native his entire life. Even as his health began to deteriorate in recent weeks, the two-time Hart Trophy winner insisted on reaching out to Lapointe to congratulate him after his No. 5 jersey was raised to the Bell Centre rafters back on November 8.
“When the Canadiens retired my jersey a few weeks ago, I got a call from Réjean Houle the next morning. He had received an e-mail from Jean’s wife, Élise, letting him know that Jean wanted to see me. I wanted to see him, too, and I did the next morning,” offered Lapointe. “That was quite an honor. His health wasn’t very good, but he was still able to talk a little bit. You could see a smile on his face. I went close to him and grabbed his hand. He said that he was happy for me. That’s just the kind of man he was. That was a pretty special moment for me.”
Like Lapointe, Houle recalls a Jean Béliveau who was simply larger than life, and someone that personified class, compassion and consideration in every venture he undertook.
“I remember the first time we visited Sainte-Justine Hospital. When you’re a young man and you join the Canadiens, going over there to meet with the sick young kids with Jean Béliveau is an experience. It really makes you think. You realize that there are bigger things in life than money, sports and glory. The health of your kids comes first and foremost above everything else,” explained Houle, who currently serves as president of the Canadiens Alumni Association. “That’s why he was so involved with the Canadiens Children’s Foundation. For him, it was always important that our kids had everything they needed to grow up well.”
The driving force behind the annual Canadiens Blood Drive along with Claude Mouton as well, Houle is adamant that Béliveau’s lifetime achievements extend far beyond the confines of the rink alone.
“The Jean Béliveau Trophy is given to the player who is the most involved in the community, and it’s well-deserved. He leaves behind a legacy that is far bigger and far more important than his 500-plus goals and 700-plus assists,” praised Houle, who claimed a Stanley Cup title alongside both Béliveau and Lapointe in 1970-71, helping the Canadiens down the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games. “The man was just so involved over the years, and what he leaves behind in terms of heritage is exceptional.”
Six-time Stanley Cup champion Dickie Moore shared similar thoughts about a man he described as an extraordinary figure from the moment he joined the NHL ranks. Back in 1985, the pair were voted in as members of the Canadiens' all-time All-Star team, along with Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Larry Robinson, Maurice Richard and Hector "Toe" Blake.
“He was a fantastic captain. He was a leader. He didn’t speak a lot, but he led by example. When he acted and accomplished something, he accomplished it brilliantly. You had to try to follow his lead. And, when we managed to do that, we made miracles happen. That’s how we won five straight Stanley Cup titles [between 1956 and 1960],” explained Moore. “[In life], Jean was always worried about everyone’s well-being, including his teammates. When someone was having a hard time, he always tried to find a way to help out. That’s the type of person he was. He was a great man.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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