Rejean Houle was a fine hockey player in his own right, playing parts of 11 seasons and winning the Stanley Cup five times with the Montreal Canadiens, but he admits being daunted by his first meeting with Jean Beliveau.
"When I came on the team in 1970-71, I came in the room and I said, 'Hi, Mr. Beliveau,'" Houle said while attending the 2011 Heritage Classic in Calgary. "He said, 'Look, don't call me Mr. Beliveau. We're going to play together. You can call me Jean.' I always had a problem getting his name to be Jean. For me it was always Mr. Beliveau."
Houle's experience was not unusual.
Those lucky enough to meet Beliveau recall those meetings in similar ways. They point to his skill and legendary stature in the game, but also to the grace, dignity and, above all, class with which he carried himself. As a result, it was nearly impossible for players who grew up watching Beliveau not to treat him with a deep respect when they faced him.
Beliveau died Tuesday at age 83.
Beliveau's reputation preceded him when he played. Given his statistics and his numerous charitable works, the reputation was well-deserved. He engendered such a profound respect in his opponents that the purpose of playing became not just to win, but to make sure it was done in a way Beliveau would find acceptable.
"It was almost, 'Excuse me, Mr. Beliveau, I'm going to try to take the puck from you,'" Bobby Hull said at Wayne Gretzky's fantasy camp in Las Vegas a few years ago. "That was the attitude. You didn't want to play Jean Beliveau like you played everyone else, bodying him first. It was, 'Try to skate with him, try to filch the puck from him without body contact.' He was just that type of person.
"We, as players against him, had so much respect for the way he carried himself and for the way he conducted himself as he played against us."
Hull's experience as one of Beliveau's contemporaries leaves him in a unique position not simply to talk about the respect his legacy inspired, but also the desperation of facing such a talent. As a big, sturdy center, Beliveau's famous long stride made him exceedingly difficult to defend.
Moreover, his grace on the ice was not just a sight to see, but a reflection of the dapper style he exuded off of it.
"He was 6-feet-3 or 6-feet-4 and always not a hair out of place, a three-piece suit with his head up and almost like he was looking over top of everyone else," Hull said. "That's the way he played, with that big long stride a lot like Frank Mahovlich, a big, long strider. And those kinds of guys look beautiful on the move, and Jean was that type: a big, long strider, could move the puck from one side to the other and gain 12 to 15 feet on you. … And Jean never ever, all the while I played against him, never ever seemed to get flustered, never ever seemed to get himself into a position where he was threatened. He seemed to always have control; control of the game and control of himself."
Houle said seeing Beliveau, roughly two decades his senior, skating hard during warm-ups in practice presented an ideal worth emulating as a player. He noted that Beliveau, with his legacy already assured, remained focused on taking care of his job on the ice.
More than that, Beliveau seemed to take it as a responsibility to use his good fortune to benefit others around him. This was not lost on Houle or the rest of his Montreal teammates.
"Going through the years and the social activities around Montreal, the social events that we've had to raise money and all of that, Mr. Beliveau was always the first one to be there," Houle said. "I don't know how many nights and weekends he [spent] giving his time for the community, giving his time for people who needed help."
Former Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey is one of many people in hockey, and in the Montreal organization in particular, who became well-acquainted with Beliveau and developed an understanding of him based as much on his community efforts as his play. Beliveau's off-ice work and his playing accomplishments, according to Gainey, did little to breed the arrogance in him that it might in others.
"I met him in the offices of the Forum in the early '70s, when I moved there and he was working in some capacity with the Canadiens," Gainey said at the 2011 Heritage Classic. "He wasn't directly connected with the hockey department or the players, and as my situation was being discussed somewhere down the hall, I got shuffled down into his office and had a chance to sit with him for a few minutes. He had finished playing maybe four or five years earlier and I was just beginning, and as is his way it was very comfortable -- and that's the contradiction with someone like that. Over his years he's created this aura, and at the same time people who meet him find it very much at ease in his presence.
"He's that strange balance or contradiction of royalty, but accessible."
Many players who grew up idolizing Beliveau had similar reactions the first time they've met him, and age and maturity seems to have had no bearing. Gainey and Houle each had already proven he was good enough at least to be considered for the NHL by the time he first met the man who may very well be the greatest Canadien of all time.
For the player widely regarded as the greatest of all time regardless of sweater, the situation was different. Gretzky first met Beliveau when he was in a 12-year-old peewee tournament in Quebec.
"He came in the locker room and I remember just being mesmerized at how nice he was and how tall he was and how big he was," Gretzky said at his fantasy camp in 2012. "I don't know if the game will ever see another person like him. … There's such a premium on winning and this guy just won so many times. You always dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and guys like Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr lifting the Cup. But the one image that we as kids in our era, because it seemed like they won it every second year, we always remembered Jean Beliveau lifting the Stanley Cup.
"I don't know if there's ever been a more gracious player both on the ice and off the ice as Jean Beliveau ever was."