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Canadiens community honors 'The Great Jean'

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- To get an idea of just how much the late Jean Beliveau meant to the Montreal Canadiens, you just have to listen to Rejean Houle talk about him for a few minutes.

His voice quivering with emotion, Houle spoke to reporters during the public viewing of Beliveau's body at Bell Centre on Sunday. Every time Houle made reference to Beliveau, he called him "the great Jean."

It was as if Houle, the president of the Canadiens alumni association, did not know Beliveau under any other name.

"Over the course of Canadiens history, the presence of the great Jean is so important, we want our children and grandchildren to follow the example of the great Mr. Beliveau," Houle said. "The great Jean did so much for the community, he was so present. Whenever anyone needed the great Jean, the great Jean was there. I hope it also provides an example to our current players that you have to think of the fans and think of the people who don't have the advantages we have, and to help them. The great Jean was the great hope, the exceptional person who did that. I would even say that the great Jean burned himself out traveling to banquets, to social events everywhere to raise money to help people.

"Bravo to our Jean, our great Jean we love so much."

"The Great Jean" is a perfect summary of the testimony given by his former teammates and dignitaries who came to pay their respects Sunday to Beliveau, who passed away last Tuesday at age 83.

The event came on the 53rd anniversary of Beliveau's first game as Canadiens captain, a title he held for 10 years, tied with Saku Koivu for the longest tenure in team history. The timing therefore could not have been more perfect.

Hall of Fame member Yvan Cournoyer said he always called Beliveau "my captain" because he was Cournoyer's first captain, and the one who taught him how to carry that title when he became the Canadiens captain in 1975.

"To me, Jean is an exceptional man. Everyone wants to be like Jean Beliveau," said Cournoyer, who played on Beliveau's right wing as a rookie. "When Jean spoke to you, he looked you in the eye, he didn't look anywhere else. Jean was so sincere. Everyone liked talking to Jean Beliveau."

The last time the Canadiens had one of their former players lay in state at Bell Centre was in 2000, when Maurice "The Rocket" Richard passed away and attracted more than 100,000 people who came to pay their respects.

Richard's life had significance in Quebec society that went far beyond hockey, and Beliveau's did as well in a similar way.

When asked to describe what that significance was, Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard pinpointed one word.

"Confidence," Couillard said. "It was at a time when Francophone Quebecers in particular needed much more confidence in themselves and I think he was one of the elements that created that confidence, and for this we are immensely grateful.

"He was not only a great athlete and player, he was a great man, a great Quebecer, and a great Canadian."

Beliveau's impact on Quebec society as a whole was clear perusing the long line of people who waited to pay their respects Sunday. Every demographic was represented; young and old, French and English, and they each got the opportunity to offer their condolences and shake the hand of Beliveau's wife Elise, who personally greeted everyone who came to see her late husband.

"She's strong. She's amazing," Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre said. "I know it's tough, but you see, that's the definition of self-sacrifice. The fans were always there for Jean, the family is always there for the fans. It says it all."

Though several days had passed since Beliveau's death and it was generally known that he was not doing well the past few months, the emotion over his passing was still evident for his former teammates and people he worked with on the Canadiens.

Former Canadiens owner George Gillett had to pause in the middle of a thought to compose himself when speaking of Beliveau, whom he credits with helping him make the transition as the owner of a franchise in a sport he knew little about, and in a culture that was foreign to him.

"We say thank you to the Beliveau family, because Mr. and Mrs. Beliveau and their daughter Helene and their grandchildren meant so much to us, and in very many private ways, they said thanks back to us," Gillett said. "It's a sad day. The man had more style than anyone I ever met and was a very special friend."

Among the crowd of people who came to pay their respects Sunday was former Buffalo Sabres great and Hall of Fame member Gilbert Perreault, who waited in line like everyone else.

"He was the greatest ambassador for hockey," Perreault said. "No one compares to him … He was a gentleman with a capital G."

The Canadiens will open the Bell Centre again Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to allow more people to pay their respects to "The Great Jean." There will also be a ceremony Tuesday honoring Beliveau prior to the Canadiens game against the Vancouver Canucks, a game Elise Beliveau plans on attending. Beliveau's funeral will be held Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral in downtown Montreal.

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