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Canadiens owner saddened by Beliveau's passing

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- Geoff Molson walked up to address the gathered media Wednesday, having had hours to emotionally absorb the horrible news that was delivered late the previous night.

The Montreal Canadiens president and principal owner began with a general comment on the passing of Jean Beliveau.

And the emotions came flowing back.

Following a comment in French, Molson said, "Before I get started I just wanted to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the Beliveau family today …"

Molson paused. He needed to compose himself.

He was speaking about the death of a man he said he considered to be a giant as a child, a man who had a relationship with his family that runs three generations deep.

As emotionally prepared as Molson might have been to face the public to speak of this sad event, it would have been impossible for him to be totally prepared.

This was hard.

"It's a tough day," Molson continued after collecting himself, his words tinged with the sadness he was feeling, "for their family, for our family, the whole population of Canada and the world to lose such a great man."

Beliveau, who died Tuesday at age 83, was the longest-serving captain in Canadiens history, worked for the Molson Brewery upon his retirement as a player and for the Canadiens as an executive, having his name etched on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times, 10 as a player and seven in the front office.

Molson was born a year before Beliveau retired as a player, but his great uncle Hartland Molson and grandfather Tom Molson signed Beliveau to his first professional contract, his father Eric Molson served as owner while Beliveau worked in the front office, and Geoff Molson rekindled Beliveau's relationship with his family when he led a group that purchased the Canadiens from George Gillett in 2009.

"From my perspective, as a kid, he was a giant that I looked up to every time I saw him," Molson said. "He was someone who always stopped to shake your hand and say hello, had the patience to actually stop and look at you and say hello. He was respected by everyone, and from a family perspective we've had so many great experiences with him. I'm very proud to have known him so long."

Molson could not shed any light on what specifically the Canadiens planned to do to honor Beliveau when they play the Vancouver Canucks at Bell Centre next Tuesday. Beliveau will lay in state at the arena the two days prior so the general population can pay their respects, and his funeral will be held the day after the game on Dec. 10.

"Those are four very important days, and we are in the process of finalizing our plan for the game against Vancouver," Molson said. "But we will definitely give our fans every opportunity to celebrate a great man."

Molson said there will be other events held to remember Beliveau throughout the season, and  suggested the Canadiens planned on doing something to commemorate the seat he filled behind the Montreal bench at Bell Centre religiously for so many years.

It could be daunting to have such a regal presence constantly in your company, overseeing a team that could never match the standard of excellence Beliveau was integral in creating for the Canadiens. But Molson said it was the exact opposite of that.

"I was lucky to have him [there]," Molson said. "He gave you advice if you asked for it. But otherwise you could just tell from the look in his eye how he was feeling about different situations.

"Among many experiences I've been lucky enough to have with him either sitting behind the bench or in the room between periods, I remember we were on a bit of a losing streak and every time I came to the games, we were losing. So I said to him, 'I don't think I'm going to come anymore. Every time I come here we're going to lose.' He just said, 'Let me tell you something. It's not your fault.'

"So that was reassuring. So I kept coming."

Molson wasn't the only one being reassured by Beliveau's presence.

"All of our players, former players and current players, recognize that he was one of the greatest ambassadors for hockey in the world. The fact he was there every game, and he was in the players' tunnel every game, they saw him there and it was clear he supported them and was behind them, was very important to our players," Molson said. "They knew one of the greatest hockey men was always behind them."

Beliveau was less of a presence at Bell Centre in recent years, having been weakened by illness and age. Molson got word from Beliveau's wife, Élise, last week that he was not well, so he paid him a visit Friday and spent 15 minutes catching up with the man who had been so important to the Molson family for so long.

"As I was leaving, he said 'Thank you,' which is really nice because," Molson said, before pausing once again to hold back tears. "Because that's what he is. He's grateful."

To the very end.

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