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Canadiens shine spotlight on Beliveau's seat

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens have sold out Bell Centre for 422 consecutive games.

All 383 regular-season games and 39 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs dating to Jan. 8, 2004 were officially listed as a sellout, a streak that is one month short of 11 years.

The streak was snapped Tuesday.

The official attendance for the Canadiens' 3-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks was listed as 21,286, one short of capacity, to account for the empty aisle seat in Row EE in Section 102, three rows behind the Montreal bench.

The seat had been occupied for years by the late Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, and though he wasn't there to fill it Tuesday, the seat was in many ways the star of a night-long tribute to the Hockey Hall of Fame center and pre-eminent hockey ambassador who touched so many during his career and after.

The seat had Beliveau's retired No 4 Canadiens jersey draped on the back, it was lit with a spotlight throughout the game, and it had Beliveau's wife, Elise, sitting next to it in her regular seat.

On a night where the Canadiens did everything perfectly, from the pregame photo montage projected on the ice to the video tribute to the way they spotlighted Beliveau's seat and even how they toned down their regular game presentation. It was a perfect final touch.

With no fanfare, no announcement, the Canadiens quietly made one final tribute to an icon.

"I couldn't stop looking in that direction," Montreal forward Max Pacioretty said of Beliveau's seat. "After the tribute I looked over there and Mrs. Beliveau blew us a kiss and said 'thank you,' you could see her saying that. It's tough to fight it back, but I feel at the end of the night she was so appreciative of the response from the fans, the players, the management for putting that on."

It would have been difficult for the Canadiens players not to notice Beliveau's seat, with his No 4 shining in the bright spotlight, and Elise Beliveau next to it. A woman that had been through so much since the passing of her husband exactly a week earlier was seen smiling and even dancing in the stands after the victory was confirmed.

Then Tomas Plekanec, the game's first star for scoring the winning goal with 4:16 left in the third period, grabbed the game puck and presented it to Elise Beliveau as he left the ice.

"For us coming back to the bench and seeing her smiling and cheering and hoping and rooting us on was a pretty good feeling," forward Brendan Gallagher said. "Right beside her you saw the Beliveau jersey draped over the seat. It's pretty easy to find motivation when every time you come off a shift you can look up and see that."

The pregame ceremony honoring Beliveau was not easy for either side to witness, particularly the two-minute standing ovation given to Elise Beliveau, who alternated between outbursts of joy and sorrow.

"I thought it was an amazing tribute," Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller said. "With his wife, I actually kind of got a little bit choked up right there. You have such a bond with someone who's your spouse, someone who walked beside him like that. Then to accept that standing ovation, and you could see on her face how the relationship must have meant so much. I just kind of got choked up."

The Canucks recently had a memorial ceremony of their own for the passing of Pat Quinn, and Miller was impressed to see how they and the Canadiens handled the tributes for two great hockey men.

"It seems like a lot of good people have died recently, and I think the teams have done a good job honoring their memory and doing a good job explaining to people why they're so important," Miller said. "Some of the generations missed watching them play or watching them coach or, in Pat's situation, do just about everything. Mr. Beliveau did everything for Montreal; he was an ambassador. The teams have handled that really well, and Montreal did a great job.

"The fans paying tribute to the family and his wife was really special."

For the Canadiens players, the most striking aspect of the ceremony was how quiet a normally raucous building was when they stepped on the ice. There was no music playing, and barely anyone even reacted to their arrival after watching the photo montage of Beliveau's career projected on the ice.

"I never heard the Bell Centre so quiet in my life," Pacioretty said. "They hadn't asked for silence, they hadn't shown anything on the Jumbotron yet, at least that we saw. But you could feel the amount of respect that everyone had in the building; players, coaches, fans, everybody.

"You could hear yourself breathe in there."

The tribute was a unique moment, one Canadiens coach Michel Therrien admitted forced him to hold back tears, and one that was as poignant and touching as any the organization has ever presented in this building.

With a perfect, subtle final touch.

However, even though the Canadiens reported that Seat 1, Row EE, Section 102 was empty, it was anything but.

The spirit of the man that normally filled that seat filled the entire building instead.

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