MONTREAL -- They began lining up hours before Bell Centre would open its doors Sunday, braving cold conditions to make sure they got their chance to pay their respects to the late Jean Beliveau.
Bell Centre was open to the public Sunday for the first of two days where Jean Beliveau will lay in state after he passed away Tuesday at age 83. (Photo: Getty Images)
The Montreal Canadiens opened Bell Centre to the public Sunday for the first of two days where Beliveau will lay in state after he passed away last Tuesday at age 83.
As the people entered the arena, they were greeted by two massive banners showing the man in his two primary roles over the past 60 years of Canadiens history.
The banner on the right was of Beliveau raising the Stanley Cup, a trophy he won 10 times as a player and another seven times as an executive. A trophy etched with his name more often than any other, and a trophy that was present on this day, sitting just to the right of Beliveau's casket.
The banner on the left was of an older Beliveau in recent years, holding a torch high above his head, playing his role of Canadiens ambassador, statesman and moral compass, setting the bar for how subsequent players and executives should carry themselves on and off the ice.
In between the two was his No. 4 banner that is among the other retired numbers in the Bell Centre rafters, centered perfectly above Beliveau's casket.
As people looked up and around the arena, they would see Beliveau's famous autograph encircling the bowl on the video bands that separate the three levels of seats at Bell Centre. Perfectly legible and always available when requested, that autograph came to define Beliveau's public persona.
As they walked down the stairs toward the Bell Centre floor, if people looked to their left they saw a single light shining on Seat 1, Row EE, Section 102, the seat three rows behind the Canadiens bench that Beliveau filled religiously for years, night in, night out, without fail. The regular upholstery on the backing of the seat, normally maroon, was replaced by Beliveau's No. 4 jersey.
Once on the floor, the people could see the NHL trophies that came to be associated with Beliveau's career. The Art Ross Trophy was on the far left; Beliveau won that for leading the NHL in scoring in 1955-56. Next to it was the Conn Smythe Trophy, which Beliveau was the first player to win as the most valuable player of the 1964-65 Stanley Cup Playoffs. On the other side of Beliveau's casket was the Stanley Cup, and to the far right the Hart Trophy, which Beliveau won twice as League MVP in 1955-56 and 1963-64.
Directly behind the casket was a bronze statue of Beliveau that was erected outside Bell Centre years ago, but which is now being moved to another area around the building to make way for a condominium project. It depicts Beliveau as so many remember him, taking a big, powerful stride while stickhandling the puck.
But once the people made it to the front of the line, to the casket decorated with beautiful white flowers, they saw the most impressive thing of all in a room where that is a difficult thing to do.
To the right of the casket sat Beliveau's wife, Elise, along with the couple's daughter Helene, their grandchildren Magalie and Mylene, and other members of the Beliveau family.
One by one the people passed Beliveau's casket, and one by one, Elise Beliveau shook their hand.
Every single one.
For a man who answered every single piece of fan mail he ever received, a man who understood how much he meant to the public and how important that was, this was perhaps the most poignant tribute of all.
In her time of mourning, Elise Beliveau was there to honor her husband and his life and the people that were touched by it.
And there were so many.