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'Pope of Hockey' Beliveau was in class of his own

by Serge Touchette / NHL.com

It was in 2002 at a hotel in Los Angeles, the day before the NHL All-Star Game, and some of the game's legends were taking their turn entering a reception hall.

I was speaking to Ted Lindsay, the Detroit Red Wings great, when Jean Beliveau, dressed to the nines, made his appearance.

All of a sudden the room went silent and everyone, without exception, turned their attention toward him.

It was as if time had stopped.

"For me," Lindsay said that day, "Jean Beliveau is, and always will be, the Pope of Hockey."

The Pope of Hockey died Tuesday. He was 83.

Even though everyone knew he was not well, the news hits hard.

When the hero of an entire generation leaves us, a part of us leaves with him. Who didn't dream of becoming Jean Beliveau?

In the 1960s, I remember organizing a hockey game with my friends on an outdoor rink, early on a Saturday morning. There were at least a half dozen of us wearing Beliveau's No. 4. In that era everyone, young and old, wanted to be Jean Beliveau.

I met Beliveau many times through the years. We often say that the great ones are sometimes the most generous with their time, the nicest with which to deal. It's actually not true for all great ones, but it certainly was for the former captain of the Montreal Canadiens.

Beliveau always appeared larger than life, but he made a point of making sure that anyone who approached him was instantly at ease. In the span of five minutes, you had the impression you were talking to someone you had known for years. Beliveau had the gift of making himself appear small when he encountered Mr. Average Joe.

And he was a bastion of patience, never refusing an opportunity to share a few words with a fan who was thrilled to be in his company or to sign an autograph.

One example came in March 2006, when I was in Atlanta to cover the funeral of Beliveau's former Canadiens teammate, Bernard "Boom Boom" Geoffrion.

The day before the ceremony I was at the funeral home when I saw Beliveau. He couldn't have been happier to share his numerous stories about his former right wing, who he considered to be like a brother to him.

"Boom always made me laugh," Beliveau said that day, "even on the ice."

We had been talking for about 10 minutes when a man in his 50s came out of nowhere to interrupt us. Under his arm, he was holding a bag full of scrapbooks with yellowed, old photos and hockey cards.

Beliveau quickly understood what was happening, that he was about to be asked for 20 autographs, minimum.

I must admit, I felt a bit sorry for him.

I shouldn't have.

Beliveau signed every single hockey card and photograph the man had, without the slightest sign of complaint or annoyance.

"I don't mind," Beliveau whispered to me. "This man has probably waited 30 years to meet me. I think I owe him 15 minutes of my time."

That was Jean Beliveau.

My job as a journalist has allowed me to travel to every corner of North America. Whenever the conversation turned to hockey, American journalists would regularly ask me about Jean Beliveau before anything else.

Some of them had met him at the old Forum, or had seen him play in Chicago or Boston or elsewhere, but he was revered by all of them. And I'm not exaggerating.

I got the chance to see him play during the final few years of his career, and to put it in context, he was like the Mario Lemieux of his era. He was elegant and skilled; he had no equal when it came to stickhandling. Maurice "The Rocket" Richard is considered by many to be the greatest player in Canadiens history, but, in my humble opinion, Beliveau was the most complete player.

But beyond the statistics, the records, his reign as captain and the Stanley Cup parades, Beliveau leaves a legacy of a warm man, a generous man.

An exceptional man.

Serge Touchette was a longtime baseball writer and sportswriter with Le Journal de Montréal. He is currently a columnist for LNH.com.

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