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Somber Lafleur pays respects to Beliveau

by Sean Farrell

MONTREAL -- Jean Beliveau's stature was such that he could render even Guy Lafleur speechless.

A heartbroken and teary-eyed Lafleur paid his respects to the late Hall of Fame center's family Monday while Beliveau lay in state at Bell Centre for the second day in a row.

"They're special people and they have a lot of respect for the fans of Jean Beliveau," Lafleur said. "They're supporting and trying to thank everybody for their support. As an athlete, and I'm sure that the family understands that, they received a lot from the fans, and that's why Jean, he gave a lot back."

The No. 1 pick by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1971 NHL Draft, Lafleur was taken in for two weeks prior to his rookie season by Beliveau and his wife, Elise, who helped the junior hockey phenomenon find his first apartment.

Renowned for his ability to put others at ease, Beliveau had little initial success in that regard with Lafleur, who had worn the recently retired Canadiens captain's No. 4 since childhood.

"It was not him, it was me," Lafleur said. "I was really, really shy. When you have somebody as an idol and you end up staying at his place, it's not a day-to-day thing, and for me, I was so impressed. It was tough to try to talk to him."

Beliveau, who died on Dec. 2 at the age of 83, gave his blessing to Lafleur to wear his number with the Canadiens, if he wished.

"I said, 'No, it's too much pressure. I have enough pressure coming to the Montreal Canadiens, especially after your retirement," Lafleur said. "And Jean said to me, 'Yeah, I think you're better off to pick your own number."

Beliveau's number was retired by the Canadiens at the beginning of the 1971-72 season, when Lafleur made his NHL debut wearing the No. 10 that was retired in his honor in 1985.

"He was a great source of motivation for me," Lafleur said. "I was wearing No. 4 all the time, all my minor hockey career. I had a chance to meet him when I was 10 years old at the pee-wee hockey tournament in Quebec City, and from that moment I was really inspired by him, not only as a hockey player, but as a human being because he took the time to come and talk to me and congratulate me after the game. I think I was really privileged to have him as an idol, and after I joined the Montreal Canadiens, I had him as a friend."

Beliveau's death has left Lafleur visibly distraught, yet he is moving forward with the help of positive anchors.

"They are the good memories and also the visits I had with him," Lafleur said. "I went to see him at his home three times. We didn't speak much, but often you don't need to say much to be understood. But what he did say to me was that it was very important to continue doing what I do for the Montreal Canadiens and the fans, especially for hockey fans."

And he said that Beliveau kept up with the team's fortunes until the end.

"I think he was really happy to see that the team was going in the right direction, and also the hockey management was doing all in their power to get the right players, and to make sure that they're looking at the long-term and not the short-term," Lafleur said. "He was really happy about that."

Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin got that message directly when he visited Beliveau, who celebrated his last birthday on Aug. 31, with Canadiens alumni president Rejean Houle.

"That was the only time I really got to spend any time with him," Bergevin said. "For me, and for a lot of people in Montreal and Canada, he's a legend and it's very sad to be here today, but to see his wife and the family, it's very moving. Her courage, to be able to do this for two days, it's really special."

A 10-time Stanley Cup champion as a player, Beliveau had his name engraved on the Cup seven more times as a Canadiens executive. The Hall of Fame center retired from his position as the team's executive vice-president following the 1992-93 season, which saw Montreal win the Stanley Cup for the 24th time.

Bergevin was delighted to learn Beliveau had keenly followed the Canadiens' progress through the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Montreal swept the Tampa Bay Lightning and beat the Boston Bruins in seven games to reach the Eastern Conference Final, where they lost to the New York Rangers in six games.

"I remember we were talking about that," Bergevin said. "He asked me a few questions, he goes, 'I watched pretty much all the games but I was sleeping between periods because I got tired,' so it made me smile. It would have been great if we could have went all the way, but at least he could enjoy a nice run last spring."

Serge Savard recalled the excitement Beliveau's NHL debut generated in his childhood, and was still fairly pinching himself at later becoming his teammate.

"We had no other activities but hockey and we knew every player in the League and were listening to the games on the radio," Savard said. "In 1952, when Montreal called Jean Beliveau up for three games, I remember like yesterday the night he scored three goals. I listened to those games and it's one of the best souvenirs that I have of Jean because, I'm a kid six years old listening to him on the radio scoring three goals and then I played four years with him. That's something that I cherish a lot."

When he became the Canadiens GM in 1983, the Hall of Fame defenseman had Beliveau, who he called his mentor, right next door as a team executive to call on for advice.

"He had his office right beside mine for 12 years," Savard said. "Jean would never tell you, 'you should do this, you should do that,' I knew that. Every time I sat down in his office and had a coffee and asked him questions, I would get the best out of him by, 'Jean, what do you think of this situation?' And then he opened up and told you what he thought. Jean Beliveau was like that; he was like that all his life. He was well respected by everybody."

Vincent Damphousse led the Canadiens in goals (11) and points (23) in the 1993 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He was on hand for the closing of the Montreal Forum on March 11, 1996, when he witnessed the passing of the torch ceremony among the team's surviving captains, with Beliveau receiving it from the hands of Maurice "Rocket" Richard.

Damphousse became part of that prestigious succession early the following season when he was named captain after Pierre Turgeon was traded to the St. Louis Blues. In assuming that role, Damphousse was very conscious of Beliveau's legacy as the team's longest serving captain, from 1961-71.

"It's very much part of it, and one of the things that I noticed coming here in 1992 was the difference between all the other organizations and the Canadiens," Damphousse said. "You feel the presence of all the players that were there in the past, they were always around, and Mr. Beliveau was always there, Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Guy Lafleur, right down to Yvon Lambert and Mario Tremblay.

"So you feel responsibility when you wear that jersey because you're not only playing for the fans and your teammates, but you also play for the guys that were there before and gave their all to win Stanley Cups, so passing the torch is not just a saying, you really feel it when you play for that organization."

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