The last few years I’ve tried to keep these posts strictly about crime and justice. But – like most Quebecers – my life is so personally intertwined with the Montreal Canadiens. So I’d like to write a little about the passing of Jean Béliveau, my childhood hero, who died last night at the age of 83.
How did I become a Montreal Canadiens fan? I had no choice in the matter. The story goes like this:
My family is from Trenton, Ontario. My father grew up playing river hockey along The Trent. Trenton is sort of midway between Toronto and Montreal, and my relatives used to divide the Saturdays fairly evenly between when they’d travel to The Gardens to watch the Leafs, and when they’d drive to The Forum to watch the Habs. One time my grandfather and uncle were at a Leafs game. Between periods they would do what most men did; they’d go to the washroom and enjoy a snort from a hip-flask of rye. The police usually turned a blind eye to this activity, they would maybe run you out of the john with a good scolding. But on this occasion the Toronto police arrested my grandfather and uncle and locked them up. From then on, we were Canadiens fans.
My father was the first one in his family to attend college; Loyola, and then later McGill for engineering. What he really did in Montreal was play hockey. Two seasons with the Warriors followed by two with the Redmen. My father was a goalie, and apparently a great one at that. He was team MVP for all four years; the only time that has been done there, let alone by a goalie. They’d often play their games at the Forum when the Habs were on the road. This was in the age before masks. One night my mother (they were dating then) watched in horror as my dad took a puck to the face, knocking his eye out of his socket. They stitched him up on the ice.
His biggest thrill was having The Rocket guest referee one of his games. And I know my Dad was at the Forum the night of the Richard Riot.
The college teams would practice in the early mornings at the Forum, after they’d finish, the Habs would come on to practice. Dad would skip class to watch The Rocket, Boom-Boom, Béliveau, etc… Eventually he started failing electrical engineering. The Jesuit priest came to the Forum and said, “make a choice; hockey or school”.
My father was invited to camp for both the Rangers and the Bruins. He never attended. This was still at the time with 6 teams, so 12 chances for a goalie to play in the NHL, and no pension. He became an engineer, and a father.
We did not know it at the time, but we grew up in a golden age in Montreal. Our childhood was wedged between the Expo World’s Fair in 1967 and the Olympics in 1976. Everyone who experienced this will say the exact same thing: it was an absolute wonder to be living in Montreal at that time. I think my father received tickets from the company he worked for, Dominion Bridge. He would take either my brother or sister, I remember because they would come home with the game programs, usually signed by Béliveau.
When I was old enough, I got to go too. I don’t recall sitting in the box seats. When I started going we’d usually sit in the corporate box. People usually scoff at the boxes today, but back then it was a big deal. You were very close at the Forum, and there was all this food, the instant replay on the television… in an age before tablets and jumbo-screens this was heaven.
Many times I remember waiting in the lobby at the front of the Forum after a game with my father. Béliveau was one of the first to emerge from the dressing rooms, and he would always sign autographs. He was always so relaxed and gracious. He was like a movie star, Cary Grant and Father Christmas all rolled into one.
Some Christmas’ were spent back in Trenton. I remember evenings at my grandparents’ farmhouse, all the adults gathered ’round the kitchen table playing cribbage, a mushroom cloud of cigarette smoke above, lot’s of talk of politics and hockey. There was always some cousin who received a Leafs jersey for Christmas, and you felt so sorry for them, like that kid in The Sweater. Most of my relatives who stayed in Ontario were Diefenbaker conservatives, and die-hard Leaf fans. And they had bragging rights then, Toronto stole a Cup in 1967. They hated all things from Quebec. My grandfather had a mutt named Pierre, “because that was a name only fit for a dog”. The nail in the coffin came years later when I started dating the granddaughter of Lester Pearson.
My dad would often come home from work with packets of hockey cards tucked in his overcoat. If you were sick that day he’d bring extras. Later I learned his secret; he kept a box in the garage and simply filled up there before he came in the basement door. I can still remember that excitement when you opened the pack and there was Béliveau: that was the card everyone wanted.
Saturday nights at home were for Hockey Night in Canada. We used to set our hockey cards up on the floor in front of the television and mimic the plays every Saturday night. When a line change came, we’d change the cards. Yet somehow guys like Béliveau and The Flower never left the ice.
Dad met Béliveau once. He was having dinner in La Mise au Jeu restaurant with Dickie Moore, who had gone into the construction industry after his playing career ended. In walked Jean, and Dickie made a point of introducing him to everyone, They all shook hands. My dad’s reaction? Béliveau was a gentleman, of course.
There were some great tributes written about Jean Béliveau today. Dave Stubbs in The Gazette, Ken Dryden in The Star, Red Fisher, and Stephen Brunt at Sportsnet are standouts, and will give you a more comprehensive perspective on what he meant as a player. These are just some of my thoughts on the passing of my very first hero.
Repose toi en paix, Gros Bill.