Off The Draw
In its obituary of Jean Béliveau, the CBC offered a quote that perfectly captured the essence of the late Canadiens legend.
“Meeting him is not like meeting other stars from the old days,” Béliveau's former linemate, Gilles Tremblay, said. “When people see Bobby Hull, they say: 'Hi Bobby.' When they meet Big Jean, it's always: 'Hi, Mr. Béliveau.' He commands respect.”
That's exactly the way it was with Béliveau. He was one of the rare people who truly had presence. When he walked into a room you sensed it. When you met him or spoke with him, you knew you were with someone special. He was a giant of a man and he cut an imposing figure on the ice, but it was something else, something inside, that made him larger than life.
He was, by every measure, the ultimate Canadian. He was everything that men in my home country strive to be. Gentlemanly. Measured. Debonaire. Accomplished. Modest. Commanding. Polite. Sharp. Well spoken, in both official languages. He was royalty. Our royalty.
Béliveau’s presence was why so many Canadians desperately wanted him to accept the position of Governor General when it was offered to him back in 1994. It is a largely ceremonial role—he would have been the Queen's constitutional representative in Canada—but it's also one that would have made him the face of the country internationally.
And who better to represent us than the very best of us?
Family issues forced him to decline the offer, but Béliveau continued to represent the ideals that Canadians hold dear.
An example: It was 2003, and the U.S. had just invaded Iraq. The invasion wasn't popular in Canada—the government chose not to join the coalition—but it was especially reviled in Quebec. There were a number of anti-war marches, but only one spontaneous protest caught the attention of all sides of the debate across North America.
It was on March 20, when the Islanders visited the Bell Centre, prompting the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner. From the song’s opening note, a sizable number in the crowd seized the opportunity to vent their frustration with the American government.
It wasn't everybody, of course, but the response was loud and angry. And it only seemed to grow as the anthem went on, almost drowning out the singer.
It was a brief protest, but its significance was quickly magnified, earning airtime and ink around North America. The incident was an embarrassment for the NHL and it weighed heavily on the Canadiens, an organization that has always held itself to high standards.
Montreal knew that it would be closely watched when it took the Bell Centre ice two nights later, on Hockey Night In Canada no less, for a game against another American team, the Hurricanes. They couldn't risk another demonstration, so they turned to the one man who could best put the moment into perspective.
His recorded message was played on the scoreboard before the singing of the anthems. And it was perfect. There was no admonition of the crowd, no entreaties for respect or for fans to be on their best behavior. He simply asked everyone to join in the singing of both songs to celebrate the game of hockey.
“During these difficult times, many have an opinion on world affairs,” he said. “Nevertheless, the Montreal Canadiens have been proud to honor both Canada and the United States prior to games for over 50 years and they hope to maintain this outstanding display of sportsmanship.”
That was all it took. Sure, there were a few scattered boos during the opening line of the U.S. anthem, but they were quickly hushed by a crowd that had taken Béliveau's words to heart.
He had brought out the best in us.
Because he was, after all, the very best of us.