Published in the Spring 2015 edition of ‘Connections’, the journal of the Quebec Family History Society
As is surely the case with many Canadians, the recent death of hockey legend Jean Béliveau triggered a train of vivid and touching recollections within me. And because I am above all a Montrealer, these rich memories are all still so very close at hand. One season in particular remains forever locked in my mind, and Jean Beliveau was for me very much a part of it.
Virtually every Saturday night of the 1961-62 NHL calendar, at the impressionable age of fourteen, my sidekicks and I found ourselves within the walls of the old Montreal Forum at Atwater and St. Catherine Street in the city’s west end. In those pre-subway days, no fewer than three municipal busses were involved before we ultimately found ourselves shivering in the cold before the outdoor wicket on Atwater Avenue just below St. Luke Street (today, Boulevard de Maisonneuve).
That minuscule yet beautiful ticket window dispensed last minute admission fares to kids and other dyed-in-the-wool Canadiens’ supporters. With limited financial resources, we always chose the least expensive option – standing-room tickets located high in the far – away terraces of that historic edifice. Cost: $1.25
Perhaps because we were all young teens, the games seemed incessantly exciting. As you might expect with intrepid youth, our Habs’ fever eventually got the best of us as we, towards the end of the first period, subtly scouted about for good unoccupied seats down near ice level. Most of the time when we made our move, we got away with it but on one occasion when we became a little too brazen at the sight of several empty seats actually at ice level, we were told in no uncertain terms to get back up top “where we belonged.”
Despite it all, as ‘La Sainte – Flanelle’ easily finished in first place overall that season (although the perpetually unloved Toronto Maple Leafs later won the Stanley Cup), my friends and I almost always went home happy.
Before we journeyed back, however, there was normally one other ritual we engaged in. It was in a way for us the most important part of the evening, and in it was found a role in which Jean Béliveau consistently stood out.
After the game, I would inevitably gather with my companions, and a multitude of other youngsters, outside the Forum’s popular celebrity exit on St. Luke Street. Through this portal, our athletic heroes would eventually appear in the winter weather before climbing into their team bus parked near the curb. One of the first to come into view was most always Jean Béliveau. He was all of 30 years old, although his age meant nothing to me at the time.
(Understandably, we rightly ignored the adjacent opening through which the opposing team was simultaneously emerging and heading for their team van.)
With pens and hockey programmes in hand, we would enthusiastically call out for autographs, and virtually all on the Montreal team would succumb to our unconditional loyalty and wide-eye innocence. With his star quality, and at six foot three inches, Béliveau was the enthralling player we looked up to the most, both literally and figuratively.
‘Le Gros Bill’, as he came to be known, was invariably the one who was the most generous with his time. Whether you approached him in English or in French, he seemed genuinely to like kids who liked hockey. Not surprisingly then, Béliveau was almost always the last player to climb aboard the team bus.
It was this ability, demonstrated throughout his entire life, to bestow without asking anything in return that makes Jean Beliveau’s loss so deeply felt throughout Quebec and the rest of Canada.
Thanks for the many wonderful memories, Monsieur Béliveau.
Below, five illustrious members of the CH team from the 1960-61