Sometimes in life we are lucky to be given certain opportunities. These opportunities are sometimes not sought out by us, but through luck or chance fall into our lap. Like when somebody at work has extra tickets to the game, or when a friend of ours puts in a good word and you get a better job than the one you had before.
Then are the times where we are given a chance to do something beyond our wildest dreams, an opportunity unlikely to pass our way again, something so special that is considered lucky not only by you, but by those around you who openly envy your situation. These moments do not occur in our lives with regularity. And that’s what makes these moments so special and precious.
For me, last Friday night in Toronto represented one of these special moments.
On that special evening, I had the honour of spending a couple of hours over dinner with Jean Beliveau.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t look up to Jean Beliveau. For me he possesses a grace and dignity that few others can match or even hope to equal. Over the course of my life I can’t recall hearing one person say an unkind word about Mr. Beliveau, both as a hockey player, and more importantly as a man. He exudes a classiness that few can match.
The other day I was looking through some old stuff that had long been packed away when I stumbled upon an old grade five project. I can still remember the assignment as if it were yesterday. We were to write about a great Canadian, and more importantly what made this person a great Canadian. For me it was an easy task, after all what wasn’t great about Jean Beliveau?
So when I heard a couple of months ago that Jean Beliveau would be the guest of honour at a tribute in his honour I knew I had to go.
I have had the privelege of meeting Mr. Beliveau twice before. Ironically, both times he confirmed what all of us had known before; that when it came to class he is truly without peer.
I remember him coming to my hometown to do an autograph signing in the late-eighties at a local card shop. I remember my Mom wanting to tag along. Now one must understand that my Mother isn’t a rabid hockey fan, sure she’ll tolerate it, but it doesn’t run in her blood. She wanted to come and see Jean Beliveau, because even if my mom isn’t a hockey fan, she’ll always be a Jean Beliveau fan. Part of that stems from the fact that Mr. Beliveau visited her school in Nova Scotia, along with Frank Mahovlich when she was younger.
But what stood out that day is the conversation that Mr. Beliveau had with my mother at the signing. He stood there and reminisced with my mom about this long ago excursion to Nova Scotia recalling many of the details of the trip. To say my mom was impressed would be an understatement. I often think this is Jean Beliveau’s greatest asset, he exceeds on a regular basis what people think of him. He posseses that rarest of gifts, in that he makes you feel as if your the center of his world as opposed to the other way around.
My mother owns one signed hockey photograph and will only ever own one, and that is of Jean Beliveau.
A couple of years ago I stood in line at a mall waiting for Mr. Beliveau to make his scheduled appearance. I was near the front of the line and was delighted when I saw him appear, the picture of elegance, striding through the mall in his Hall of Fame sportjacket. Unfortunately, for the next half hour I could only sit there and watch as the promoter of the show in plain sight of the line, stationed a mere ten feet over, proceeded to deluge Mr. Beliveau with an avalanche of items to autograph. So for what seemed to be a time somewhere south of forever, we stood there patiently while the dealer and his lackey’s brought out reams and reams of photo’s, cards, sticks, and jerseys for Mr. Beliveau to sign.
Finally, after about thirty minutes, and with another pile of cards to sign, Mr. Beliveau put his arm out, turned his gaze towards the dealer, and said in a calm, measured voice, “I think you have enough, now I’m going to sign for my fans.”
The promoter looked at Mr. Beliveau and meekly complied. That’s Jean Beliveau.
The dinner in Toronto, honouring Mr. Beliveau, was a limited affair. In addition to Mr. Beliveau, the special guests included former Canadiens Bobby Rousseau and Rejean Houle along with former Bruins and North Stars goalie, Gilles Gilbert. All of those attending were presented with a 16×20 photo limited to 100 copies of Jean Beliveau scoring his 500th goal (on Gilbert), signed by both Beliveau and Gilbert.
What made this dinner stand out opposed to others was that the evening’s honouree’s would be sharing tables with the people at the dinner. The event was an autograph free event, that led to a greater sense of jovialty as the players could relax, tell stories, and pose for pictures with the lucky attendee’s. For me personally, my expectation level consisted of hoping to get my picture taken with all of the guests, and looking forward to being in the same room as these legends.
I was thrilled enough before the dinner, to spend some time talking in the hotel’s restaurant with Rejean Houle. Even after spending only a few minutes with Mr. Houle it became apparent how valuable an ambassador he is for the Canadiens. He couldn’t have been more gracious and friendly, and was very welcoming. He was also very quickly to share some stories of his playing days.
One story in particular, stood out for me. After being drafted first overall by the Canadiens, Mr. Houle remembered his first visit to the famous Canadiens dressing room, and how there was no fitness area for the team, much less a training room, with exercise equipment.
Needless to say that is only one of the many things that has changed in the NHL from 1969 to the present day.
At this point I must comment on Gilles Gilbert. I never met the man before. I will always remember him for his outstanding performance in goal in the famous “too many men on the ice” Canadiens/Bruins game in 1979. I think it says a large part about Mr. Gilbert that he celebrated such a moment as giving up Mr. Beliveau’s 500th goal. But as Mr. Gilbert told everyone later on as he stood there arm in arm with Mr. Beliveau, if there was one person he could choose to give up his 500th goal to, it would be Jean Beliveau.
As we entered the banquet hall we were escorted to our tables. A few minutes later I was informed that I would be sharing my table with Jean Beliveau, and sitting beside him. Words can’t even express, how fortunate I felt at that moment. To say that I was happy with this predicament would be a major understatement.
For the next two hours I had the privelege of sitting down for dinner and conversation with a man of whom I had the utmost respect. And while there were others at the table, many of whom actively asked him questions, it felt as if I were the only person at the table. Mr. Beliveau has such a personal touch that quite often our conversation went beyond hockey. He has a knack for making you seem like a personal friend, and I think that a large part of that is that he is an excellent communicator, one who listens as intently as he speaks.
Mr. Beliveau shared with us all so many stories of his hockey days, both with the Quebec Citadelles & Aces as well as the Canadiens. And what stories, the Rocket, Harvey, Plante, Blake, etc…
When asked whom he felt was the one former teammate that had been neglected by the Hall of Fame, he didn’t hesitate to mention the late, great J.C. Tremblay. He talked about his first shift with John Ferguson, which saw Fergie drop the gloves after 13 seconds, he talked about being Ken Dryden’s first roommate etc…
But what I think what brings Mr. Beliveau the most pride is the praise of his teammates and contemporaries, and his unflagging devotion to various charity causes. It would be impossible to tally up the amount this man has raised for charity through the years, but to me, even with all the accomplishments on the ice, it is his charity work, much of it unreported, that for him holds the greatest significance.
And to just sit there and watch him as he mingled with the people at the dinner, so effortlessly with a grace uncommon to most of us. And later when he got up to thank everybody for being there. He gave a speech, without the benefit of notes, about teammates, friendship, and how important the fans are to him, and the Canadiens organization. There just doesn’t seem to be anything about him that isn’t regal.
And after doing all this mingling, speeches, and having his picture taken with everybody he came back to our table, sat down and proceed to talk with us for another hour. It wasn’t something that he had to do, but it was obvious that the joy we get from Mr. Beliveau is not unrecipricated.
Obviously, this is one of those nights that I’ll never forget. Before the dinner, I didn’t think I could have any more respect for Mr. Beliveau. After Friday night he exceeded my already sky high expectations.
As the night drew to a close, my party and I were leaving the hotel to begin the drive home, when Mr. Beliveau, standing there talking with a group of people, asked for a moment, waived towards us as we approached the exit, and thanked us for the great evening and wished us a safe drive home.
It doesn’t get any better than that.
A special thanks to the Icebox collectibles for putting together such a spectacular dinner and to John Ovens at Johnny O Collectibles for pulling some strings so I could sit beside Mr. Beliveau at the dinner.