Friday, 5 December 2014

Jean Béliveau - Grace, Guts, Glory

I'm wondering why Jean Béliveau's death is touching me so deeply. I'm not alone in grieving. There's sadness in the air. 

Monsieur Béliveau and I go back a long way. :-) He was my hero - favourite player from the beginning. A child, sitting on our living floor by Gram, watching Les Canadiens on our first TV in the early to mid- 50's. Saturday nights. One of the happiest memories as a family - all together, all rooting for the Habs. No tension except that created by the hockey game in front of us. Well, I'm not sure Mum was as keen as the rest of us, but Gram was intense,  followed every move, and spoke her mind telling the players what to do and scolding when they messed up. :-)

I can see him still - long legs - long stride - grace and passion on ice. Different from the Rocket - whose bursts of energy and fiery nature contrasted with, or perhaps complemented, the elegant grace of Monsieur Béliveau. He was captain for a record ten years and on ten Stanley Cup winning teams. Awe!

When I was about 13, one evening my friend Gail and I were visiting one of Longueuil's matriarchs, Mrs. Battersby. I'm not even sure what her first name was (maybe Leonora?). She was Mrs. Battersby to one and all, widowed in WW1, mother of Lawrence who became a doctor and worked as a GP in Pointe-St-Charles. I had a crush on Monsieur Béliveau as any self-respecting teenaged girl who loved hockey did in 1960. Mrs. Battersby knew everyone, including Habs #4 who lived on Victoria, a block from her home on Gardenville. "Go on over," she said. "Ring his doorbell. He'll be happy to give you his autograph." Trembling, I did just that. My handsome hero came to the door in a white terry-cloth robe, smiled quietly, graciously gave me his autograph, and stole my heart once and for all. Poor man. No peace. 

Not too long ago someone created a course at, I think, Université de Montréal on Canadiens hockey as Quebec's religion. There's a book by Olivier Bauer: Hockey as a Religion: The Montreal Canadiens. A Protestant from France, he's agin it.  Ah well - look what he's missing... what a dull life. ;-);_a_Religion.html

Michael McKinley:  The Université de Montréal announced in January 2009 it would offer a 16-week graduate course to future clerics called "The Religion of the Montreal Canadiens," and instead of poking fun at the ivory tower of academia, the media took the question quite seriously. Two months later, when word came out that the cash-strapped American owner of the Canadiens had put the team up for sale, the news was met with even more serious soul searching, if not a widespread spiritual crisis. The speculation was that Quebec-based saviours such as Cirque du Soleil's Guy Laliberté and René Angelil would come to the rescue of the faith. In a short time, these two events suggested that the Canadiens were much more than a hockey team, but rather, an essential component of Quebec identity in the way the Catholic Church used to be. The Canadiens' very existence provides a meaning of life for millions - for the game, its heroes and their fans do indeed make up a sort of "secular religion".

""For a century now, the Montreal Canadiens have developed and sustained an identity, which has elevated them from simple hockey team to powerful cultural icon that invites comparison to, if not recognition as, a sort of popular religion. Their 24 Stanley Cup championship banners, commemorating the team's 24 acquisitions of hockey's Holy Grail, hang from the rafters of their temple, the Montreal Forum, along with the jerseys of their messiahs, a jersey known as La Sainte-Flanelle.

The beginnings of a wonderful article on the meaning of the Canadiens in Quebec society...

But I digress. Jean Béliveau. He brought us together. A proud French-Quebecer. A proud, I believe, Canadian. At least there was an image on TV last night of him singing O Canada at the Forum (oops Bell Centre) in these latter years. Hockey unites us. or rather our love of hockey unites us. Last spring when the world seemed to be falling part in all sorts of ways, the Habs' run well into the playoffs gave us great joy. We all loved each other! Well, almost ... We smiled to ourselves and at each other. We can go through 4 mayors in a matter of months, the corruption on provincial and municipal levels is atrocious, the federal Conservatives leave (being polite) much to be desired - but the Habs were playing great hockey!

In his death, Jean Béliveau brings us together still. I don't mean politically. He was beyond politics in one sense. No one cares what language we speak or what religion we follow, if any. We care that a man with a huge heart whose grace awed us has died. We loved him. 

He was, by all accounts, a good, generous, and kind man. One who respected everyone and was, in turn, respected. He kept his feet on the ground. He gave back (especially to children's charities) because he felt he had received so much. He thanked God every night that he had been given the talent to play professional hockey. He turned down the job of Governor General of Canada to be near his family after the death of his son-in-law. 

Ahh - somehow, I thought he'd keep on keeping on. Even though he's been failing in health for years. A friend quoted him as saying he had a Volkwagen heart in a Cadillac body. 

Sad days. Au revoir, Monsieur Béliveau. Or should I say, A Dieu? We will miss you - and we'll remember your grace on and off the ice.

 cartoon by André-Philippe Côté in Le Soleil, le quotidien de la capitale

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