Montreal Canadiens hockey player Jean Beliveau died on Dec. 2, 2014. He lived until the age of 83. Photo courtesy of US Embassy Canada

Legendary Hab Jean Beliveau was close to the Church all his days

By  Alan Hustak, Catholic Register Special
  • December 4, 2014

For two days, a constant stream of mourners filed past Jean Beliveau’s casket in Montreal’s Bell Centre. His widow, Elise Couture, was present to receive the sympathies from dignitaries, her husband’s teammates and ordinary fans alike.

The hushed crowds that made their way through the darkened arena to the casket, covered with a spray of white roses and flanked by four of the trophies Mr. Beliveau captured during his storied career with the Montreal Canadiens, only stopped moving when she left her seat to take a break.

If as they say, the Bell Centre is a temple of hockey, then Mr. Beliveau, the legendary former Canadiens captain, team ambassador and philanthropist, was one of its saints. While most of Mr. Beliveau’s obituaries didn’t dwell on the subject, if they mentioned it at all, he was a devout Catholic. Other NHL players scored more goals, maybe played with more passion, but none demonstrated as much class or proved to be as perfect a role model. Few, if any, served Mass almost daily from the age of six until 17.

Mr. Beliveau, who was 83 when he died of pneumonia on Dec. 2, was a regal, dignified presence, unfailingly patient and polite. He was, above all, a player who led by example.

“He was admired by everyone more than he realized, I told him that,” said former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who went to visit Mr. Beliveau three weeks ago. “I found him lucid, smiling and genial as he reminisced about his career, his daughter and his grandchildren.”

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, who was one of the first to pay his respects at the Bell Centre early Dec. 7, said the outpouring of public affection demonstrates that Mr. Beliveau “was not only a great athlete, a great hockey player, but that he was a great man. To me he summarizes elegance and confidence, an image of what we all would like ourselves to be.”  

Beliveau-Bell-Centre

Mourners pause in front of the casket of Jean Beliveau as they pay their respects to the Montreal Canadiens hockey legend during a public viewing in Montreal Dec. 7. Beliveau died Dec. 2 at the age of 83. (CNS photo/Paul Chiasson, pool via Reuters)

Habs fans from across the country, like Ralph Brenton who drove to Montreal from Cornwall, Ont., to be among the first in line, could be found among those in line.  

“I grew up in a Leafs’ household,” he said as he signed the memorial register. “Jean Beliveau is the reason I am a Habs fan.”

Former teammate Dickie Moore described Mr. Beliveau as “a natural leader. He was a great team captain. A great human being. If you followed him, you could not go wrong.”

Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine, who was to preside over the funeral Mass Dec. 10, said Mr. Beliveau radiated dignity and respect.
“His work with disabled children was rooted in a profound faith in Jesus Christ,” said Lepine.

Jean Arthur Beliveau was the first of eight children in a Shawinigan Power repairman’s family. Born in Trois Rivieres on Aug. 31, 1931, he was raised in Victoriaville, in a house next door to the parish church of Les St. Martyrs  Canadiens.

“Nobody’s sense of good conduct is innate but (Mr. Beliveau’s) comes as close to that as possible,” Hugh Hood wrote in an almost forgotten biography Straight Down the Centre, published in 1970. “He learned how to behave when he was young, and it shows in everything he does.”

It showed, that is, the fruits of a classic mid-century Quebec Catholic upbringing.

“In the winter, the boys who were scheduled to serve Mass wouldn’t show up and the sacristan would come to the house and ask for me,” Beliveau told Hood for the biography.  “I served weddings and funerals and the high Masses. As I grew older I became censer and then master.”

He was educated by the Sacred Heart Brothers, first at Academy de St. Louis Gonzaga and then at College Sacre Coeur.

An archive photo of Montreal Canadiens hockey player Jean Beliveau, who died on Dec. 2, 2014. He lived until the age of 83. (Photo from Victoriaville archives/vic.to/jeanbeliveau)Montreal Canadiens hockey player Jean Beliveau (Photo from Victoriaville archives/vic.to/jeanbeliveau)


He learned to play the game on a rink next to the church and at 17 joined the Victoriaville Tigers, before going to play for the Citadelles, a junior team in Quebec City. In 1949, the Quebec Coliseum burned and Mr. Beliveau, who was already gaining fame for his skills as a junior player, turned down an offer to play for the Canadiens because he felt he owed it to his community to play for the Quebec Aces instead to help the Senior League get established in its new rink.

When Mr. Beliveau finally joined the Habs in 1953, he signed the most lucrative contract ever offered a player at that time: $105,000 over five years. By the time he retired in 1971, he had scored 507 goals and amassed 1,219 points in 18 stunning seasons. There were 10 Stanley Cup championships, three Hart Trophies as well as an Art Ross and Conn Smythe Trophy. His name would grace the Stanley Cup seven more times in his administration role with the club.

Often on the road he would slip away from his teammates to attend Sunday Mass. After he retired he became vice-president of the hockey club, where he continued with charitable work, raising millions of dollars to help disabled children through the Jean Beliveau Foundation. He was offered the post of Governor-General of Canada, but declined because, he said, he wanted to spend more time with his family. His son in law, who was a police officer, had committed suicide, leaving Mr. Beliveau’s daughter as the single mother of two young daughters. Mr. Beliveau felt she needed him more than he needed to be head of state.

“It was the main reason I turned it down,” he said.

Mr. Beliveau was a voracious reader with a particular taste for biography and, perhaps not surprisingly, theology. He once told the Montreal Gazette that if he could only have one book to read, it would be the Bible.

He leaves his wife of 61 years, whom he married in 1953 four months before he joined the Canadiens, and their daughter, Helene.  They lived modestly in a house he bought in 1955 in Old Longueuil, not far from the cathedral.

The Canadiens’ organization honoured Mr. Beliveau in a ceremony before the Habs’ Dec. 9 game at the Bell Centre.

(Hustak is a freelance writer in Montreal.)

Comments (3)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

May God Bless you, Mr. Beliveau.

Raymond
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Mr. Beliveau was one of the best players on the ice and even better off of the ice. As a Leaf fan I still was a big fan of Mr. Beliveau. There is a long list of players(and others)who could learn how to live their lives from Mr. Jean Beliveau....

Mr. Beliveau was one of the best players on the ice and even better off of the ice. As a Leaf fan I still was a big fan of Mr. Beliveau. There is a long list of players(and others)who could learn how to live their lives from Mr. Jean Beliveau. May the Beliveau family feel God's love at this time.

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Roger Klassen
This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Jean Beliveau's class, humility & Stanley Cup championships will never be matched.

We are inspired by the authentic witness of Jean Beliveau’s faith.

Twenty years ago, I was blessed to interview Jean Beliveau in the old Montreal Forum and he...

Jean Beliveau's class, humility & Stanley Cup championships will never be matched.

We are inspired by the authentic witness of Jean Beliveau’s faith.

Twenty years ago, I was blessed to interview Jean Beliveau in the old Montreal Forum and he talked about growing up close to the Catholic Church.

Read More
Don Hall
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