The majestic prince

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National Post, Saturday, January 24, 2009

With this weekend's all-star festivities in Montreal, hockey celebrates the centennial of the Canadiens, 24-time Stanley Cup champions, the most storied franchise in the game.

The greatest Canadien of them all, Jean Beliveau, has his name on the Stanley Cup 17 times -- 10 as a player (including five as captain of les glorieux), and seven more as an executive. No one else in the history of the game even comes close to matching his achievements, on the ice and off.

If Rocket Richard was fire on ice, Beliveau was the majestic prince of the game. For the 18 years he wore the uniform, and in all the years since his retirement in 1971, he has personified the best attributes of hockey. No one has ever played our game, or represented it, with such class.

In our games of street hockey in Montreal, there were only two kinds of kids, those who wanted to be the Rocket and wore No. 9, and those who wanted to Big Jean, and wore No. 4. I feel quite privileged that Beliveau, the idol of my youth, became a friend as an adult.

As it happened, we were members of the same golf club, Laval-sur-le-Lac, in the 1980s, and occasionally he would invite me to join his regular Saturday morning game. Walking down a fairway with Jean Beliveau, it was easy to imagine what it must have been like skating down the ice with him -- he did everything, and he made it look so easy.

And he was always so considerate, not just of his playing partners, but of the caddies carrying his bag. He would spend at least as much time talking to them ("Are you having a good season?" he would ask), and he would always buy them lunch after nine holes. Between shots, he was happy enough to talk hockey, but he always wanted to talk about politics. For if he was a master of one game, he was a student of the other. prime ministers, from Pierre Trudeau to Stephen Harper, may not have taken his advice, but they have certainly enjoyed his company.

Brian Mulroney offered to put him in the Senate. Jean Chretien offered to make him governor-general. He declined the first offer because he didn't want a partisan line on his resume; and the second because of a family tragedy, when his son-in-law committed suicide and Beliveau decided his granddaughters needed him full time.

When I asked Beliveau once where he had learned to stick-handle, he said it was on the outdoor rinks and ponds of his youth in Victoriaville, halfway between Quebec City and Montreal. "We skated 'till our mothers called us home," he said. "It's how we learned the game." It's impossible to imagine that anyone took the puck away from him. That was his special grace on the ice--he controlled the tempo of the game, even while being one the most selfless players in its history.

When the Forum closed in 1996, he was kind enough to do a radio interview with me, and stayed for half an hour on a morning show I was hosting. We talked about his last Stanley Cup victory, a quarter century earlier in 1971, after the Canadiens had ousted the Big Bad Bruins of Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, and gone on to clinch the Cup against the Black Hawks of Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. It was in Chicago that Beliveau began the tradition of the winning captain skating around the ice with the Cup. "I wanted," he said, "to bring the Cup closer to the fans."

"Anything to declare?" the customs man asked Beliveau when the team returned home to Dorval Airport that night.

"Just the Stanley Cup," he said.

"We will just mark 'Canadian Goods Returned' " said the customs agent.

But here's my favourite Beliveau story. Eleven years ago, during the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the two of us were having lunch. Somehow, the question of hockey rules came up, and how the NHL had changed its rule on short-handed play to align with international hockey and allow an opposing team's player out of the penalty box after a power-play goal.

"I was responsible for having that changed," Beliveau explained.

"How was that?"

"One night, on a power play against Boston, I scored three goals in 44 seconds."

"Really?" I replied. "Who was in nets for them?"

"Terry Sawchuk," he said. Not just any goalie, but perhaps the greatest of all time.

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