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Montreal Canadiens greats Jean Béliveau, left, and Maurice (Rocket) Richard exchange a torch during closing ceremonies after the final game at the Montreal Forum, Monday, March 11, 1996. (RYAN REMIORZ/The Canadian Press)
Montreal Canadiens greats Jean Béliveau, left, and Maurice (Rocket) Richard exchange a torch during closing ceremonies after the final game at the Montreal Forum, Monday, March 11, 1996. (RYAN REMIORZ/The Canadian Press)

Fête salutes hockey's true Canadian class act Add to ...

It is as close as this country comes to royalty.

Jean Beliveau, who once turned down an offer to become governor-general because he believed his granddaughters needed him more than his country, sat at the head table between the Prime Minister of Canada and the Premier of Quebec.

On the other side of Stephen Harper sat Elise, Beliveau's wife of 54 years, the two Beliveaus wearing crowns of the whitest, thickest hair in a room that held more than a thousand others, many of them bald.

The occasion, ostensibly, was to celebrate Jean Beliveau's 75th birthday, but it was also to raise more than a million dollars for Quebec children's hospitals and to say "thank you" to a man who, through more than a half century in the public spotlight, has taught Canadians how to live a life.

If the very best of the national game is the face that Canada would like the world to see -- unselfish, resourceful, strong, co-operative, proud, victorious and yet still humble -- then that face was Jean Beliveau both on and off the ice.

He played 18 years for the Montreal Canadiens, his last 10 as captain. He won 10 Stanley Cups. He won the scoring championship. He was most valuable player in both regular season and playoffs. He was ever the gentleman on the ice.

Off the ice, he remained an example of how to behave. He set up a foundation to help children and has, so far, raised millions of dollars for their care. Tall, movie-star handsome, elegant and fluently bilingual, he was the perfect choice to become governor-general in 1994.

"I tried to appoint him," said former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who also came to salute the former player, "but he declined."

He declined because his son-in-law, a police officer, had died tragically not long before, leaving the Beliveaus' only daughter, Hélène, to raise her two girls, Mylene and Megalie, on her own.

"I strongly believe it is my duty to be the father those girls need for the next five years or so," he said at the time. "What I told Mr. Chrétien was that to take my wife and move to Ottawa would be deserting my family."

Thursday night in Montreal, Chrétien could only smile and shake his head in admiration: "He would have been fantastic."

They came to a hockey rink -- the Bell Centre done up as a banquet hall-- to honour this man who turned down the highest office in the land.

They entered through the Canadiens' dressing room, with a Beliveau No. 4 jersey hanging in every stall. They passed the wall with the oft-quoted line from In Flanders Fields -- To you from failing hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high -- alongside the faces of past Montreal greats, so many of whom were here this evening.

They passed, on another wall, an inspirational quote that could stand for the man himself: "A positive attitude is a powerful force . . . It can't be stopped!"

Gordie Howe could not stop Beliveau. The former Detroit great -- shoulders still sloped and powerful as he turns 79 today -- came to honour his old opponent. So, too, did Johnny Bower and Red Kelly from the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1960s, who could not stop him. Cancer, life's most dogged checker, could not stop Jean Beliveau either.

The old players joined the politicians -- Harper, Premier Jean Charest, Chrétien, Lucien Bouchard, Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion -- who could only marvel at a man with the ability to work a room merely by being in it.

"You are an ambassador for the ideals Canadians see in themselves," Harper told the gathering.

They showed old footage of Beliveau the hockey and baseball star. His long-ago teammate Dickie Moore broke down talking about the serious automobile accident he had been in and how Beliveau "was there from day one." They laughed as Elise told them how she had to teach the young hockey sensation to drive and how, for the first two months, she had to back up the car because he could not master reverse.

The two laughing loudest were the two granddaughters, Mylene and Megalie, now grown into young women and more grateful than any in the room for the man sitting rather shyly at the head table.

At evening's end, Beliveau put on his old "sweater" -- they were called this in his day and this was his night -- and he joined two dozen former Montreal players on stage, including Guy Lafleur, Henri Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Bob Gainey, even 89-year-old Elmer Lach.

The players represented, Beliveau pointed out, more than 100 Stanley Cups.

His father, Arthur, had once told young Jean that as he grew older he would find time passes with a speed parallel to whatever decade you are going through: 40 miles an hour at 40, 50 miles an hour at 50, 60 at 60.

He should, then, have been going 75 miles an hour at the end of this special night.

But he wasn't. He was, as always, calm and perfectly collected.

And he was sitting dead centre in a team photograph that could serve on only one calendar.

Eternity.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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