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Maple Leafs goalkeeper Terry Sawchuk fields a shot by Jean Béliveau in 1965.

John Maiola/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes it's hard to believe Jean Béliveau actually played hockey. It's been 43 years since his last game for the Montreal Canadiens and his final (tenth) Stanley Cup. Afterward, he served as an executive and ambassador for his team. His dignified white hair and the well-tailored suits he wore while receiving honorary doctorates and the Order of Canada gave him the air of a retired diplomat. It made perfect sense in 1995 that Jean Chrétien would offer a man of Mr. Béliveau's bearing the job of governor-general.

Mr. Béliveau turned down that offer, as well as one from Brian Mulroney to take a seat in the Senate. He wasn't put on this Earth to make prime ministers look good by allowing them to bask in his reflected greatness. He was a hockey player. And oh, what a player.

The man was a superb athlete, one of those who transcends the constituent skills of his or her chosen sport by combining them into a total weapon. You can say he skated gracefully and powerfully, or that he had the puck on a string, or that his shot was a cannon, or that he was as hard as a coffin nail, but you'd be missing the bigger picture. He did all those things at once, with every stride. He would be a star even in today's bigger, faster game.

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Mr. Béliveau's on-ice dominance was reinforced by the solidity of his character. He was a natural leader who shouldered his responsibilities as team captain with the utmost seriousness. If a fan wrote him a letter, he wrote back. He was a brillant Canadian hockey player who was also a strict practitioner of civility and etiquette. He was a gentleman warrior.

Mr. Béliveau played in a different era but it wasn't the times that made him who he was. He would have been the same in any century. He got fans out of their seats with his extraordinary skill on the ice, but the way he really inspired Canadians was by being true to himself and his principles. Those prime ministers offered him the wrong jobs. He was better suited to theirs.

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