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There is no official tally of the people who trooped through the Bell Centre earlier this week to pay their respects to former Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau, who died last week at 83.

They streamed in over two full days, so it had to have been in the tens of thousands. Béliveau's widow, Élise, flanked by their daughter Hélène and granddaughters Magalie and Mylène, insisted on personally thanking each and every visitor.

Whenever the octogenarian felt as if she needed a rest, they shut the doors. Nobody complained about the wait.

It seems Le Gros Bill, a man about whom no one ever had a bad thing to say, may not even have been the most gracious member of his family.

As the ceremonies began prior to Tuesday night's game, Élise Couture-Béliveau and her family were at their familiar station three rows behind the Habs' bench. But one seat – the one to her right with Béliveau's familiar No. 4 affixed to the seatback – was conspicuously empty.

When an errant puck flew over the glass early in the first period of Tuesday's game, the first home date since Béliveau's passing, the memento was quickly passed along the rows until it found the white-haired lady in row EE of Section 102.

It wasn't the most poignant moment of the evening involving the Béliveau family.

Whenever a minute of silence is observed in a hockey arena, there is usually audible chatter, a few whistles. Not this night.

It broke with a thunderous ovation and, as the applause rained down, Couture-Béliveau covered her face, then dabbed her eyes, bowed her head. After a time, she waved both arms above her head and appeared to mouth "enough."

The crowd kept cheering.

The great Sports Illustrated writer Michael Farber once opined that "only two organizations in western civilization truly get ceremony: the House of Windsor and the Montreal Canadiens."

He's onto something. If you're going to celebrate the life of a stately, elegant figure, gaudy simply won't do.

So it was that at the beginning of the ceremony, rink announcer Michel Lacroix muted his legendary baritone to introduce a video tribute to Béliveau that was projected onto the ice, after which the usual minor-hockey flag-bearers – both wearing No. 4 of course – took a twirl around the ice in silence. This was not an occasion for pump-up music.

Then the players trooped out onto the ice – again, in silence – to line up across the blue line.

On this occasion, the opposition was provided by the Vancouver Canucks, who made a point of going to Béliveau's visitation Monday as a team  (the Habs won 2-1 Tuesday). They, like the Habs, skated backward a few dozen feet to get a better look at a second video tribute set to Ginette Reno's Ceux qui s'en vont (or Those Who Leave).

Images of grief and bereavement are often arresting, and the image that may define Béliveau's passing may well be that of his widow and surviving family at Tuesday's game.

Or it may be that of Hall of Fame winger Guy Lafleur, his spiritual heir as franchise-defining star, kneeling alone on Monday evening before his former teammate's coffin and bronze likeness.

"He was my idol and he became my friend," Lafleur told reporters afterward. "Today I lose both."

This level of heartbreak is not commonplace among professional athletes, but then none of the usual rules apply to titans.

In a sense, Lafleur understood how Béliveau must have felt at the passing of Maurice (Rocket) Richard, an all-time great as a player and a figure of no small social consequence in Quebec.

If Richard became synonymous with the Quiet Revolution and Québécois standing up to the boss – and he was, whether he was comfortable with it or not – there was never any question that Béliveau would be anything but the boss.

The fiery icon of the 1940s and early 1950s gave way to the cool, above-the-fray exemplar of the 1960s, who in turn made it possible for the embodiment of the 1970s, Lafleur, to express himself.

Of the Canadiens who have come since, only Patrick Roy – a far pricklier character than Béliveau – can plausibly be added to the legends' line of succession.

And so perhaps the Habs also commemorated a fading past on Tuesday when the club bid a final official farewell to Béliveau. His funeral will be held Wednesday.