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Maurice (The Rocket) Richard (left) and Jean (Le Gros Bill) Beliveau pose with the Stanley Cup after beating the Bruins to win NHL championship in Boston, Apr.20, 1958. Born as a French-Canadian team on Dec. 4, 1909, the Montreal Canadiens became the most famous and successful team in hockey, winning 24 Stanley Cups in their first 100 years. Most of those came in a glorious period from 1955 to 1979, when legends like Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur took the sport to unprecedented highs in artistry and victories. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP files

His Canadiens dream began in the 1940s as a child perched intently beside a radio in Victoriaville, Que., so you'll understand if this 78-year-old legend has a lump in his throat today.

Jean Béliveau, who came to personify an era, an ethos and eventually a franchise, will stand on the Bell Centre ice this evening to celebrate a moment he never dared believe he would live to see: the 100th anniversary of the team he led to 10 Stanley Cups.

It will be the culmination of an " histoire d'amour " that began in his central Quebec childhood and carried on through his first appearance with the team in 1953, his retirement in 1971, and his affiliation with the team to this day.

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"I guess you could say I've spent my life with this team," said Béliveau, who is the franchise's longest-serving captain, and who still attends almost every game (sometimes with the Archbishop of Montreal nearby; in the Canadiens' world, it's the man of God who sits at Béliveau's right hand). "My parents gave me a pair of skates when I was three, maybe four years old - everyone had a sheet of ice in their yard back then - so my friends and I started skating, then we started listening [to the radio] then we started dreaming, and eventually we started maybe seeing ourselves in that Canadiens jersey," he added.

When Béliveau was growing up, there was no such thing as minor hockey; the boys were coached by the local priests and played games against factory workers on Saturdays, then travelled to play neighbouring towns during the week.

"I used to listen to the Canadiens' games religiously," Béliveau said.

Religiosity is a theme that frequently pops up in connection with the Canadiens - it has even been the subject of scholarly investigation - but the passion that infuses the Habs makes the team more than just a sports franchise.

"It has this extraordinary resonance, not just for the Québécois, but also for English-speaking Montrealers, and I would even say huge numbers of people east of the Ontario-Quebec border," said author and sports historian Bruce Kidd, also dean of physical education at the University of Toronto (he grew up the son of a rabid Canadiens fan). "It's a very deep and special attachment to a sports team."

It's something Béliveau said he felt from the moment he tugged on the red-white-and-blue jersey.

"There are a lot of people who still see the Canadiens as a representation of themselves," Béliveau said. "And the fans invest their emotions and identities, especially when it's going well."

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The man known as Le Gros Bill was also there when Maurice (Rocket) Richard turned the team into a vehicle for national aspirations - the Habs' place at the heart of pivotal or transcendent political and historical events confers a prestige and grandeur to match that of the New York Yankees or Manchester United.

To think they almost didn't survive the Great Depression.

The Club de Hockey Canadien was founded on Dec. 4, 1909, at Montreal's Windsor Hotel two days after the establishment of the National Hockey Association, which included the Montreal Wanderers and teams in Ontario towns such as Renfrew, Cobalt and Haileybury.

Though it became known as French Canada's team, it was founded by J. Ambrose O'Brien, an Anglo mining and lumber baron whose family also owned the Renfrew Creamery Kings, dubbed the Millionaires. The Canadiens' marketing savvy is legendary - it is a key part of their financial success - and it has deep roots: O'Brien's idea was to promote the club to French-speaking fans ( les habitants - the settlers, peasants) by bringing in homegrown players such as Edouard (Newsy) Lalonde and Didier Pitre.

They played out of the Jubilee Arena in east-end Montreal's Hochelaga-Maisonneuve district, on what is now a rail yard and industrial park. Many NHL teams have seen the sun set on the building where they played their first seasons; the Habs have inaugurated five arenas.

That first season ended with a 2-10 record, and the team was sold to a wrestling promoter and owner of the Club Athlétique Canadien, who changed the jersey crest to CAC. It would be changed back to CH in 1917.

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The Canadiens nearly disappeared in the 1930s, but ended up swallowing their rivals, the Montreal Maroons, instead.

Despite the inauspicious beginnings and ragged early history, the Habs would go on to win 24 Stanley Cups - until the New York Yankees overtook them, the Canadiens had more championships than any other North American professional team - and give the sporting world Morenz, Vézina, the Punch Line, Plante, Rocket Richard, the Pocket Rocket, Béliveau, Lafleur, Dryden, Roy and so many others.

"The Montreal Canadiens were part of the effort to openly forge professional sports in Canada," Kidd said. "The 100-year run as a professional team playing continuously, there is no other Canadian parallel to that."

The glory years of the 1970s are long past, and it's 16 years and counting since the Canadiens captured the Cup, but tonight's 21/2-hour ceremony - the details of which are a closely guarded secret - is about glorifying the past, not the present.

Béliveau says support for the team is as strong as it's ever been, and he is expecting an event commensurate with the occasion it is marking, and fittingly the opponent tonight is Boston.

"I'm just happy to still be here to see it," said Béliveau, who was hospitalized last year after fainting at a funeral. "Lots of things could have happened along the way. I know that at some point I'm going to have to slow down … but not now, there's too much going on Friday and Saturday and Sunday."

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