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First, a confession: I once made an intemperate remark to a journalism class in which I defined a newspaper columnist as "one who wakes up each morning hoping someone important has died."

Not these days. Not today, for sure, with No. 4 dead in Montreal and No. 9 in and out of a Texas hospital.

Such sad irony that Jean Béliveau, 83, and Gordie Howe, 86, would fall so alarmingly ill in the same season. In their time, and for a long, long time after, they were the face of Canada's national game: both dominant players in the same era, one French, one English, one East, one West, one winning Stanley Cups with a U.S. team, the Detroit Red Wings, the other with a Canadian team, the Montreal Canadiens.

But there is so much more than that. Mr. Béliveau, with his inspiring elegance both on and off the ice, and Mr. Howe with his enormous strength and mischievous nature, were seen by generations of Canadians as the face this sprawling northern country would like the world to see: strong, silent, skilled, trustworthy, team-minded, tenacious, in the end triumphant and beyond that … humble in victory. Humility perhaps the most treasured of all qualities, though of course it counts for less without the winning.

Jean Béliveau played the national game as it is played in the dreams of young boys and now young girls: flowing, graceful, magical. But it is off the ice, where he played the personal game, that he became as much admired – and in so many ways deserves to be as much remembered.

Yes, it was statistics that put him in the Hall of Fame instantly, the three-year waiting period waived: 10 Stanley Cups as a player, seven more as an executive with the Canadiens; 1,219 points in 1,125 regular-season games, 176 points in 162 playoff games; two Hart Trophies as the league's most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy as leading scorer, and the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.

Most glorified hockey tales end with such numbers, but not the remarkable story that is Jean Béliveau. Following his retirement in 1971, he became a mentor to young stars such as Guy Lafleur. Lafleur the child had idolized Mr. Béliveau to the point where he, too, wore No. 4 and hoped to inherit that number when he joined the Canadiens in 1971, the same year Mr. Béliveau retired. A few years later, Mr. Béliveau told me that he told the youngster, "If you want it, take it – but don't you think you already have enough on you? Why don't you pick another number and make it famous yourself?"

Mr. Béliveau's impact on Mr. Lafleur was enormous. When things went badly at first, Mr. Lafleur would often come to Mr. Béliveau's office in the old Montreal Forum and sit, head in hands and weeping, on Mr. Béliveau's bleu-blanc-rouge couch. When Mr. Lafleur found success and seemed to grow lackadaisical, it was Mr. Béliveau who told him to "smarten up."

"I may never be able to play like him," Mr. Lafleur said of Mr. Béliveau, "but I'd like to be the man he is."

So very many felt the same. When word came Wednesday morning that the rangy player once known as "Le Gros Bill" had died, Guy Lapointe, who himself recently had his Canadiens' number retired, said, "We have lost our father."

And it is for being a father, and grandfather, that Jean Béliveau deserves to be remembered as much as for being a superb hockey player.

He had a special connection with children from his days as a youngster playing junior hockey in Quebec City. He landed a summer job as the Laval Ice Cream Man, was given the keys to a 1951 Nash and paid $60 a week to drive about handing out treats to kids from a refrigerated cooler. The girl he was dating at the time, Elise Couture, had to drive the car for him until he got his licence. In later years, long after they had celebrated a half century of marriage, Elise was still driving him around, the two of them a familiar and always-cheered sight at Canadiens games as they took their regular seats among the people, refusing the comfort they could easily have commanded in a corporate box.

When the Canadiens gave Jean and Elise Béliveau a special retirement night in 1971, he asked that they forgo the usual television set or car and, instead, raise money for a foundation the couple was starting to support a camp for disabled children near Joliette, Que. "If there's money involved," he told them, "I don't want a penny of it for myself."

That first cheque for $155,855 began the Jean Béliveau Foundation, and every penny he made thereafter for special appearances has gone into that charity. When the Montreal Canadiens celebrated his 75th birthday in 2006, a special dinner attended by the likes of Mr. Lafleur and Gordie Howe – as well as former prime minister Jean Chrétien and Prime Minister Stephen Harper – raised more than $1-million for children's hospitals around the province.

Post-hockey honours came easily to Jean Béliveau. The highest ranking in the Ordre national du Québec, highest ranking in the Order of Canada. Twice former prime minister Brian Mulroney tried to appoint him to the Senate, twice he said no.

In 1993, then-prime minister Chrétien asked Jean and Elise Béliveau to come to Ottawa for a very special meeting. Here Mr. Béliveau was offered the chance to become governor-general of Canada. If central casting had to design the perfect GG – silver-haired, royal bearing, perfectly bilingual, funny and attractive spouse, not a stone to turn in his past – they could not have done better. Again he said no.

The reasons were again about children – his grandchildren.

The reasons the Béliveaus kept mostly private, but eventually they told their story. Five years before the offer to become governor-general, Montreal police officer Serge Roy, the husband of their daughter, Hélène, had taken his own life at the nearby police station. No one had seen it coming. More than 20 years later, Elise could still barely speak of it, and not at all in the presence of her husband. Serge, she said, had such "a beautiful smile" – what had taken it away? And why?

She told Jean he could take the job if he wished – "a great honour" – and he had stayed up all through the following night before finally saying he could not. There were two grandchildren, Mylène and Magalie, and they needed him more than the country did.

"You don't replace a father or a mother," Mr. Béliveau reasoned. "But there are a lot of things grandparents can do. I couldn't leave them behind."

The Béliveaus made sure they lived close by the granddaughters, there to pick them up and take them wherever they needed to go. They were there for the sports and the school events, were there for the tough times of teenage years, never missed a birthday.

"He's always been there for us," Mylène told me when she had herself become an adult. "He's always the same with us, no matter if we were six or seven or 21, 22. Always the same.

"He's not so much of a talker. He's always there, but more in a silent way. The way people see him in public is just the way he is with his family. It's more of a … a presence …"

A presence so special its absence is a shock to an entire country, even to those who surely saw it coming.

No one, anywhere, could possibly have hoped for such morning news.