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Montreal Canadiens club president and majority owner Geoff Molson speaks about Jean Béliveau at a news conference on Wednesday. Molson says that there are plans in the works to commemorate the seat that Béliveau always sat in when he visited the Bell Centre for a game.

The Canadian Press

The seat – in section 102, row EE, directly behind the home bench at the Bell Centre – is important not for its location, but because of the man who used to occupy it most every game.

Of course Jean Béliveau was in the rink the night it opened in 1996 – just as he had been present a few days earlier when the team bid adieu to the old Forum – and if failing health prevented him from being a permanent fixture in recent seasons, he will return one final time Sunday to lie in state.

The man known as le Gros Bill was comfortable in momentous occasions – many of which he directly created – and after serving as a pall-bearer when his friend and old teammate Maurice (Rocket) Richard died in 2000, he too will be mourned in a state funeral by the province of Quebec.

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It's a comparably rare honour for athletes, but one this hockey-mad province has bestowed on at least a couple of Montreal Canadiens; the service will be held on Dec. 10 at Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, just a couple of blocks east of the Bell Centre.

Before that, fans will have the opportunity to pay a final homage to Béliveau, who epitomized class more fully than anyone in hockey history, in a building where they ringed the block by the thousands for the Rocket's visitation and will surely do so again Sunday and Monday.

The flow of tributes is just beginning: The Habs wore stickers on their helmets with Béliveau's iconic No. 4 for Wednesday's game in Minnesota (there was a moment of silence before the game) and other plans are in the works.

They will almost certainly include a commemoration of some sort involving Béliveau's seat, which club president and majority owner Geoff Molson called "unique."

"There have been so many great moments with him there – we have every intention of making sure it is remembered for a very long time," said Molson, who fought back tears at a news conference on Wednesday – unsuccessfully.

His emotion was understandable. The ties between Molson's family and Béliveau span three generations. When Béliveau joined the Habs from the semi-pro Quebec Aces in 1953, he negotiated an off-season job with the Molson brewery as part of the deal (he would remain affiliated with the company for decades).

Molson's heartfelt reminiscences of Béliveau, whom he visited for the last time last Friday, included a sentence that perfectly summarized how the long-time Habs captain was viewed: "Whenever I bump into people outside of Montreal his name comes up – 'I don't like the Montreal Canadiens, but I like Jean Béliveau.' That says a lot."

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The death of the Habs' 83-year-old icon reverberated among the players, who were effusive in their praise of a man who retired before they were born.

Defenceman P.K. Subban first met Béliveau at the age of 10 when he dropped by to meet Subban's minor hockey team. Subban told reporters in Minnesota Béliveau was "the ultimate gentleman, champion and leader."

"What he means to hockey and the Montreal Canadiens organization – I don't know if words can describe it," said Subban, who had an appointment to visit with Béliveau this coming Sunday.

Goaltender Carey Price called the man who led the Habs to 10 Stanley Cups in his 18-year career "the benchmark," because "he set the standard for everyone else to follow."

Coach Michel Therrien is old enough to have seen big No. 4 at work – he was on hand for his 500th goal, a hat-trick goal against the Minnesota North Stars – and said "you don't get greater than Jean Béliveau."

Dignified, dapper and flinty when he needed to be, Béliveau was more than just a leader: He was a dominant, silky scoring centre the likes of which the Habs haven't seen since.

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In addition to winning all those Cups – his last came in 1971, the year he retired, and his name appeared on the trophy seven more times as a club executive – Béliveau scored 507 goals and 1,219 points in 1,125 regular season games (he added another 79 playoff goals and 97 assists in 162 playoff games).

His gentlemanly bearing conveyed authority – at his recent jersey retirement, former teammate Guy Lapointe, an inveterate prankster, said the captain was off-limits (Lapointe received an unexpected text message that day from Béliveau, the sort of thing he was famous for).

Myriad politicians, current players and NHL luminaries, from commissioner Gary Bettman to Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, issued statements of sympathy.

The novelist John Updike once wrote in a celebrated profile of baseball great Ted Williams that "Gods do not answer letters."

Well, at least one did.

For six decades Béliveau answered every scrap of fan mail sent his way, always in longhand. He signed autographs legibly, so fans could read them.

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If the Rocket provided an incandescent, raging intensity, Béliveau brought the opposite: a cool, understated elegance to the game and to life away from it.

Lemieux described the man who served as a role model to several generations of Québécois hockey players as "class personified."

He'll get no argument.

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