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Pallbearers carry the casket of Jean Béliveau as family members walk behind after the funeral service for Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau Wednesday.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

When the hearse pulled up to the ornate façade of Cathédrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, someone along the steel barricades lining the roadway started clapping, slowly.

Soon, a few hundred people who had braved the chill wind and driving snow were producing a muted tribute of melancholy applause.

Of course they turned up – this is what fans do. Especially when it represents a final opportunity to bid adieu to an icon.

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There have been many remarkable manifestations over the past week of the deep respect and high regard in which Jean Béliveau was held.

On Wednesday, there was an obvious one at his funeral.

For several months now, Montreal's police cruisers have been covered in stickers protesting proposed changes to the municipal pension plan.

Officers have also taken to wearing gaudy camouflage pants. But every police car outside the church was immaculate, everyone on hand for crowd control clad in crisp regulation blue.

As befits the stature of the man whose life was being celebrated, the pews inside the edifice – a scaled-down replica of Catholicism's most important church, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome – were occupied not just by legends of the hockey world (Mario Lemieux, Luc Robitaille) and current Montreal Canadiens standard-bearers, but by politicians, business figures and other people of weighty consequence.

Two former Canadian prime ministers and at least three former premiers of Quebec were on hand. Stephen Harper and Philippe Couillard were in the front row, as was Governor-General David Johnston.

"He was an individual who was great in his sport but ultimately even greater than his sport," Harper told reporters on his way into the cathedral.

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The Prime Minister, like everyone else, took care to refer to Béliveau as "Mr."

Inside, the coffin bearing the former Habs great, who played 18 years in the NHL and won an astonishing 10 Stanley Cups (he missed the postseason only once), was accompanied to the altar by a sextet of pallbearers, all of them former teammates: Serge Savard, Jean-Guy Talbot, Bobby Rousseau, Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden and Phil Goyette.

When Cournoyer's turn came to speak, he described the quasi-filial relationship he had with his former teammate, at one point his voice becoming strangled with emotion.

"This rose that I wear today, I will keep it for the rest of my life in your memory," he said touching the fresh-cut flower pinned on his left lapel, over his heart. "O captain, my captain, bon voyage."

Club owner Geoff Molson, whose first childhood memory of Béliveau was of an impossibly tall man leaning over to say hello, said "he was the man whose footsteps our parents wanted us to follow."

Dryden, as is his wont, contributed a little lyricism in his eulogy to the first NHL road roommate he ever had, saying, "This is not a time to say goodbye, this is a time to say thank you."

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He continued on to say that Béliveau's greatest accomplishment "may have been that he was a very nice man."

"As a great star, he knew he had the responsibility not to live as a star, but as a good person," the Hall of Fame goaltender said.

That good person, who died on Dec. 2 at 83, had a knack for being accessible – his home number is listed in the phone book, and it seems as if nearly everyone in Montreal has a story about a Béliveau encounter.

Thus, it was fitting that a few hundred seats were set aside for regular folk, who mourned alongside hockey power-brokers such as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, as well as legendary former players Darryl Sittler and Gilbert Perreault (among a great many others).

Above all else, Béliveau symbolized success and elegance. As Molson put it, "His victories were our triumphs."

In the crowd outside, one spectator had brought a giant provincial flag, while another had a Maple Leaf with Béliveau's number four in the centre.

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After the service, the Canadiens flag that had covered the casket was gathered up by Guy Lafleur, Béliveau's Hall of Fame teammate, and given to his widow, Élise.

The spectators who had braved the weather were joined by a few hundred new arrivals, and when Béliveau's family emerged, a louder, more rousing cheer went up.

As the attendees spilled out onto the steps of the cathedral, the words of several current Habs suggested Béliveau's passing has left a deep impression.

Forward Max Pacioretty told a clutch of reporters that his example "motivates all of us to be better people."

"This past week has been overwhelming and emotional, it's something special. I hope to never forget this feeling," he said.

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