By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail, November 7, 2005
They came on crutches and on walkers, by wheelchair and by stroller, joining a queue for an audience with an ancient warrior.
The procession was clothed in the familiar bleu , blanc et rouge of les Glorieux . It was a pilgrimage in which devotees brought the icons and artifacts of their fandom. For many, their faith is a birthright.
Their religion is hockey and their denomination is the Canadiens.
They waited in line for up to three hours for a few moments of grace in the presence of a secular god known as much by his uniform number (4) and his nickname (Le Gros Bill ), as by his name.
Jean Béliveau is 74, his hair as white as the ice on which he once performed magic. His eyes are as blue as the sky on a sunny winter's day in his native Quebec. The unforgiving demands of his former profession can be seen on his nose: flattened across the bridge as though by a cross-check, the tip bent as though struck by a fist.
He is so ruggedly handsome that three generations of women from one family all pronounced him worthy of adoration.
The men, if possible, were giddier.
"Jean Béliveau for prime minister!" one shouted.
He might have done even better than that, having reluctantly turned down the possibility of being named governor-general. That he did so for family reasons only enhanced a reputation in no need of polishing.
"There is the holy trinity," 45-year-old fan Jean-Paul Desjardins explained. "Maurice Richard. Guy Lafleur. Jean Béliveau. Béliveau is the father, Lafleur the son, and Maurice, since he is gone, he is the holy ghost up in heaven."
Mr. Béliveau was once truly an Adonis, as can be seen on the cover of Jean Béliveau: My Life in Hockey , his 1994 autobiography. (A revised paperback edition has just been released by Greystone Books.) His hair was jet black, his teeth a perfect white row.
In those days, he made women swoon, and rival defencemen feel sick.
On Saturday, he sat at a table outside Bolen Books at Hillside Centre, signing his autograph with flawless penmanship, every underlined signature including a glyph reading "#4."
The book was snatched from shipping boxes before reaching store shelves. The supply of 200 sold out before the first copy was signed.The line of patient faithful snaked through the store, past the calendar displays and along two aisles of cooking books into the computer section.
Some wondered whether the demand would be too great for the veteran player.
"I'm used to playing in front of a big crowd," Mr. Béliveau assured those within earshot.
Ron Cairns, 57, was asked why he had come. "To shake his hand," he said. "He's a gentleman. An icon. A legend. A super human being."
Rolling up his right pant leg, Ira Hunter revealed tattoos stretching from his kneecap to his ankle. A Canadiens logo was surrounded by the Stanley Cup and portraits of goaltenders Georges Vezina, Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. Mr. Béliveau found a bare patch of skin to sign, an autograph that Mr. Hunter plans to have permanently inked.
Grown men bowed on one knee to pose for a photograph, or to share an anecdote, or to receive a benediction. In line, they spoke in reverent tones about his classiness as an ambassador for hockey.
Mr. Béliveau joined the Canadiens in the early 1950s as a saviour, and a successor to Maurice (Rocket) Richard. He learned an early lesson about a star's persona. The Rocket fought the National Hockey League's English-speaking bosses, fuelling the imaginations of Quebec poets while becoming a folk hero, only to wind up selling Grecian Formula on television.
Mr. Béliveau had a Molson's employee number far longer than he wore No. 4 with the Canadiens.
He was corporate all the way, a federalist and an establishment figure.
Over the years, he has passed up overtures to run for office from the Union Nationale, the Conservatives and the Liberals. He twice rejected prime minister Brian Mulroney's offer of a Senate seat.
The most difficult to turn down was the job of governor-general, apparently on offer from former prime minister Jean Chrétien: Mr. Béliveau needed to spend time with his recently widowed daughter and her two children.
In an interview, Mr. Béliveau allowed how he sometimes contemplates what the position would have meant for a boy from rural Quebec, the eldest of eight children, who learned hockey on the rink his father built in the backyard.
"It would have been nice. Starting with the ice surface behind the house and ending up. . . ." He let the thought slide away. From Victoriaville to Rideau Hall. That would have made a terrific final chapter to the autobiography.
Finally, after more than three steady hours of signing without a break, as Mr. Béliveau prepared to catch an airplane to Vancouver, Rob Dunn stood before him in a gorgeous cream team jacket. Over his heart was a stitched crest for the 1950-51 Quebec Royals of the Quebec Senior Hockey League.
The jacket had been acquired by his mother from Royals right-winger Lorne Davis, who later became a Béliveau teammate.
Mr. Béliveau autographed the jacket on the right chest. Two other signatures were above the heart.
"Maurice Richard and Guy Lafleur," Mr. Dunn said, his chin to his chest to better read their handiwork. "And now Jean Béliveau. I've dreamed of this day."
Mr. Dunn, a 43-year-old health-care worker, wondered whether the Hockey Hall of Fame would want a piece of clothing blessed by the trinity.