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Jean Beliveau: I wish today’s hockey players and owners would just listen to him…

I happened across a short article online ( a day or so ago.  With very few words, longtime former  Hab captain Jean Beliveau—in a nicely subtle manner—provided his view on the current state of the sport, which as we all know is actually a state of absurd inactivity. (Whether the latest "revised" offer from the NHL owners will create any traction, I have no idea as I write this, but we can hope that this will be an opportunity to see compromise from both sides that will lead to a settlement.  We've all seen enough 'spin' and posturing...)

For me, it was worth reading what a well-respected, lifelong hockey person had to say about the lockout.  I can’t do justice to his words, but let me say this:  he was a guy who played for his team.  He was all about the Montreal Canadiens (as much as I loathed them in those days, and I really, really did…). Beliveau (pictured at left against the Bruins and goaltender Bobby Perreault in early 1960s action in Boston)  never even considered playing anywhere else.  In fact, he could have signed a lucrative contract to go back to his roots and play with Quebec City in the fledgling World Hockey Association after he had retired from the NHL in the early 1970s.   (He was still plenty good enough to have been a star in that league and would have been a huge “draw” for the new league. ) But he quietly said no.  He had left the Habs and retired on a high, winning (yet another) Stanley Cup in the spring of 1971. He didn’t want to simply cynically cash in on his fame in Quebec City, and he didn’t.

He has, however, been part of the Montreal franchise, formally or informally, for more than six decades.  The man was, and still is, all class.  Forget just hockey, there have been few in sport like him.

Some of you may remember articles I have posted here about other old-time greats, like Ted Lindsay and Bobby Hull.  I’ve seen Hull, past and present, stand or sit for hours and sign autographs for fans, young and old alike.  While he does it for money now (doesn’t everyone?), he did it for “free” for decades, simply because he “got it”.  (Click on his name above to read more.) He understood that without the fans, he was a nobody—despite his immense and unique talents as a hockey player.  (Wonder how many modern-era players have the same perspective as Hull?)  Teammates sometimes griped when Hull kept the team bus waiting after a game or practice while hundreds of fans were lined up, hoping for Hull’s autograph, which he always provided gladly.  But it was Hull who helped grow the game and put money in his teammates’ pockets.  The smart ones shut up because they understood—Hull was the draw.  Some of those complaining, like so many of today’s players, were replaceable parts.

Hull, on the other hand, was not.  He carried the NHL, as did Beliveau.  And he took the time to show his appreciation for the fans, always.

As for Beliveau, he not only signed autographs, he always responded to fan mail—and get this, personally.  I mean every single fan letter.  I know this not only because I’ve seen it written many times elsewhere, but because I had the experience myself within my own family.  My father (in the 1960s when Dad was in his mid-50s) wrote probably the only “fan” letter he had ever written in his life.  It was to Jean Beliveau.  As a French-Canadian Catholic especially (which is part of the heritage that the Canadiens represented in those glory days of hockey), Dad was a deeply devoted follower of the Habs.  And Beliveau was one of Dad’s personal favourites, no question.

Shockingly to me back in those days, as a young teenager in the '60s, lo and behold, a few weeks after Dad had penned a note to the Hab great, Beliveau responded with a lengthy, thoughtful, hand-written letter to my father.  Not a mimeographed autograph on sheet of paper or something impersonal—a personalized letter.  Can you imagine that happening today?  Either there would be no response, or a player would have a form letter dashed off by the organization and signed by someone else, or he would simply have his signature stamped on a photo or whatever.

Amazingly, Beliveau did this year-round, year after year, throughout (and after) his lengthy NHL career.  Not because his team told him to support some cause, or made him do this, but simply because he respected the people who helped to make him successful at what he did for a living.  Yes, he actually genuinely respected the fans.  What a concept.

Believe me, he probably received more fan mail as the captain of the celebrated Montreal Canadiens when they were great than most any athlete does nowadays. Do today’s athletes even read letters they might get from a fan?  Do fans even bother trying to reach their sporting “heroes” (except for asking  for a “shout-out” on Twitter)?  I doubt many do.

In any event, Beliveau was special.  And his views on the game today are quiet yet dramatic.  When he talks about playing for “the love of the game”, that I believe because I know it was true in his case.  I saw it by the way he played every night, and the way he behaved on and off the ice, representing the proud Montreal franchise daily, year after year.

When I hear many of today’s players say they play because they "love the game", my bullshit meter is already fully engaged. I know it’s a croc.

No one can convince me now that today’s NHL is about anything but business, about money.  Full stop.  Players can claim otherwise, but something changes from the time they are drafted to when they “make it”.  They become—and feel—constantly entitled and as though they truly are owed the millions they receive.  In broader “life” terms, they are living a delusional fantasy, and it's sad. (If for one week, they had to live without the privileges of being an NHL player - and I don't mean just during a lockout -  they might begin to appreciate what they already have.)

Sadly, at least to me, many fans 'support' the current players getting as much as they possibly can because, I guess, people have perhaps bought into the modern view (and it's a cynical one to me) that we all have to chase every last dollar we can.  Then fans complain that today's players don't care about the game.  Well, it starts with players letting their ego convince them that they are bigger than the game, that they "deserve" the millions of dollars they receive in this inflated era.  And it ends with players caring more about themselves than their team, their organization- or their fans. It's self-fulfilling prophecy.

But it was truly not that way for Beliveau. Yes, he was well paid for his day and age, but he appreciated what he got.  You never heard him gripe in the media about wanting even “more”.  Can you imagine what he must truly think about today’s coddled players—many of them immature, entitled kids, basically—tweeting about their poor state in life, how badly treated they have been and how mean and unfair Gary Bettman is?  What must this man think?

He’s too kind-hearted t say, but we actually get some insight via the Sportsnet article.  Beliveau says nothing outwardly condemnatory about either “side” in the current dispute, but his displeasure with both parties is clear.

It’s a bit like being rebuked by God.  If I was the owners or the players, I would listen to a guy who helped make the game what it is today.  Without players like Beliveau, and many others including the aforementioned Lindsay and Hull, the present NHL—and the “billions” of dollars that are in play for both sides to share—would not be there.

I saw Jean Beliveau play, many times, in person, on television.  So did my Dad, much more than I.  I have followed Beliveau's career closely, on and off the ice.  I’ll take Beliveau—and his thoughtful perspective—any day, over what I see and hear today.

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