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Guest Low Roller

Go Habs Go - Fan Forum 11/12

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Guest Low Roller

One year ago today Pierre Gauthier fired Jacques Martin and forced Randy Cunneyworth into a role he was not ready or suited for. The rest was Galchenyuk.

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In the digital age, the stamped cards and letters keep finding this Canadiens icon. If there is one Canada Post employee with ironclad job security, it’s the letter carrier who delivers to the address of Jean Béliveau.

The mail comes written by computer and by crayon. Simple words of encouragement. Hero worship. Brazen requests. Hockey cards and photos and memorabilia for a signature in the familiar, flowing script with which he has signed his name thousands of times over six decades.

The volume increases come the holidays. Many of the scores of Christmas cards are addressed by the same people who have been sending Béliveau their season’s greetings for longer than the recipient can remember, from across this continent and far beyond.

On this Christmas Eve, the Canadiens’ 81-year-old Hall of Fame legend and his wife, Élise, will dine at the home of their daughter, Hélène, in the company of her daughters — their granddaughters — Mylène and Magalie.

On Christmas night, they again will be together as a family for dinner at Béliveau’s South Shore condominium.

And as Le Gros Bill cherishes every moment of each of his days, his strength gently ebbing and flowing following the stroke he suffered 10 months ago, he admits to feeling “kind of sorry†about one thing:

“For nearly 60 years, I’ve answered almost every card that I’ve received,†Béliveau said during a lengthy talk a few days ago. “But this year, I can’t. I just don’t have the strength.

“I read every one that comes to me, to my home and directed from the Bell Centre. I only wish that I could let these people know that I’ve received their cards and wishes.â€

Béliveau asks that his thank-yous be conveyed in these paragraphs, and so they are.

“I wasn’t up to answering any of my mail when I got home, but still it arrived,†he said, having spent nine weeks in the care of the Montreal General Hospital and an east-end rehabilitation centre after he was struck at home on Feb. 27.

“Hélène got the mail from the Bell Centre, gathered what was at home, read it all and had it all ready for me, maybe 500 pieces. We (recently) did it all in the space of about three or four days.â€

Replying to this relentless river of correspondence was like bailing a leaky rowboat that fills with water more quickly than it can be emptied.

It was four months ago that I had last spoken at length with hockey’s greatest ambassador, on the occasion of his 81st birthday. Six months earlier, Béliveau had fallen ill over dinner, having suffered his second stroke, and been rushed to the Montreal General. Many, including some of those closest to him, feared the worst.

“I knocked on the door,†Béliveau told me in August, alluding to the Pearly Gates, “but it seems they weren’t ready for me.â€

Happily, St. Peter couldn’t find the reservation.

“I have no complaints,†Béliveau said at the time, a sentiment he still expresses today. “I’m a very fortunate guy, blessed with my health. Because I should be gone.â€

Ten months after his latest close call, having earlier survived the first stroke, cardiac issues, cancer and abdominal aneurysms, Béliveau has wisely slowed his famously frantic pace, now relaxing with one book after another.

A long-time fan of biographies, he’s currently reading the life story of the late boxer Arturo Gatti; in his on-deck circle is the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, then a near-1,000-page doorstop of a business bio “and about 25 books in line after that,†he said with a laugh.

Béliveau is reading on the nights he’d normally be watching hockey. He says he’s saddened that the NHL lockout has ground on past its third month, the labour dispute marking its 100th day on Monday.

“It doesn’t make any sense,†he said. “I have a feeling that we’ll see hockey played, but this has lasted longer than I thought it would. It certainly would be no good if they go the whole year without any games.â€

In a conversation we had during the 2004-05 lockout, a dispute that would kill that entire season, Béliveau said he believed the players then were “completely wrong. They’re making a big mistake, a terrible mistake.â€

His words were a concussion grenade among the BB pellets coming from former players and hockey executives. Only to Béliveau’s comments did the NHLPA react with an official statement of rebuttal, understanding that this man’s words carried dramatic weight.

This time, Béliveau doesn’t take sides. His heart aches for the people on hockey’s periphery, the small businesses and game-night employees who absolutely need what they earn, often second incomes, during an NHL season.

He speaks without acidic judgment about the long-term, huge-money contracts being handed players by teams “that are their own worst enemy.†At no time ever has Béliveau begrudged the modern NHL player what this twisted market will pay, though he wonders aloud about the wisdom of the Minnesota Wild tossing a combined $196 million to free agents Ryan Suter and Zach Parise over 13 seasons.

The career of the average NHLer today is five years; it’s a fraction of the 18 Béliveau played from 1953-71 in winning 10 Stanley Cups for the Canadiens, with whom he’ll celebrate a 60-year relationship next Oct. 3.

“If he loses one year (with this lockout), that’s a lot on his career,†Béliveau said of the five-season player.

“Maybe we could have used agents in our time, but we played because we loved the game, for the friendship among ourselves in the room and on the road.

“The situation was a lot different in my day, but I was very happy when the owners were making money. That was the best security for our paycheques.

“At the time, I compared what I was earning to what my father was making. He was raising a family of eight and I was being paid five, six times what he was. To me, what I was getting out of hockey was big.

“But we loved the game. We were passionate about it. That passion and wearing the Canadiens uniform were the most important things, which is not the case today. If the sweater doesn’t fit here, another one might fit somewhere else. I can’t blame the players, trying to get as much as they can, but …â€

Always the statesman, his sentence was left incomplete.

Béliveau says he has good days and those that aren’t quite as good, admitting he’s still a little weak. His home-office treadmill is not a walk in the park.

“At 81, when you get up in the morning and you feel tired, exercise is not as pleasurable as it used to be,†he said, laughing softly.

From shortly before his stroke last February through season’s end, Béliveau and Élise, his wife of 59 years, were not in their regular Bell Centre seats three rows behind the Canadiens bench. If the lockout has had any benefit, it’s that he’s had a little more time to build some strength for his return to the rink.

On this Christmas Eve, Béliveau is counting his blessings, surrounded by his family. But never too far from his mind is his sport, which continues to define much of his life.

“I hope to see hockey for the fans, the players and the owners. I intend to go to the games again,†he said, and watch him bring the house down when he’s shown on the scoreboard.

“I enjoy it. Élise enjoys it. My granddaughters, too. My balance is a little tricky and I might have a little problem getting up the stairs (from the Canadiens dressing-room corridor to his seat), but it’s just a few steps.

“Yes, I intend to be back. The fans and I have been waiting for so long. It’s time, and it will be nice to be there.â€

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