When We Were Young

Posted on December 23, 2014 under Storytelling with no comments yet


A Gentle Man



“Time it was and what a time it was, it was

A time of innocence, a time of confidences”

Old Friends/Bookends by Paul Simon

I grab the baseball hat from the shelf, shake off the dust and admire the beautiful penmanship one more time: Jean Beliveau.

When we were young there was hockey and there was religion.  If you were a follower of the Montreal Canadiens, you got both in the same package.  And if your mother was born in Montreal , then there were no options when it came to following one of the six teams in the N.H.L.  It was your birthright.  You were a Habs fan.

There was a time when sport was sport, but today it has morphed into the realms of business and entertainment.  All you need to do is go to any major sporting event and witness gaudy displays of show business and unbridled commercialism.  Occasionally you may be treated to a decent game but for many owners, this is an afterthought.

I am not naïve enough to think that owners of sports franchises haven’t always had a nose for the buck, the way some of their players had a nose for the puck.  Indeed, back in the day most players were pawns of the owners.

But through my rose colored lenses, I choose to believe that I witnessed the golden age of hockey when you knew every player on each of the six teams, including their jersey numbers.  And, by and large, you were either a Leafs fan or you sported a jersey with the familiar “CH” logo. That’s “Canadien Habitants” lest you think I’m referring to the Chicago Black Hawks.

On most weekends, religion was sandwiched between hockey, on and off the ice.  On Saturday evening, after polishing our shoes for Sunday Mass, we would gather around the grainy black and white television, twisting the rabbit ears to get reception.  We watched in awe as the legends of the game displayed their elegance and mastery.  Richard, Howe, Hull, Bower, Sawchuck and “Le Gros Bill – Jean Beliveau”.

We attended Mass on Sundays and spent the rest of the day skating on the “Salt Ponds” or playing street hockey.  And when the cold winter winds blew on Sunday evenings, we would curl up in bed under the sheets and listen to a hockey game on the radio.  Even today, I could easily pick out Foster Hewitt or Danny Gallivan’s voice.  It was easy to visualize the game when the names of the players were as familiar as those of your school mates.

Is there any place on earth more magical on game day than Montreal, on Rue St. Catherine?  I was very fortunate to see a handful of games at the old Forum on Atwater Street.  Prior to the game, it was not uncommon to go to one of the small bars downtown.  You could always feel the electricity and anticipation when the Habs were playing a home game.

Role models.  We all have them.  For a generation of young boys who are now men, Jean Beliveau epitomized what many of us hoped to be.  He was a great athlete, a good sport and a humble man.  In this day and age of chest pumping athletes who want to shine the bright lights on themselves, it is easy to forget that there were people like Beliveau who were self-effacing.  Back then, the two most important people for hockey players were the coach and the trainer.  Today’s pampered athletes need to look no further than their agent and lawyer.

But most important, especially right here and right now, was that Jean Beliveau put his family first.  The man who could have been Governor General knew that he was needed more by the women in his life; his family, who supported him in equal measure.  It was mutual respect.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work, folks.

I was lucky enough to see Beliveau play in his prime and luckier still to meet him at a charity golf tournament many years ago.  He was sitting on a bench behind the tee off waiting to hit his drive.  I approached him with my hat in hand.  As he had done thousands of times before, he carefully affixed his autograph, for my son.  What struck me most then, and now, is that he was a gentleman in word and deed.

As I watched the funeral for Jean Beliveau, what struck me most was the passage of time.  My childhood heroes are old men.  Let the standards they have set be the measure of the modern day man.

“Old friends, winter companions, the old men

Lost in their overcoats, waiting for the sunset”

Edited December 17, 2014

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