Monday, December 8, 2014
Jean Béliveau died.
I am 38 years old.
I waited for a Jean Béliveau. But nobody came.
Tomorrow I'll be walking past him and I suspect that once I lift my eyes upon his coffin and the unimaginable symbolism that adorns the backdrop of this powerful stage, I'll have to come to terms with that.
I love this game - hockey. I love the word. I love this city. Beyond the people who give my life meaning, and only people do, nothing ties me more to Montreal than the Montreal Canadiens. And I think that I'll feel heavy about that tomorrow when I walk into this shrine and observe how devastatingly beautiful it will have been made to be for its most revered guardian. The images that have been broadcast from this stage convey sadness, darkness, silence, sweetness, elegance, triumph and glory. The mere contrasts may be too much for the senses.
I have lived through 5 Stanley Cups in Montreal. I was old enough to remember two of them. I have a very vague recollection, a spasm. It's a memory which lacks definition and shape, but has the aura of something full and joyful having happened: it's the blurry image of amassed bodies dressed in blue, white and red embracing in jubilation on a white surface, like a frenetic painting in movement. It's one of my first memories. I believe it was the team in the immediate celebration of the 1979 win over the Rangers.
The starkest contradiction for a 38-year old like myself, a season ticket holder, completely enthralled by the mystique of a team so deep in glory and tradition is that there are no true "heroes" for people like myself. And I think that's where some of my grieving finds its dimension. This is goodbye to something so big and something my generation has not truly experienced.
I've always disliked the word, especially when used to label an athlete. In my mind the word "hero" serves a purpose to a child, a child searching for a sense of belonging to a world he or she is trying to understand. Our children look at us, gaze at us because only through our words, our actions, the tone of our voice do they really get to know who we are. And at the very core of what they are, that is what they yearn for. What are we as parents if not our children's first heroes? Heroes have that effect. Children hold them in impossibly high esteem and pray to the alter they've made for them in their minds. These heroes cradle us silently in our moments of true innocence. And as we lose the innocence, most of the time, we cease to view anyone as a hero, so reaching and perfect the image needs to be to maintain any relevance.
You could worship Jean Béliveau as a 4-year old and as an 84-year old, today, you can be forgiven for mourning the loss of your hero. Jean Béliveau did nothing during the course of your lifespan nor his to lose the title. You called him your hero during the innocence of childhood - he rewarded that innocence for the rest of his life. He was unshakeably heroic, and by that I mean unflinchingly loyal to a standard of conduct most of us cannot maintain. There was something regal about him, and yet even in royal families members are taught ethics and code formally and rigorously. Béliveau did without the lessons, it was in his bloodline, it's just who he was.
There are no heroes left in Montreal. The players we love, the ones from the 70's dynasty, the star of the 80 and 90's team, they all did wonderful things on the ice but none really drew the public in and made it feel special, wanted, invited. Forget the fact that Jean Béliveau played with purpose, he lived with purpose. He represented the people of the province because they aspired to present the way he did. It's hard to have a commanding presence. Jean Béliveau made that look easy. I think we all wish we could draw that kind of respect, by the mere fact that we are. It's a feat as rare as it is powerful.
Today, days after his passing, his family in full grief stands there by him, and shakes the hand of every person that has descended upon centre ice to pay respects. It's a remarkable extension of the legacy Jean Béliveau leaves behind. Impossibly selfless and tall. The void cannot be filled. His stature was and is immaculate. Immaculate.
Montrealers mourn the loss of their last hero. The ones that saw him play grieve the vivid memories of childhood and the jubilation he brought to their lives. The ones who only came to know him from his hockey afterlife, outside the confines of an NHL season, who saw him age graciously while guessing what it would have been like to see him play, they grieve what could have been, what never was and what never will be.