Jean Beliveau, my all-time sport hero, passed away.
As a very young man I had the good fortune to start my adult life in Canada.Like millions there, I have become an ardent hockey fan, and a Montreal Canadiens fan at that.
Not an easy chore living in Toronto, going to school at St.Michael's College at that time, home of the local Blues!
I have never played ice hockey , never had skates on my feet.
Later in years I had been transferred to Montreal by my company and had a chance to see real live hockey at the old Forum, proudly (openly!) support the Canadiens. And on one occasion I had seen my team win the Stanley Cup, celebrating with thousands on St.Catharine St.
Everybody loved, respected and appreciated the skills and behavior of Jean Beliveau, Le Gros Bill, on and off the ice. They said he was a gentleman in one of the roughest body contact sports, and if you know hockey, you know it is not easy to be and remaining a "gentleman" in that sport.
His life's accounting will be left to others so much better qualified than this European import who had never played the game, or skated on ice.
But I had met twice Mr. Beliveau and I can attest to all the accolades you hear about this wonderful man. Once I was waiting for my flight at Dorval (Montreal) airport for Winnipeg, when I saw this imposing figure among the waiting passengers. It was Mr. Beliveau. I was hesitating to approach him, to say hello and how it is nice to meet him, but didn't.
I didn't have to. I was seated next to him!
He had smiled and greeted me before I had a chance to recover my senses. After quick introductions and pleasantries , we had the most enjoyable and it seemed , genuinely interesting conversation for the next 3 hours or so. He had actually more questions about me and my life, background than I had a chance to ask him about anything. I had to tell him about the 1956 Hungarian Freedom Fight, and our miserable existence in Hungary that led to this revolution. My arrival in Canada as a 19 year old, my early struggles to learn and live and prosper as millions before me. My love of sports and fencing in particular which led me to become a member of the Canadian Fencing Team in the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
What an experience, sitting with Jean Beliveau for all this time, and humbling in the sense that this giant of a man, in the land of hockey, had gently insisted that I talk and he listens most of the time.
At the end of the flight we had said good bye, not knowing that there will be one more chance meeting between us.
It happened in the summer of 1985 , when Toronto hosted the first ever Masters' Games of several sports, including fencing. I was "representing " the Nederlands at that time, living and working there. On arrival we had to register our participation at a hotel across City Hall in Toronto. There was Mr. Jean Beliveau in the hall, as honorary chairman of the first ever Masters Games, warmly greeting the arrivals.
He had a pleasant chat for a few minutes and it seemed to me (wishful thinking?) that he remembered the Hungarian refugee from a few years before...
We often hear about the great personalities in our times , so often magnified and polished for posterity, but seldom have we the chance to verify all that we hear and imagine.
All that you hear and read about Jean Beliveau is genuinely true.
Big Jean, is now on the limitless ice of the heavens.