Image courtesy of the Guardian
Upon hearing the news of Jean Beliveau’s passing a few days ago, I was immediately taken back to my most enduring and endearing memory of Le Gros Bill. In a past life, a time when I thought a career spent toiling away in academia was for suckers (and yet here I am), I worked in numerous capacities at the Hockey Hall of Fame – some glamourous, some not so glamourous. One of my jobs at the annual Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies was to patrol the front of the hotel at which most honoured members in town for the event would stay. I was responsible for escorting the various Hall of Famers and their families through the crowd of (often aggressive, almost always professional) autograph seekers to the limo bus that would then take them to the red carpet at Yonge and Front.
One of the people I had to guide through this organized chaos each year was Jean Beliveau. As the flood of tributes after his death demonstrate, he is revered as a hockey legend and beloved by most with a knowledge of the sport’s history. This well-deserved respect and public veneration makes memorabilia featuring his likeness or signature worth a pretty penny (and like an artistic masterpiece, the value of this type of merchandise has undoubtedly increased after his passing). For me on Induction night, this meant the assembled horde of “fans” carrying unsigned pieces of memorabilia were especially eager for a moment of Mr. Beliveau’s time.
One year, I met him at the top of the hotel ramp, (re-)introduced myself, and began leading him and his wife toward the curb where the bus was waiting. With the help of a co-worker, I attempted to shield them from the hungry mob gathered in front of the hotel. He stopped a couple times and politely signed some autographs; meanwhile my co-worker and I absorbed more than a few shoves, jabs and insults from members of the crowd who were less than pleased with our efforts to keep them from obtaining their big ticket item (that would almost always be up for sale on eBay the next morning). We finally got Jean and Elise to the doors of the bus and we wished them a pleasant evening. But before the doors closed, Beliveau lightly grabbed my shoulder and asked, “Are you okay?” After I assured him that I was just fine, he patted me on the back and said “Great. You’re doing a great job. Thank you.” On a night entirely organized around treating these “honoured members” like unparalleled VIPs, he cared enough to stop for a second and ask how I was doing. This was certainly not a heroic or courageous deed; but it was an example of a genuine act of kindness and gratitude from a man who by all accounts was chalk full of them.
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