By Matt Ventresca
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.
There have been no shortage of tributes to Beliveau following his death (some of which, I’m sure will end up in a weekly links post in this very space). These accounts (and other personal anecdotes I’ve read from friends and colleagues working in the hockey industry) testify to the ways in which Beliveau was special and why he is viewed with almost universal reverence. Personally, it feels almost strange for me to have so much admiration for someone who played his final game over a decade before I was born. He’s someone who I have only come to know through grainy archival footage, sports history books and stories from those who were able to watch him play (it feels EVEN STRANGER to have so much respect for someone who played for a team I loathe on almost all other occasions).
But I think the reason I am so captivated by Beliveau is that I (and I think many others) see him as representing a place for grace, finesse and compassion in the game of hockey. For many, Beliveau signifies a necessary counter-narrative to the hyper-masculine “Rock’Em, Sock’em,” “Beat ‘em in the Alley” ethos that still (somehow) defines hockey in the popular consciousness. If Beliveau was hockey’s (or this country’s) “greatest ambassador,” as even Don Cherry had to admit, his true legacy might be as a symbol that the sport need not be exemplified by its most violent, aggressive and unruly characters. Rather, the celebration of Beliveau in this way provides hope for progressive hockey fans that there is indeed room for elegance and kindness in a national sporting mythos that stands in desperate need of such qualities.
Of course, the mechanisms of celebrity culture kick into overdrive when someone famous dies. How the public remembers someone is directly shaped by cultural processes where certain ideas take centre stage at the expense of other less poignant or pleasant memories (for example, the fierce determination that Beliveau brought to the ice has certainly been downplayed in favour of the many of the qualities I’ve been mentioning here). These are the moments when stories become myths, lifetimes become legacies and human beings become larger than life.
With this in mind, what struck me while reading the litany of tributes depicting the saint-like virtues of Beliveau is how often the word “class” is invoked. He is described as unquestionably “classy,” a “class act” or “the epitome of class.” Most of us can imagine what ideas this version of “class” brings to mind when applied to players like Beliveau; but how do these allusions to “class” influence how we understand other hockey players or other athletes that are not as readily described in this way?
These characterizations of Beliveau reminded me of a recent controversy through which the idea of “class” was invoked in a much different way. After Richard Sherman’s post-game comments following last year’s NFC championship game, many commentators and social media users were outraged that Sherman’s interview was a “class-less” display and that the defensive stalwart, mere moments after making the most important play of his career, failed to show the “class” that should be a requirement for all professional athletes. So what’s the difference between Sherman and Beliveau? The answer to that question may seem obvious, but the distinction actually involves the interplay of some complex cultural politics.
Over at Left Hook, Dragos Nica analyzes the public reaction to Sherman’s interview and argues that the backlash was very much fueled by anxieties about race and class that pervade contemporary sporting cultures. Nica writes that the controversy around Sherman’s comments demonstrate a moment of struggle over the image of the prototypical professional athlete. Nica outlines the taken-for-granted image of the pro athlete as “a blue-collar worker, a ‘lunch-pail guy,’ who is tough, hard-working, and looks like somewhere between your average construction worker and Dennis Quaid. He doesn’t talk much, this athlete, he only ‘goes about his business’ because he’s a ‘consummate professional.’ On top of all this, the professional athlete is classy” (emphasis mine). Nica continues, “To be classy in pro-sports, you must exhibit a certain level of white-collar, or at the very least middle-class, professionalism. To conduct yourself in a professional manner.” He concludes by saying that the Sherman incident (and policies like the NBA’s dress code) demonstrates that our expectations for professional athletes require the performance of an upper-class morality and that “the way in which we identify “classy” professional athletes has become class-based and is inherently racist” when considering how our notion of “class” automatically disqualifies a majority of racialized athletes who were not necessarily socialized in the upper-middle class environment that such a definition privileges.
So what does all of this have to do with Jean Beliveau? Well, in making Beliveau’s defining quality his unshakeable “class,” we (and I absolutely include myself in this) reinforce a set of expectations for the conduct of pro athletes that are informed by values most easily exemplified by white middle-to-upper class men. These are indeed “classy” men who are rational, gracious (in victory and defeat), and educated in the game of knowing when to speak and when to stay quiet. And we do this while still requiring contemporary athletes to be warriors and gladiators on the field of play, bringing unfathomable levels of intensity, fearlessness and aggression to their jobs. How we speak and write about Beliveau is about much more than the man himself. How does the current celebration of Beliveau’s “class” re-frame our thoughts on Phil Kessel or Marshawn Lynch? What about P.K. Subban or Alex Ovechkin? Or the five St. Louis Rams players under fire for protesting the events in Ferguson? What about women athletes who speak their mind about the state of their sport or other political issues? It’s absolutely important that we celebrate Jean Beliveau as one of hockey’s greatest players and kindest souls. But it is just as crucial that we recognize that when we praise his “class” we’re talking about more than just a history of noble behaviours by one individual; we’re actually referencing and reaffirming a set of values rooted in identities that take shape and have implications far outside the world of sport.