by Brad Lombardo
In December 1989, while working for The Senior Times, I interviewed hockey great Jean Beliveau at his office in the Montreal Forum. In January of 1990 the newspaper published my article entitled Heart of the Canadiens. Now, I wistfully recall the legend I came to know – Le Gros Bill, Gentleman Jean, the Heart of the Canadiens – a superstar from hockey’s Original Six Era and one of the greatest NHL players.
It was the spring of 1989 and I had just graduated from McGill. Within a year, familial pulls would hasten my relocation to Toronto, closer to my parents and my hometown of Windsor. For now, I was intent on remaining in Montreal with my limited French language skills.
A job posting at McGill led me to The Senior Times, where I was hired as an advertising sales representative. I was permitted to report on some local happenings and write a few articles, provided they were of merit.
Publisher Barbara Moser allowed me to write a series of interviews with former star hockey players from the Montreal Canadiens. I started off by interviewing Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, up at his golf course in Laval, and then moved on to former Habs general manager Sam Pollock, whom I met at his office in Place Ville Marie.
Next up was broadcaster Dick Irvin, who invited me to his suburban residence for our chat. Then came the final two interviews – legendary centre Jean Beliveau and the great right winger Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Henri’s older brother.
The interview with Jean was at his office in the Montreal Forum. It was a cold and wintry weekday afternoon; I parked my car, grabbed my interview materials, including notepad and tape recorder, and decided to brave the short walk to the arena without my winter jacket, reasoning I would have one less thing to worry about once inside.
I explained this to the enquiring Mr. Beliveau, who wondered aloud about the absence of my jacket: “Where’s your winter coat?” he asked. “You must be crazy to leave it in your car, or maybe you are just cold-blooded. Maybe you are just like those guys I knew as a young man playing shinny – the ones that were still skating all out, after four hours in -20 degrees.” I was surprised that this hockey legend had such concern for the comfort of a stranger.
I was also surprised that at the onset Jean insisted on knowing a little about me; When I told him I had lived in Spain as a teenager, he wanted to talk about General Francisco Franco and painter Pablo Picasso and to find out more about Spanish culture and language. It was a while before we started talking hockey.
Jean Beliveau seemed to be everything I imagined he would be – tall and elegant in his dark blue business suit, graceful and unassuming, handsome in a leading man sort of way, with thick hair, every strand perfectly in place. His penchant for being a funny and witty storyteller immediately came through, and he seemed truly empathetic to those who struggled, whether friends or strangers.
I will never forget how tears swelled up in his eyes as we briefly chatted about the serious health problems facing former Habs great Doug Harvey, his teammate for so many years. Earlier in the year I had tried to interview Mr. Harvey for the newspaper, but he was actually quite ill at the time and unable to meet with me. Harvey died on December 26, 1989, shortly after the interview with Jean.
One of the highlights of that magical afternoon was when Mr. Beliveau took me for a walk-around tour of the Forum. There were not too many people walking around the old building, it being mid-day, and the dearth of other souls in the hallways and around the rink made the moment all the more poignant. We sat in two seats, up near the rafters, while he told me one great hockey story after another, I was hoping that the afternoon would last forever.
After the interview Mr. Beliveau escorted me to the stairwell leading to the exit door. As I walked down the stairs and we said our “adieus” he reminded me in a stern yet comforting and fatherly voice, “Brad, the next time you come to visit please wear your winter coat. I am getting cold myself right now, just watching you walk out the door without it and into that frigid weather!”
The interview with Le Gros Bill was published in the January 1990 issue of The Senior Times; a few days later I delivered a stack of the papers to the Forum. Jean happily received me in the reception area, and promised to hand out copies to family and friends. He said he would even keep a couple of issues hanging around his office. I was very pleased.
The Rocket Richard interview article was published a couple of months later. Winter turned to spring, and the pull to live closer to my aging parents proved too great. I accepted a job with a television station in Toronto, and prepared to bid a tearful adieu to the newspaper and the city, both of which I had grown to love.
I phoned both Jean and the Rocket to let them know of my imminent plans; Mr. Beliveau wished me the best of luck, as did Mr. Richard, who also slightly admonished me for leaving la belle province for the bright lights of Hogtown. I promised to stay in touch with both of them.
I did stay in touch, not that hard to do at the time, since both former players often visited Toronto for promotional purposes. I met with Jean a couple of years later, at an autograph signing out near the airport. He was genuinely pleased to see me. Recalling that I had lived in Spain, he took a moment to test out some of his rudimentary Spanish on me.
Over the years I would catch up with Le Gros Bill and the Rocket now and then, during their various promotional visits to Toronto. I always made room in my schedule to go visit, whenever one or the other ventured into the GTA.
There was one time in particular I fondly remember, when Jean was speaking at a business luncheon in Markham, close to our home in suburban Toronto. When I found out he was there, I rushed over at lunch hour to say hello. “Still working for the newspapers?” he asked. “Oh no, Jean, soon after moving to Toronto I went to teacher’s college,” I told him. “I am now working as a high school teacher – I even teach Spanish on the weekends.” His smile broadened – “it sounds like you found your calling,” he said, “your parents must be happy”. “I hope so,” I acknowledged. “They bankrolled that teaching degree!” He chuckled out loud, and I remember how nice it was to be able to make him laugh.
I last saw Mr. Beliveau a few years ago, at another promotional appearance in the big smoke. He had just turned down an offer to become Canada’s Governor General, for the second time. Recently retired from Canadiens management, he was determined to spend more quality time with his family – wife Elise, daughter Helene, and granddaughters Magalie and Mylene.
Our final encounter was rather brief, but he still remembered that I had lived in Spain and had taught Spanish. He was just that type of person – a listener more than a talker, a man of considerable concern and empathy for others, a hockey great and ambassador of the sport who was always interested in who his fans were, as people. In other words, a people’s person.
Le Gross Bill, Gentleman Jean, Heart of the Canadiens – a great hockey player and an even greater man, always beloved, always remembered.
Born 1931 in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, centreman Jean Beliveau was one of hockey’s greatest stars. A young prodigy of the Quebec Aces of the QMHL, he first played for the Montreal Canadiens in 1950, joining the NHL club for good in 1952. He played for the Habs until his retirement in 1971, serving as their long-time captain and leader. He amassed 507 goals and 1,219 points in the regular season, and another 79 goals and a team-record 176 points in the playoffs. In 1955-56 he won the Art Ross Trophy, for most points, and the Hart Trophy, as the NHL’s most valuable player. In 1963-64 he captured the Hart again, and the following year was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He was selected to the First All-Star team six times and the Second All-Star team four times. Beliveau won a record eleven Stanley Cups as a player, and then as a team executive added his name to the Cup six more times. He died at 83, on December 2, 2014.