THUNDER BAY – SPORTS – Last December, the week the Montreal Canadiens legendary Jean Beliveau passed away I was invited to speak to a fine gathering of former doctors and chemists on the theme of writing, stories, and, Art. But beyond my address it was a former technician who may have sponsored a comment to remember as we spoke of hockey during an intermission.
About Beliveau, he said, “as I watched him he became a genuine hockey player to admire in the Original Six. Beliveau was such an ambassador. Played with such grace and style.”
I kept that comment like a folded note in one’s sports coat pocket as my wife and I caught planes, making transfers in various airports heading into the USA before New year’s. Others who admired Beliveau, whose career bridged the early 1950’s through to 1971, were other NHLers like Mario Lemieux.
“Jean Beliveau was such an inspiration to young French Canadian hockey players,” commented Lemieux. “Of course I was one of them. ”
Ottawa defensemen Chris Phillips had an immediate reaction, in a cameo a TV appearance, mentioning the iconic No. 4 which Beliveau sported. Phillips, wearing the same number on his Senators’ jersey, was obviously moved, reflecting, “I’m honoured wearing it.”
Nice touches all around about Beliveau. Our sport. He goes back to Rocket Richard and Jacques Plante. Was a member on les Canadiens that won six Stanley Cups inside a single decade. And then transferring planes in Toronto an enthusiastic collective of Maple Leaf fans from Newfoundland were not silent in their travels about what they hoped to see following the NHL South.
Though they rambled about the game that was their main focus: the Leafs playing Florida. On their tour the Newfies would go on to attend the Lightning in Tampa and the Panthers near Miami. They had friends, relatives, working in Vancouver, Calgary, and, Edmonton joining them presently.
The buzz of Newfoundland accents, and their palaver was noticeably alive where we all gathered. They would also see Beliveau’s red white and blue current Montrealers as well as New York Rangers.
They mentioned Thunder Bay’s Staal on the Rangers defense. As we awaited luggage in a hectic Ft Lauderdale airport, our thoughts, and conversations, kindly remembering how much the Staal family do in reaching out to so many venues as they do. In fact, father Henry Staal and three of his sons attended our mother’s funeral last summer. Our mother would tell everyone how proud she was watching Hockey Night in Canada and what the Staals had achieved.
Was overwhelmed when one of “the boys” as referred to them were pickd as one of the Three Stars.
Would talk like this, “Those boys have put Thunder Bay on the maps of the hockey world.” Asked if she had a favourite, she would slip I this boomerang. “I think their mother and father are my favourites. They were both custodians of one of Canada ‘s best winter theatres. An outdoor ice rink.” she’d smile and turn anyone’s attention to an autograph poster she had in her TV room. Signed by Jordan.
But recently arriving in Chicago to watch Patrick Sharp, from our town, a regular star with the Blackhawks on a lengthy homeland one discovers what hockey players like Sharp and other Canadian exports (like Toews, Keith, and, Richards) mean to those who watch them on their home rink in the Windy City.
Because last Christmas our family had a game to remember for the Ages when Patrick Sharp was the First Star scoring a hat trick in Chicago’s victory over Colorado. How noble he was following the game, skating to centre, taking the microphone and happily saying to a sellout crowd, “I like every one to know both my mom and dad are here, watching as well.”
The crowd exploded with applause and glee. A great moment, indeed. On this trip there were several cabbies who were old enough to compare notes of when I first saw the NHL in Chicago. Getting there by train. The 196o’s. With Nesterenko, Mikita, Hull, Hall, Moose Vasko, Pierre Pilote, and, Billy Hay. That bunch coached by Rudy Pilous.
However, last month, entering the United Center prior to the first puck drop a Chicago season ticket holder spoke enthusiastically going back to the days of Mikita. Turns out his friend lived next door to Stan Mikita. And, promptly told of something about Mikita’s love for the game.
“Mikita was very meticulous about his hockey stick. Had, in fact, one special one he always liked. It was a one-piece hockey stick he made and moulded over time. ” Was telling me that his colleague was eventually given the stick by Mikita. When his friend moved…the Mikita stick was given to him.
Becoming another of those anecdotes in covering a subject that evolves into something a good fiction writer would have to dwell on for a time to invent. But his au revoir revealed the depth of his hockey roots were. He said, as we took an escalator then, steps to our seats, “you, and I, know those great Canadiens out of Quebec –winning all those Cups–would have grown up skating on the banks of frozen rivers with sticks like that. I’d really say Canada’s legendary Jean Beliveau, who we saw at the Old Chicago Stadium, could tell us a lot more about that stuff.”
Amazing graces, I thought. How our sporting invention has inspired and bridged two nations together.