No. 4

The death, last week, of Jean Béliveau, the Montreal Canadiens’ great center, at the age of eighty-three, was a civic event of the first order in my home town. The C.I.B.C. Building, a Montreal skyscraper, left on its office lights at night to form the figure of a giant “4,” Béliveau’s long-retired number, while his body lies in state today in the Bell Centre, the successor to the old Forum, where he played his greatest games.

Béliveau, as Charles P. Pierce has said correctly—and Pierce is a Habs fan despite being a Bostonian, an astonishing moral victory—was the kind of person that Joe DiMaggio only seemed to be. Beneath the elegant surface and high manners, Joltin’ Joe, as both biographers and anecdotalists have been compelled to point out, was a first-class dick and a mindless egotist. Billy Crystal tells the hilarious and, to that Yankee idolizer, shocking story of being punched right in the solar plexus by DiMaggio when Billy failed to identify him as “the greatest living ballplayer” (who, in any case, was surely Willie Mays). Béliveau was similar in style and reputation, with the difference being that no one has yet come up with a single story of less than gracious behavior or a less than classy turn by Le Gros Bill. (A nickname he earned, oddly enough, in the light of a Québécois film about a Texan, Bill, who comes to Quebec.)

I only got to watch No. 4 in the last four or five years of his career, which lasted from 1950 until 1971, but it was enough. By that time, his style had been distilled, like—if one may be allowed a high-minded but currently relevant simile—that of Matisse with his color cutouts, into a purist’s economical minimalism. He glided back and forth near the net, using his reach and his matchlessly quick and strong wrists to deflect point shots, often right in for a goal, or else seizing on a moment’s opportunity to take two quick steps toward the goalie—his steps were other people’s strides—and use a backhand shot that seemed less fired than eased. (“He never wound up much to slap the puck,” a fellow fan reminds me. “More of a … steering mechanism.”) It was Béliveau’s understated mastery that led to perhaps the most significant comeback in hockey history, when the Habs, in the spring of 1971, came back from a five-one deficit in the second game of their quarter-final series to defeat what had, until then, seemed to be an unstoppable Bruins team. Though people now recall the lunging acrobatics of Ken Dryden, it was Béliveau who scored the two quick goals in the third period that really began the turnaround. The victory derailed the seeming Boston express toward a seventies dynasty, while sending the Habs on to theirs: six Stanley Cups within a single decade.

The player of our own time whom Béliveau most resembled was Mario Lemieux. Though, to these eyes at least, Mario was actually a more spectacular performer and could do more things in more ways, to get the full Béliveau effect you would have to imagine Mario in slow motion and set to music. The relevant comparison in his own day was between Béliveau and the Bruins’ Phil Esposito, another truly great player, with an aggressive lunch-pail style—he stood about seven feet in front of the net, like the center in a table-hockey game waiting for his rod to be shoved forward. Béliveau made space instead of merely occupying it. (This was long before the current Bettman era, when it became accepted strategy simply to run the goaltender over in pursuit of the puck and club it in from well within the crease.) One analytic method has Béliveau ranked seventh among all-time forwards, just behind Esposito, and another has him fourth, just ahead of Esposito—with Gretzky a constant as the greatest and Lemieux and Gordie Howe right behind him at the top. This feels about right to one who saw them all, though Howe’s durability may overrate his contribution, and, whatever the analytics suggest, it’s hard not to think that Mark Messier will be among the first to be picked in the final, cosmic pond-hockey game.

But what separates Béliveau from all of these is his role as a national folk hero, which can’t be overstated and speaks well of the Quebec nation for which he was a hero. His character traits were not the bluster and brutality that Don Cherry urges on hockey—Cherry being a man who is proof that Rob Ford was not as much of an accident as my Torontonian friends like to pretend—but class, and leadership by consensus and understatement. Though as thoroughly Quebec as any man could be, Béliveau never allowed linguistic or ethnic rivalry to play a role within the Montreal dressing room. Where his predecessor as a Quebec hero, Maurice Richard, was a man of the Old Catholic and agricultural dispensation, Béliveau was a hero of a new and more self-empowered Quebec. As a La Presse columnist wrote last week, “Jean Béliveau was determined not [to] be the exploited and become another victim of the system. He was confident and articulate. Mr. Béliveau would often be seen reading books and speaking about the importance of education. He was the perfect hero for a new generation that saw the coming of age of a more educated, self-assured middle class in Quebec that emerged from this Quiet Revolution.”

Which leads us to my colleague Ben McGrath’s wonderful piece this week on the current state of the team and their surprising superstar, P. K. Subban. Subban’s play this year has been more in and out than his admirers have quite liked, but this may well be, as Ben suggests, because he is trying to learn to actually play defense. (Watching the highlights of that 1971 comeback, a heretic or two might see that Bobby Orr, for all his greatness, is the victim on many of the comeback goals: there really is a price to pay for the freewheeling defensive style.) Is Subban being wasted, or sharpened and matured? Time will tell, and in the meanwhile the delightful thing, as McGrath documents, is how thoroughly Montrealized the Ontario-raised Subban is becoming. One of the most distinctive things about the Canadiens is that, until very recently, they were, almost uniquely in North American sports, a largely local team. Pittsburgh Steelers don’t come from Pittsburgh, and the greatest Green Bay Packers came from far from Wisconsin. But the Habs held a large and, at times, dominant proportion of players who were actually from Montreal and the surrounding regions. As far as I can tell, the only parallel to this is the striking exception of Barcelona F.C., where the majority of the starters on the team are from Catalonia. (Manchester United used to have a large North of England contingent, but those days ended with the era of Eric Cantona and have not returned.)

As McGrath mentions, it is received wisdom that the team had to choose between being provincial and being good. Unfortunately, in the past twenty years, they chose not to be provincial but didn’t stay good, either. I once drew up—yes, this shows how badly in need I am of better things to do—a table showing what the Habs would have looked like had the team simply picked the best available Québécois in the draft. It was, as I recall, a striking and somewhat equivocal list: though it would have meant missing out on some gems, it also meant rejecting some all-time stiffs—mostly big American high-school kids who were supposed to “grow into their bodies”—while taking the Flyers’ Claude Giroux, Chicago’s Denis Savard, and the like, not to mention signing the nifty Martin St. Louis, who is currently finishing out his career with the Rangers.

If I were the Habs’ G.M.—a fantasy not unknown to my 3 A.M. mind—I would invest heavily in Quebec scouting and prefer the local boys to any outsiders, all other things being equal. This is partly a matter of the team’s connoted identity—if you’re going to root for mediocrity, let it be mediocrity with local color. It is also because, given that all the players on all the teams are athletic outliers, what can distinguish great teams from ordinary ones is some mysterious alchemy of common purpose, distilled from the selfish ends of individual careers. A sense of a common pursuit is what we need to revive the Habs. Béliveau embodied it.