Every now and again the yin and yang of Canadian hockey – Gordie and Mr. Béliveau – would show up at the same banquet or awards ceremony or youth hockey celebration or something. Then, Gordie Howe, seeing Jean Béliveau, would tell a story. It isn’t a big story. It’s just a little thing that, in a small way, expresses wonder about hockey and Canada and the enduring love affair between the sport and the country.
The most meaningful stories rely on context, of course. Many say that the biggest laugh ever recorded on American television happened 55 years ago on the “Jack Benny Program.” There was a skit where a mugger attempts to rob Jack Benny. This would not have been a funny premise at all except that Benny had spent his life carefully and masterfully crafting his image as a magnificent cheapskate. He told thousands of jokes about being irrepressibly cheap – “I took my girl to dinner last night, and she laughed so hard at one of my jokes that she dropped her tray” — and was the butt of thousands more.
So, when the skit began on that day in 1959, it took only a second for people to grasp the point of the joke. The mugger walked up to Benny, held a gun, and said: “Bud, this is a stickup … your money or your life.”
Benny did not say a word. He gave his famously puzzled look to the crowd. His initial silence was met with laughter and, the longer he stayed quiet the louder the laughter became. He held on the to silence for a few beats, then a few beats more, until the tension peaked and people were laughing so hard that they were holding their sides.
“Look, Bud, I said your money or your life,” the mugger finally said.
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking,” Benny said, and the laughter crescendo broke all the records. The exact same joke wouldn’t be funny at all if Louis CK or Chris Rock or Will Ferrell were at the center. The joke needed context; it had taken Jack Benny a half-century to set it up.
And so the little story Gordie Howe told about Jean Béliveau needs context. The story wouldn’t be as good if it involved anyone else. The beauty is in the beauty of their lives: Gordie as the tough man, Mr. Béliveau as the gentleman, both of them small-town boys who grew up wanting to live the quintessential Canadian dream as hockey stars.
* * *
Once I saw Gordie Howe flick a stick full of rink chaff
over the head of a collector looking for autographed
pucks at an Old-Timers Game; Gordie, never taking his
eyes off the guy, sent the snow in a perfect arc from the
blade resting on the ice. Even the guy had to admire his
dexterity, a lifetime of moving the body just so. So he said,
Thank you, and went back to his seat.
— From “A Lifetime of Moving a Body Just So” by poet Richard Harrison
Gordie – and he insists that people call him Gordie — would begin his Béliveau story by saying: “As you might know, I could be a pretty tough guy on the ice.” If you know anything about Gordie Howe, you can already sense the arc of this story. Pretty tough, he said. The universe is pretty big. Apple is pretty successful. Chocolate is pretty popular. Mr. Hockey was pretty tough.
His toughness came naturally, from the Canadian prairies. He grew up in Saskatoon, in the heart of Saskatchewan, where hard-working people farmed and mined through the often-brutal winters. Gordie often talked about seeing his hard-working father, Albert, get jostled by some punk in a pool hall. Ab Howe had been a farmer and construction worker, and he was as strong as the Canadian wind, and warned the guy once. He warned the guy twice. The third time, Ab unloaded an open-hand punch to the guy’s face and knocked him over the pool table. The young Gordie learned a lesson that would shape his hockey life: “Don’t take dirt from anybody”. As Gordie grew older, he added his own caveat to the rule – nobody deserves a warning.
Gordie didn’t fight as often as his reputation suggests. His name is forever attached to a certain kind of hat trick – a goal, an assist, and a fight – but Gordie Howe only had two Gordie Howe hat tricks in his career. He didn’t have to fight. The sight of his No. 9 was usually enough to get people to move out of the way. He made the most of the fights he did have. Howe earned a fighting major at the 1948 All-Star Game (he had ANOTHER fight at an All-Star Game, but he only drew a roughing penalty for that one). He fought the fabulously fierce Fernie Flaman three times (it should have been four for the alliteration). Howe once had a fight with Fred Shero that was so unrelenting, the police broke it up AFTER the two reached the penalty box.
His most famous fight happened Feb. 1, 1959 (six months before the Jack Benny your-money-or-your life bit) against the New York Rangers’ Lou Fontinato, one of hockey’s most famous enforcers. Fontinato just had been featured in Look Magazine for his prowess as a bodyguard, and that day Fontinato went after Howe and the two men engaged in the most famous fight of the era. Fontinato came out of it with his nose pointing sideways. “Howe’s punches went WHOP! WHOP! WHOP! Just like someone chopping wood,” one of Howe’s teammates told Life Magazine, which ran a spread called “Don’t Mess Around With Gordie.”
Howe didn’t get a Gordie Howe hat trick that day, but he did score two goals to go along with his fight. This was what made Howe different. He was one of the greatest goal scorers the game had ever known. He was one of the greatest passers the game had ever known. And he was one of the toughest men the game had ever known. To be all those things – to be so brilliant AND so violent – gave Canada an entirely new kind of hero.
“We had a different understanding of physical violence in those days,” the Vancouver Sun sports columnist Cam Cole says. “And because Howe was not only a great player but dangerous, he was a god for the older writers of his era who swear to this day there will never another one like him.”
One more story about Gordie Howe being pretty tough: As Howe approached 50, he was still playing when his son Marty had his cheekbone broken by Robbie Ftorek. Gordie and another son Mark visited Marty in the hospital. According to Mark’s book “Gordie Howe’s Son,” Gordie asked if there was anything he could get Marty to provide comfort.
“I was hoping …” Marty began.
“You don’t even have to ask,” Gordie said.
The next game, Gordie Howe cracked Ftorek in the face with his stick, cutting him, leaving him bleeding on the ice, the sort of thing that Mark wrote would now earn a two-year suspension. In those days, though, it was a five-minute penalty. This was Gordie’s love from father to son.
“Mark told Gordie, ‘Dad, he’s my friend, he’s an old teammate on Team Canada, he has been a mentor to me,’” says the writer Michael Farber. “But none of that mattered. Robbie had mussed up a Howe. Gordie Howe grew up on the prairie. He believed in prairie justice.”
* * *
We used to have breakfast together in the ’60s; me with
a bowl and milk and my early-reading eyes, him on the
back of a box of Shredded Wheat – it’s the tall picture
of him, the one that hangs in the Forum.
— From “Beliveau Teaches Me How to Handle the Puck” by Richard Harrison.
Whenever Gordie Howe said that part about being a pretty tough guy on the ice, the audience naturally would turn to see Jean Béliveau’s reaction. He would be laughing. The eye followed Béliveau. It was like that all of his life.
“Every so often,” says Richard Harrison, a Canadian poet and professor at Mount Royal University, “you will see this person who is just so connected to the flow of the world that you just say, ‘OK, let me just watch you and learn from whatever’s going on.’ That was Jean Béliveau.”
How many times did the sportswriters call Jean Béliveau regal? Royal? Kingly? Common tributes seemed beneath him somehow. Farber was talking once with Terrible Ted Lindsay, the man who more than anyone else inspired the NHL to start penalizing players for elbowing. Farber brought up Béliveau, and Lindsey suddenly and inexplicably stood up.
“What’s this?” Farber asked.
“I always stand up when I hear Mr. Béliveau’s name,” Terrible Ted said.
People called him Mr. Béliveau. He was the warmest of men, but there was something about his bearing, the way he carried himself, that commanded this sort of respect. Bobby Orr could be Bobby, and Gordie Howe wouldn’t let you call him anything but Gordie, but Jean Béliveau was Mister.
Béliveau, like Howe, grew up in a Canadian folk hero story. He lived in Victoriaville, in central Quebec, where he played hockey on the pond in his backyard. There used to be a hockey pond on the back of Canada’s five-dollar bill. Béliveau was such a brilliant young player that the Montreal Canadiens bought an entire hockey league – the Quebec Senior Hockey League – just to get him.
There was elegance in the way he played – he was bigger than anyone on the ice, stronger, and this suggested a game of power. But Béliveau moved like a dancer. “Calm in the eye of a hurricane,” is how Harrison remembers. Before Béliveau, hockey penalties lasted the duration; that is to say that a two-minute penalty went the full two minutes even if the other team scored multiple goals. In 1955, Béliveau scored three goals in 44 seconds during a penalty. The next year the rule was changed.
“Jean Béliveau,” writes the marvelous Canadian writer Roy MacGregor, “played the national game as it is played in the dreams of young boys and now girls: flowing, graceful, magical.”
More, there was the elegant way he lived – he answered every letter, responded to every request. Every person in Canada, it seems, tells a story of his kindness. There were big kindnesses, of course, revolving around the Jean Béliveau Foundation and all the good that it had done through the years. But, more, there were a million small kindnesses, the time he invited a stranger into his kitchen to talk, the time he and his wife accepted a dinner invitation from an admirer, the times he stopped by to watch youth hockey games and offer a few tips.
“Jean Béliveau is one of the 10 best players in the history of the game,” Farber says. “There is no doubt about it – one of the 10 best players ever. And yet, that’s not the first thing anyone says about him. It’s not the second thing. It might not even be the third thing. … We were trying to think if there was another great athlete who you could say that about; we couldn’t think of any other.”
The baseball fan in me thinks of Stan Musial another legendary player known for the kind way he treated people. There is something marvelous and hard to explain about athletes like this, something that drives them to be something larger, something that pushes them to give up a little something of themselves so that people will still believe in heroes.
“This is the thing about Béliveau,” Farber continues. “He as always a little bit surprised and pleased by how well people treated him. People responded to him. He was adored coast to coast, and he was always surprised and delighted by it.”
* * *
Hockey looks simple
and fast the way Sumo looks simple and fast, yet there
are 78 named moves in Sumo, though a match is over in
9 seconds or less, the time it takes a man to score a goal,
and the two who get assists to set him up. Its wisdom
is briefly spoken, but takes years to hear. Gordie
told the future, Work on your backhand.
— From “A Lifetime of Moving a Body Just So.”
In the days before Richard Harrison met Gordie Howe, he would have this dream – in the dream Gordie Howe did not like the poem he had written. And he would remember when reading the poem to Howe for the first time, Harrison was situated right next to Howe’s famous right elbow, the one that sent Bobby Orr to the ice when Gordie felt like the rookie had been a little too feisty.
“I’m a very religious player,” Howe explained when Orr asked him about the hit. “I think it’s much better to give than to receive.”
This was the image Howe had developed on the ice. He had a flat stick so he could go to his forehand and backhand with equal prowess, and he was dangerous. But what Harrison found – what everyone who has ever met Howe found – is that off the ice Gordie Howe is the gentlest of souls, a shy farmboy whose ears blushed red with embarrassment as Harrison read the poem.
“He is exactly the way Canadians like to think of themselves,” Roy MacGregor says. “He is strong, tenacious, a team player, determined, triumphant and yet never arrogant. It is debatable if Canada is really like that. But Gordie Howe definitely is.”
* * *
straight at you surrounded by a stadium in darkness, and
even though the ice is flat, he always looks as if he’s
coming over the horizon like a mast: Béliveau skating the
edge between old world and new, Béliveau in charge, the
way the eye of a hurricane is in charge.
— From “Beliveau Teaches Me How to Handle the Puck”
When Richard Harrison met Béliveau, he was surprised how quickly the conversation turned to his love of words. Harrison gave both an English and French copy of his poem to Béliveau, who read them both and began talking about the subtleties of language.
“We had this long conversation,” Harrison says, “in which he said, ‘The French can’t capture everything that is in the English, and yet the French captures something that isn’t in the English.’ It was just such a remarkable thought.
“In a way I think that’s who Béliveau is to us. … We still have this bilingual – multilingual, really, but certainly bilingual – image of ourselves. Everything in Canada is defined at least twice, once in English and once in French. Jean Beliveau was comfortable in the English and French, and so I think comfortable in the nuances of what it means to be Canadian.”
Farber laughs when he hears people refer to Béliveau as the perfect gentleman hockey player. Béliveau, especially in his early years as a player, made it perfectly clear that he was not to be trifled with. He had 143 penalty minutes one year. He made sure to repay anyone who tried to take advantage of his demeanor. Let’s just say that he never won the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship.
But as he grew older, he developed his reputation as a man above it all. Bobby Hull said that once he clocked Jean Béliveau with an elbow when the two were lingering behind the play. It was a cheap shot, and Hull knew it.
A few seconds later, he heard this deep voice ringing as if from the heavens: “Bobby,” the voice of Béliveau said. “I’m very disappointed in you.”
* * *
They went in to the Hockey Hall of Fame together. They went to many events together. They represented a time – when the original six played, when the Canadiens were invincible, when hockey players did not wear helmets and lost their teeth and played for love – together. Jean Béliveau died three weeks ago. Gordie Howe had a dangerous stroke, though the family says he is making a marvelous recovery. The yin and yang of Canadian hockey are very much on the nation’s mind.
So now, the story. Gordie Howe would say that he was a pretty tough hockey player, and being pretty tough meant that he would hit players from behind when they weren’t looking. This had many benefits, some of them psychological. To play Gordie Howe’s Red Wings was to play with the full awareness that Gordie, the toughest son of a gun on the ice, was always lurking back there somewhere.
But when Howe’s Red Wings would play Béliveau’s Canadiens, Howe would find himself in a bit of a quandary. He would be behind Mr. Béliveau, and he had a clear shot. What to do? On the one hand, he was Gordie Howe, toughest son of a gun on the ice. He had to take the shot. On the other hand, that was Jean Béliveau, the classiest player of them all.
“They were like opposite sides of the Canadian coin,” Cam Cole says. “Béliveau, the elegant artist, full of effortless grace and generosity of spirit. Gordie, the Point-A-to-Point-B physical specimen, highly skilled but with overtones of menace.”
“Howe is about family,” Toronto Star writer Bruce Arthur says. “He came from a small town. He kept faith with the game we love most. He is a kind of Canada that might not exist anymore, except in our minds.”
“When Mr. Béliveau died, people lined up to pay their respects,” Farber says. “His widow was there for two days, just greeting people who walked by the casket. She would talk to anyone who had a word for her. When they asked her about meeting with people, she said, ‘Jean had been doing that for 60 years. I can do it for two days.”
“Gordie’s strength is his strength of character,” Roy MacGregor says. “I think about his slowly crafted signature, as clear in his 80s as it was when he was 18. And Jean was as careful with his signature as Gordie. They believed if fans were nice enough to ask for your autograph, you had a duty to give them one they could read and remember. How different from the bored scrawls of todays stars.”
“I was struck by how gentle they were when I met them,” Harrison says. “That word: Gentlemen. They were ferocious players. But they were gentle men.”
The story would finish like so: Gordie Howe would decide that he had to hit Béliveau from behind. This, after all, was the game they had chosen to play. But as he approached, he would say something, just a little bit louder than a whisper, just loud enough for Béliveau to hear. He would say: “Heads up, Jean.” He would say it out of love.