When Jean Béliveau passed away last December, I went through boxes of signed cards in my closet looking for some I knew I had of his, in vain. I would guess I'm not dumb enough to leave my best cards in storage and just bring the fringe players with me when I move, but so far, they're MIA. They're not even in the box of early-alphabet cards I fell upon earlier this Spring.
I was reminded of this fact upon hearing the news that another former Montréal Canadiens alumnus, Bob Fillion, the oldest living former Hab and winner of two Stanley Cups with the team, had died, earlier today.
Both players share the distinction of having played with ''The Rocket'', Maurice Richard, and winning Cups alongside him. Béliveau, of course, as one of the all-time greatest players, has won more often (10 Cups as a player, seven as a Habs executive, mostly as vice-president).
He has also won a ton of individual awards, including the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy in 1964-65. Add to that an Art Ross (1955-56), two Harts (1955-56 and 1963-64) and six other Hart top-five finishes including three as runner-up, a team-record 10-season captaincy (Saku Koivu ties him in years with 10, but technically held the title for 9 active seasons, as he lost one to the 2004 lockout), six First Team and four Second Team end-of-season All-Star selections as well as thirteen All-Star Game appearances. He led the league in goals twice, which in this day and age would have given him a Rocket Richard Trophy each time as well.
All this while playing on teams that went from the 1954-55 edition starring The Rocket, Jacques Plante, Bernard ''Boom Boom'' Geoffrion, Doug Harvey (for my money the best defenseman of all time), Dickie Moore, Émile ''Butch'' Bouchard, Bert Olmstead, Guy Rousseau, Dollard St-Laurent and Jean-Guy Talbot to the 1970-71 edition with Ken Dryden, Serge Savard, Ralph Backstrom, Pierre Bouchard (Butch's son!), Henri Richard (the Rocket's younger brother), Yvan Cournoyer, John Ferguson, Terry Harper, Réjean Houle, Jacques Lemaire, Frank and Pete Mahovlich, Marc Tardif, Jean-Claude Tremblay and Rogatien Vachon. That's A LOT of star power to spread awards to and split votes with.
Having retired at the end of the Cup-winning 1970-71 season with a 25-goal, 76-point season (in 70 games), good for points leader on the team, he was inducted into the Hall Of Fame in 1972; as for Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky in my time, there was no reason to mess around with formalities when it came to the classiest player to wear skates in recorded history (and in the NHL era), so they didn't wait the usual four years after retirement in his case.
And yet he was never one for high honors, particularly those that were awarded without votes; he declined two separate offers to be a Canadian Senator and one to be Governor General (i.e. the person in the highest position of power in Canada, as the representative of the Queen of England, who supersedes even the Prime Minister, technically, in the Canadian political food chain), and only reluctantly accepted the titles of Grand Officer of Québec and Companion to the Order of Canada.
In his later years, he had beaten cancer and suffered two harsh strokes before nature took its course and took him where we'll all end up. I had sent him cards on many occasions between 2007 and 2012 then let him be; I received all of them back earlier this summer, unsigned. I had first met him at my grandfather's funeral (he'd been a sports journalist from the 1950s to the 1970s) in the mid-1990s but, obviously, didn't have him sign anything at the time. He was very respectful and polite, even to a child such as myself, treating me basically as an adult though I was (very) far from it. He made an impression, every single time. There was an aura about him that you didn't feel around others, a calming, reassuring yet serious presence.
I knew he would probably never sign cards again about two years ago, so at the time I started looking around for deals - and lost many an Ebay auction in the process. I began looking a little more closely upon his passing, and absolutely wanted to have him be the bearer of #4 in my Habs Numbers Project, so in the event that I wouldn't find my own cards, I acquired this one from trusted Ottawa-area collector BG:
2008-09 O-Pee-Chee set (and Legends sub-set), signed in beautiful silver sharpie. It features a reprint of a classic team picture where he is wearing the team's classic and eternal bleu-blanc-rouge uniform.