From Beliveau to Balon, Canadiens have a way of treating their former players

The show of love and admiration for Jean Beliveau in Montreal since his death a week ago is not terribly surprising. After all, the Canadiens as an organization have fostered that kind of affection for their star players for generations now.

In their first game back on home ice since the death of Jean Beliveau, the day before what will be an emotional farewell, the Montreal Canadiens listed their official attendance at 21,286, one fewer than a sellout. That was to account for the fact that Seat No. 1 in Row EE, Section 102 was empty.

Some will argue that Jean Beliveau was there all right, but you get the idea. The Canadiens deliberately halted a string of 11 consecutive years of sellouts to honor the memory of one of the greatest players the franchise has ever produced.

If that gesture, and the pre-game ceremony that accompanied it, don’t at least have you a little choked up regardless of your NHL affiliation, you’d be well-advised consult a cardiologist immediately to determine whether you actually have a heart. The Canadiens have always been particularly adept at tugging at the heartstrings and whoever was in charge of last night’s tribute pulled out all the stops in that department.

It begs the question: Why are the Canadiens so uncannily brilliant at these kinds of things? Class and dignity are not things that come out of thin air, after all. They are things that must be nurtured and maintained. But do the Canadiens exude those things because of the mind-boggling conga line of superstar players with whom they’ve been blessed over the past century? Or do these players attain their exalted status because of the way their employer treats them?

Some of the former and a multitude of the latter, in this correspondent’s humble opinion. After all, Beliveau was as universally revered in retirement as he was during his Hall of Fame career. Beliveau provided the character and principle, but the Canadiens gave him the stage to display for all the world to see. The Canadiens recognized what they had in Beliveau and kept him in the fold for life. They gave him a profile that provided the template for what it means to be a member of the Canadiens organization and whenever it has come time to honor the accomplishments of former players, they have always done it right.

To be sure, the fact the Canadiens have had some of the greatest superstars the game has ever known certainly helps. From Howie Morenz to Toe Blake to Rocket Richard to Beliveau to Guy Lafleur, the Canadiens have had an awful lot to celebrate over the years. But it’s more than just the players. It’s how they’re treated and how that sense of community is fostered.

Take, for example, the story of Dave Balon, an industrious left winger who played four seasons with the Canadiens, but forged most of his career as a New York Ranger. Balon developed multiple sclerosis later in life and needed a specially designed vehicle to get him around. To that end, there was a fundraiser held in Saskatchewan to pay for the van and the organizers reached out to the Canadiens alumni group to see whether they might be able to make a donation or supply some memorabilia for a silent auction. Once Dickie Moore heard of the situation, he told the organizers to leave it with him. Hours later, they received a call telling them to purchase the van and that the cost would be covered by the alumni group.

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If that’s how an organization fosters an environment where foot soldiers who spent a fraction of their career with it get treated like that, how do you think it’s going to treat its most revered players.

And it’s not like that everywhere. Dave Keon is one of the greatest Toronto Maple Leafs ever and his decades-long estrangement from the organization is a result of a rift that has never healed. Ted Kennedy was, some would argue, the best all-round player to ever suit up for the Maple Leafs and when he died in 2009, his funeral was a low-key affair barely acknowledged by the organization.

“I think (the Leafs) sent one or two guys (to the funeral),” former Leaf Bob Nevin told Dave Feschuk of The Toronto Star recently. “They just sort of passed it off. And he was maybe one of the top three or four players in the history of the Maple Leafs without a doubt. I was sort of half shocked they didn’t at least get the alumni, get a bus and take 20 guys down.”

The Chicago Blackhawks only in recent years have begun to welcome players such as Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony Esposito into the fold. The Canadiens have had their rifts with some of their stars to be sure, but it’s no coincidence that players such as Patrick Roy, Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson, who all left the organization on less-than-ideal terms, have all made their way back.

As the hockey world celebrates the life of Jean Beliveau today, the Canadiens will undoubtedly be a huge part of the pageantry. And even as the glory days fade for the franchise – there are fans in their early 20s who have no conception of what a Stanley Cup parade in Montreal looks like – the memories never will. That’s because the Canadiens are so brilliant at keeping them alive.