Skating on thin ice

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2005, 12:00am

Childhood ended last week. Jean Beliveau, the grandest ambassador that ice hockey ever produced, is auctioning off the prizes he won as a player, including championship rings, trophies and even his old hockey jerseys. Imagine Louis Armstrong pawning his trumpet or Pele raffling off his old soccer boots. It is that bad.

This has been an annus horribilis for Canadian sports. First, our Olympic gold-medal hope in the hurdles, Perdita Felicien, broke our hearts by stumbling at the first gate. Montreal lost its baseball Expos, then the professional hockey season - our psychological balm in winter - disintegrated in a squabble between millionaire players and multimillionaire owners. Finally, basketball's Toronto Raptors lost superstar Vince Carter to a team in New Jersey.

There was not much left on the Canadian athletic landscape except for a few trick skiers, and the memory of Beliveau, with his giant strides, leading one of the most successful sports franchises in history. Gentleman Jean, as they called him, won 10 championships as a player with the fabled Montreal Canadiens. They were known for 'firewagon hockey' - wave upon wave of attackers out-skating and out-shooting everyone in their path. His teammates had names like Boom-Boom and The Rocket, the coach was named 'Toe', and the goalkeeper, Jacques Plante, got so tired of stopping pucks with his face that he invented the hockey mask.

Beliveau was a stylist with the stick. One of his favourite tricks was to flip the puck off the surface of the ice, direct it through the air, past a phalanx of defenders, to a line mate who would hit it, still in flight, into the opposing goal. It was hockey's version of Pele's overhead kick, and would send fans (like me) squealing with joy.

On skates, he was the kind of player your mother admired. 'You play according to what God gave you,' he liked to say. God gave him strength and speed, and Beliveau used it to shrug off the rogues and the roughnecks who gave hockey its notoriety. He had the build of a heavyweight, but he did not like fighting.

Beliveau retired in 1971, a French-Canadian Alexander with no more worlds to conquer. Time froze for every Canadian youngster who ever strapped on a pair of ice skates. The government offered him the job of governor-general, the Queen's representative in Canada, but he turned it down, for his family's sake, he said.

Now 74, Gentleman Jean has decided that the financial security of his daughter and grandchildren was more important. He may get C$300,000 ($1.88 million ) for his memorabilia, an amount that some hockey players earn in a month these days.