IT IS hard to imagine a classier hockey player, on and off the ice, than Jean Beliveau.
A supremely skilled center who spent 20 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens during his Hall of Fame career, Beliveau died Tuesday at 83.
One of the most beloved players in Canadiens history, Beliveau also was a popular ambassador for the sport. He scored 507 goals, won 10 Stanley Cup championships and was captain for 10 seasons before his retirement in 1971. After that, he moved seamlessly into an executive position with the club.
Beliveau was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. He won two NHL MVP awards and has his name engraved on the Cup a record 17 times, counting the seven titles Montreal won while he was in the front office.
"Meeting him is not like meeting other stars from the old days," Beliveau's former linemate, Gilles Tremblay, who died last week at age 75, once said. "When people see Bobby Hull, they say: 'Hi Bobby.' When they meet Big Jean, it's always: 'Hi, Mr. Beliveau.' He commands respect."
Canadiens fans who revered Beliveau were given a scare in 2000 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but after losing 30 pounds during treatment and enduring "the worst period of my life," he recovered. Soon, he was back in his familiar spot attending nearly every home game with his wife Elise in the seats among the fans.
He also survived a stroke in 2012.
When the Canadiens opened Centennial Plaza at the Bell Centre as part of the team's 100th anniversary, their four greatest players were honored with statues: Maurice Richard, Howie Morenz, Guy Lafleur and Beliveau.
"A true legend has passed away," Canadiens forward Brandon Prust tweeted Tuesday night. "Honored to say I wore the same colors as the man."
Canadiens fans will have an opportunity to pay their respects to Beliveau before his funeral.