From my blue plastic seat, closer to the better-than-real-life action on the massive screen hanging from the Bell Centre's rafters than to the real-life game on the blue-tinted ice far below, I can see him. From here, he's a dressmaker's pin; silver-suited and white-tipped, straight and sharp. I know it's him because he sits in the third row behind the bench, and he's as consistent as a heartbeat. I think about making an intermission pilgrimage to spend a moment in his presence, just so I can say I was this close to greatness. As the thought crosses my mind, the big screen intercepts it and there he is: Jean Beliveau in glorious HD, nodding graciously in acknowledgement of the warm applause that swells to fill the building. I see other pilgrims climbing the steps to pay homage, scraps of paper ready to collect his carefully-drawn signature. He patiently signs them all, and shakes every extended hand. What a nice man, I think. Even after all this time he's still committed to these people who stand in awe of him. That's class.
I think about that. "Class" is a term so easily overused, its meaning is just as easily lost. Very often, it's what we say when a rich man who plays a boy's game for a living shows basic human kindness to another. Or when a man who plays that game better than any of us ever could shares some of the spoils he earns. I wonder why an athlete who donates to charity is "classy," while a retired teacher who does the same thing is unremarkable? Why, when my dad stops to help a stranded woman change her flat tire, nobody knows about it, but when the Capitals' Brooks Laich does it, it makes headlines all over North America? Maybe it's because these guys play the game so much better than we can, we treat them with a godlike deference. When they lower themselves to be just like the rest of us and do something good or kind, we're grateful and they're "classy."
Class is more than that, though. It's something tougher to label than a simple act of decency or generosity. Class isn't just making the grand gesture. It's doing the little things, and even more important, thinking to do them. A nice man visits the hospital and distributes team memorabilia on schedule. A classy one remembers a child's name afterwards, and mentions it when he's interviewed on Hockey Night In Canada.
The Canadiens have always been labelled a "classy" organization because they've done the little things right. When a star player retired before his contract ran out, the Habs would pay him his remaining salary anyway. When a guy like Steve Shutt wasn't playing well anymore, the Habs let him choose the team to which he'd be traded. Then, when he wanted to retire a Hab two years later, they traded for his rights. When other teams forgot their alumni, the Canadiens honoured theirs. When a guy like Doug Harvey was down on his luck, the Habs offered him a job. Of course, they haven't always done the classy thing, but they've done it often enough that they became known for it.
As time has passed, though, the Canadiens have become more like everybody else. It's obvious in the arena. The sound system, big screen and gimmicks that fill every lull in play are no different from those in any other NHL rink. There's no soul in the Bell Centre because it's no longer the home of a hockey dynasty. It's the storefront of a business operation, and when business is of the greatest importance, class is the first thing to go.
Once, they might have offered Saku Koivu another role within the organization rather than just unceremoniously cut him loose. They would have said their captain at least deserved a choice about whether to stay, even if it wasn't on the ice. When a player like Hal Gill missed the team flight with an injury during a gruelling playoff, the Canadiens could have paid for private transportation for him, instead of forcing him to take an all-day commercial flight on a small plane while he bore a leg full of stitches. When a team icon like Larry Robinson called about a job, the classy Canadiens would have made it a priority to show him some courtesy and phone him back.
The Canadiens want to be the team they used to be. Management wants to be seen as extraordinary, but they can't do it while they're acting in a very ordinary way. If "class" is doing the little things right and treating people with respect, the Canadiens aren't very classy anymore.
Jean Beliveau is the last link to that world in which the Canadiens were the class of the NHL. He's a classy man because he always makes an extra effort to show respect and kindness, even when he doesn't feel like it. He thinks about other people. Watching him graciously shake hands with fans around him at the Bell Centre, I can see it. He is the Canadiens, as they used to be. When he no longer sits three rows behind the bench, nobody will remember the Habs were once synonymous with "class." I feel sad.