Jean Béliveau, age 19 in the autumn of 1950, was boarding in the McKennas’ home, living in a small third-floor room while his hockey career flourished with the junior-league Quebec Citadels.
The Gagnons, who attended most of the games, told Béliveau: “Jean, you should come out with us on Wednesday. We have a nice girl we’d like you to meet.”
It was over dinner at Lac Beauport’s Manoir St. Castin that Jean Béliveau would be introduced to Élise Couture, “a pretty, bilingual blond (who) knew absolutely nothing about hockey,” as he brightly recalled in his 1994 autobiography.
In time, Élise’s hair would whiten from blond to snow and her knowledge of hockey would grow dramatically, both by interest and necessity.
A shy young woman also would soon learn that much of her life, and every fibre of her husband’s, was the property of an adoring public.
On Thursday evening, over a quiet dinner with their daughter, Hélène, and granddaughters Mylène and Magalie, the Béliveaus will celebrate their diamond wedding anniversary.
Jean and Élise Béliveau exchanged their marriage vows at St. Patrick’s Church in Quebec City on the morning of June 27, 1953. Three months later, Béliveau would join the Canadiens, finally wooed from the senior semi-pro Quebec Aces to begin an illustrious NHL career that shaped him into one of the finest players of all time and its greatest ambassador.
If hockey was Béliveau’s natural calling, there wasn’t a magnetic pull between this man and woman whose marriage 60 years ago instantly produced hockey’s royal couple — a reign that continues to this day.
“I don’t know …” Béliveau said with a laugh, asked this week about love at first sight of his soulmate. “Maybe I had visions that my life wouldn’t be easy and there would have to be a lot of understanding between us two.
“It turned out,” he said, chuckling again, “that I made the right decision. I think Élise and I have done a pretty good job.”
So was Béliveau instantly the life partner for Élise?
“Not really,” she replied with a laugh. “I didn’t know him at all. I thought he was very nice and all that, but there was nothing there at the beginning. But after that, he started calling and calling and we began to go out.”
It wasn’t long before Élise was attending her beau’s games, getting a close-up look at his star quality.
If Élise’s mother was a hockey fan, she doubted the off-ice sincerity of the men who played the game.
“After two months, I asked my mother what she thought of this young man I was bringing home,” Élise told me in a profile of the couple published on Valentine’s Day five years ago.
“She replied: ‘He’s very nice,’ and I said: ‘Well, I’m glad, because he’s a hockey player.’ I hadn’t dared tell her anything until then.”
(Madame Couture probably was less than thrilled that her daughter lost the family dinner bell, brought to one of Béliveau’s Aces games in Chicoutimi as a noisemaker only to have it stolen by an angry fan of the Saguenéens.)
Neither Béliveau nor Élise precisely remember the details of the Christmas 1952 marriage proposal. What was clear was that Le Gros Bill soon would realize a dream of playing for the Canadiens, and that this would happen a few months after the couple’s June 1953 wedding, the society event of the season.
And so they were married on June 27 by Father Leonard Murphy at St. Patrick’s, the parish of the Couture family.
The newlyweds planned to honeymoon in Florida, but never made it south of Virginia Beach, returning to set up their first Montreal apartment on Abercorn Ave. in Town of Mount Royal.
Their daughter, Hélène, was born during the 1957 playoffs, Béliveau in Boston as the Canadiens steamed toward their second of a record five consecutive Stanley Cups.
The couple have been at each other’s side, in sickness and in health, through more than six decades.
On the occasion of his 81st birthday last August, Béliveau suggested that he’s had “a few too many battles” in recent years.
A grand understatement, of course, given a cardiac issue, a cancerous tumour in his neck requiring 35 chemotherapy treatments, abdominal aneurysm surgery and a couple of strokes — all of this following countless injuries he suffered during his 18-season, 1,125-game, award-winning Canadiens career.
Élise has had health scares of her own; the couple even wear his-and-hers pacemakers. But her laugh is robust and you’d need the proverbial team of wild horses to slow her down.
Ten days ago, the Béliveaus drove to Quebec City to celebrate the 94th birthday of Élise’s sister, Rita, in the shadow of the parish (since rebuilt) where the couple was wed.
Thoughts were expressed to Rita this month about her perhaps downsizing into a retirement home.
“I’ve been trying to put that in her head, but my God, she’s Irish, eh?” Élise said, laughing again. “When it’s no, it’s no. There’s no ‘maybe.’ ”
The couple attended a handful of Canadiens games during this lockout-abbreviated season, bookending two guests in their regular seats three rows behind the Montreal bench.
From my media-gallery seat over centre ice, there’s a pregame sense of “now we can begin” when they take their positions, their matching white hair a beacon even seven storeys above the rink.
Sometimes, it’s easier for Béliveau to watch the action from the comfortable, ice-level Salon des Anciens with old friends and teammates; navigating corridors and a few winding stairs to his seat saps his energy and challenges his balance.
It makes no difference whether he’s in the arena or not, of course. Where the great Maurice (Rocket) Richard was the fire-breathing soul of the 1940s and ’50s Canadiens, Jean Béliveau was and remains the conscience of the club.
On Thursday night, dinner conversation will turn to hockey only if restaurant staff and star-struck diners mention it to him.
And they will.
If hockey has been the centrepiece of Jean and Élise Béliveau’s rich, eventful life together, it’s hardly been their sole focus. A diamond anniversary to be quietly celebrated with family will remind the sport’s royal couple of that.
“I’m going to let the girls decide what I’ll eat,” Béliveau joked of his wife, daughter and granddaughters.
“I’m surrounded by four girls. They’ve never aimed me in the wrong direction and this would be a bad time to start, wouldn’t it?”
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