Jean Beliveau (image courtesy of Stuart Guttman)
Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau was many things to many people – star NHL player, brilliant hockey management member, ambassador for the sport. But to one very fortunate Montreal couple, he was a matchmaker.
By Ryan Cooke Sports editor, Truro Daily News Special To THN
MONTREAL – Stuart Guttman sat up in bed, his newlywed wife lying fast asleep next to him as his eyes fixated on the screen in front of him. His panicked instinct was to wake her up, but he thought better of it moments later. He reached to his other side, picked up his phone and immediately sent an email to his father-in-law.
Jean Beliveau is dead. For Guttman and his wife, Amanda, Jean Beliveau will always be a major part of their relationship. Montreal natives and hockey fans, but both a little too young to remember the days of No. 4, they grew up on stories of his excellence. They heard all about his 17 Stanley Cups, his 500 career goals and all his triumphs wearing the
bleu, blanc et rouge. But to Stuart and Amanda, Jean Beliveau wasn’t just a hockey player. He was a Cupid.
************************************************************************************************************************************** The couple met when they were young adults at a summer camp. Stuart was 23, Amanda 19. “It started off pretty strong – there was something there right away,” Stuart said. “And then we went strong for seven years until I dec-“ “Six years,” Amanda interjects, stopping her husband in his tracks. “Yeah. Six years. I’m really glad Amanda is sitting here,” Stuart laughed. “Six years, and then I decided to take the next step and ask her to marry me.” A traditional man at heart, Stuart set out to get the permission of Amanda’s father, Daniel Ovadia – a vintage Habs fan who grew up a rinkrat at the old Montreal Forum. Throughout six years of conversation, Ovadia had dropped tidbits of Canadiens knowledge on Stuart. Long before he had season seats through his job as a lawyer in the city, Ovadia would buy standing room tickets at the Forum to watch the greats. It was there he witnessed the greatest era of hockey in Montreal’s history. [caption id="attachment_27761" align="alignnone" width="641"]
Stuart and Amanda Guttman.[/caption] “Jean Beliveau was, and in many ways still is, my idol,” Ovadia said. “That’s how I was brought up; with the Montreal Canadiens and Jean Beliveau right at the centre of it.” In passing, he had mentioned to Stuart how he’d never managed to get an autograph from his favorite player, despite the numerous nights spent watching him over the years. That’s when Stuart got an idea. It was a long shot, a real Hail Mary, but it was worth a try. When Stuart was younger, his father organized sports breakfasts for the community. They would get athletes to come as guests, and despite their many invites, Jean Beliveau could never attend. Instead, he’d send letters each time expressing his desire to be there and his apologies for missing out. Stuart reached out to his father’s former contacts and also to an old college friend with ties to the Canadiens clubhouse. Early one morning, his friend got back to him. “Stu, you’re not going to believe this,” he said. “I’m meeting with Jean Beliveau this morning.” Later that day, Stuart spoke to Beliveau over the phone and shared his idea. He wanted his help to ask for Ovadia’s permission to marry his daughter. “He laughed because he’d never been asked to do something quite like that before,” Stuart said. “He actually got a kick out of it.” Immediately obliging, Beliveau pulled out a photo from his pre-NHL days, when he wore a Quebec Aces jersey. He began inscribing the photo with a personal message, twice starting over fresh with a new photo to get the caption correct. With the gift in hand later that day, Stuart wasted no time delivering it to the man he hoped would soon be his father-in-law. [caption id="attachment_27762" align="alignnone" width="644"]
Jean Beliveau signs his old Aces photos.[/caption] “I remember he dropped by my office, which wasn’t unusual,” Ovadia said. “He told me he had a gift for me.” Ovadia opened the present, his eyes gazing over the vintage photo of the young star’s rugged face. A full, dark head of hair was tussled above a forehead dripping with sweat. A battle scar etched the space above an eyebrow that had long since greyed, and a bruise sits on the bridge of a nose between two blackened eyes. Beneath the face of a young Jean Beliveau, Ovadia read the caption.
“Danny, Stu would like your permission to marry Amanda and become your son in law & I think you should say 'yes.' Congratulations.” In total shock, Ovadia collected himself after a moment. He got up from his desk and hugged Stuart, welcoming him to the family. “I mean, what could I really do or say?” Ovadia recalled. “I really didn’t have much of a choice. Jean Beliveau is telling me to say yes!” As an added bonus – or perhaps to cover his tracks – Stuart also handed his father-in-law a picture of Beliveau signing the photo. An anti-counterfeiting lawyer, Ovadia laughs as he recalls being impressed by the gesture. “I know I have the Real McCoy. I know it’s the real thing.” The proposal came amidst a tough time for Beliveau, in and out of hospital with complications following his stroke in February 2012. Stories of his hospitalizations would enthral the media not just in Montreal, but nationwide, as the country waited on pins and needles for good words about one of the game’s best ambassadors. His health had made headlines since the mid-1990’s, when he turned down a chance to be Canada’s Governor General to deal with heart problems, and to care for his daughter and grandchildren following the death of his son-in-law. He was treated for a neck tumour in 2000, and was twice hospitalized for strokes in 2010 and 2012. On Tuesday night, Beliveau
passed away at the age of 83. For him to take the time to show a genuine interest in a young couple was nothing short of astounding, Stuart said. “He didn’t have to do it. That’s the thing. But he really cared about every person in Montreal. He showed interest in everyone. It didn’t matter if it was a child or a big kid like me going after an autograph.” On Tuesday night, Stuart Guttman hit send on an email to his father-in-law, letting him know his boyhood hero had just died. Just hours before, Ovadia had passed the photo around at a dinner party as he told the story to the group. For some, it was their first time hearing the tale. For others, they’d probably heard their friend tell his favourite story dozens of times. It never got old. At home, Stuart still felt the urge to wake Amanda, but decided to sleep on it. He then took a look at a copy of the photo and thought back on the time Jean Beliveau helped change his entire world. “He was so honoured to be a part of such a happy time in our lives. And I was honoured to be able to share my wedding proposal with him.”