Prime Minister Stephen Harper (right) gives Jean Beliveau a prime ministerial puck. (CP PHOTO/Ian Barrett)
The Bell Centre was transformed into a giant dining hall filled with tuxedo-clad hockey stars, politicians past and present and many members of the business community to pay tribute to the 75-year-old Beliveau. About C$1 million was expected to be raised for six children's hospitals and charities.
"It's hard to have the right words to describe it," Beliveau said before the event. "I've been retired from hockey for 35 or 36 years and I'm always amazed to have so many invitations and having nights like this."
Former Detroit Red Wing Gordie Howe, ex-Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Johnny Bower, former New York Ranger Rod Gilbert and former Leafs and Wings star Red Kelly, as well as dozens of former Montreal Canadiens were on hand.
Before the dinner, Harper entered the room where current Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau gives his post-game news conferences and presented Beliveau with what he called a "prime ministerial puck." It was printed on one side with Canada's coat of arms and on the other by the prime minister's signature.
"Yes, it's an autograph of the worst hockey player ever," Harper quipped of the gift. "I say it's a good paper weight.
"One of my predecessors used a golf ball but he found it rolled off the table. So use this."
After Beliveau thanked him, Harper recalled a special Beliveau goal in double overtime in the 1969 playoffs against the Boston Bruins.
"That was the goal that basically won the Cup," said Harper. "He was an aging veteran then and he could still determine the outcome of the final.
"It was the semifinal, but it was the final for all intent and purpose. It was a great memory."
Beliveau retired after the Canadiens won the 1971 Stanley Cup. For 18 seasons, he had been one of the NHL's most dominant players, suiting up for 10 Stanley Cup championship teams.
The tall centre scored 507 goals and had 1,219 points, but was known as much for his natural leadership and gracious personality as for his hockey exploits.
"There is no doubt in my mind that at that time he was the best player in the game," said Serge Savard, a former Canadiens defenceman who also served as the club's general manager.
"I just remember that when he entered a room he had an aura about him,' said former Montreal defence great Larry Robinson, a rookie when Beliveau's playing career was ending. "I always tried to emulate him on and off the ice."
Howe had his feuds with Beliveau's former teammate Maurice (Rocket) Richard, but said he had only respect for Beliveau.
"The only thing I wondered about Big Jean was if he was mean enough to be a hockey player," said Mr. Hockey. "Was there a little toughness in him?
"So I took a little run at him and he just smiled. So I said 'He's OK.' That was the only time. Now I've golfed and fished with him and although we didn't play together, I consider us friends."
After his retirement, Beliveau worked in the Canadiens front office for years, but always had time for charity work, particularly for children's causes.
And he still answers every fan letter he receives, although he said that since someone put his address on the internet, the mail has poured in from around the world. He says he'll soon have to cut back his schedule.
"I'll be 76 this summer," he said. "With those long days, at night I'm a little tired.
"I'm going to have to. On one side I have the doctors telling me I have to slow down and on the other side, it's hard to say no."
Beliveau still attends most Canadiens games with Elise, his wife of 54 years. A cancer survivor himself, Beliveau has a bond with Canadiens captain Saku Koivu, who battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma five years ago.
Koivu and Carbonneau attended the tribute, as did former Canadiens Elmer Lach, Dickie Moore, Henri Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Guy Lafleur, Guy Lapointe, Yvan Cournoyer, Emile (Butch) Bouchard, Tony Esposito, general manager Bob Gainey and others.
Beliveau was the NHL's most valuable player in 1956 and 1964, won a scoring title in 1956 and was the '65 playoff MVP. He was on a dynasty team that won five straight Cups in the 1950s and four in a five-year stretch of the 1960s.