With a great subject come rewards

Seeing Madame Beliveau as the Hockey Night in Canada camera found her watching the Montreal Canadiens beat the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday, I was reminded of something her late husband never knew he did. In his lifetime of class and caring, Jean Beliveau helped many people, including me.

He never knew, because I never told him.

Compared to the thousands of underprivileged and ailing children he continues to impact posthumously through his foundation, what he did for me, and my family, was minor. This was a grain of sand on the beach. And while it was more circumstantial than benevolent, it was always appreciated and always remembered.

Here’s what happened:

As a newly arrived sports writer at the Montreal Star, I was despatched to write a feature on the Canadiens’ retired captain, who’d hung up his skates two years earlier. It was full-page spread on an innovative Saturday section called Sports Digest.

Early the following week, a hockey writer from Sports Illustrated, Mark Mulvoy, was at a Canadiens practice.

“How long did it take you to write that piece?” he asked me.

I have to be honest…now. Writing it took me about 90 minutes, as I recall, but I didn’t want to minimize how quickly I polished it off, especially to a Sports Illustrated writer when I didn’t know why he was asking.

“Oh,” I replied, “about three hours.”

I was happy enough with the Beliveau story mainly because he made it that way with his candid, courteous and complete responses to my questions.

Mulvoy went back to New York, evidently singing the praises of this unknown sports writer to his bosses, and convinced them to explore hiring me. They flew my wife and me to the Big Apple, interviewed the prospective employee and sent us to our first Broadway play (Lost In Yonkers). We dined at the home of the Mulvoys, then returned to Montreal. The message from SI was: “We’ll get back to you.”

We were so convinced New York was our next home that we didn’t even buy green bananas — for nine months. The word came back that SI wasn’t hiring anybody, but don’t go away. So I didn’t. Instead, I wound up as the magazine’s Montreal baseball correspondent and sometimes researcher, and wrote three Baseball This Week features, none of which was impressive enough to send the editors rushing to the phone with an offer (that’s how offers were made in those days).

For more than half of every year for the next decade, I was freelancing for Sports Illustrated. There were no more wines-and-dines, nor Broadway plays, only a 10-year relationship from which I, and my family, benefitted financially and professionally. The kids — who watched their dad work long hours over a typewriter (like phone offers, also a relic) for a magazine they never read — were understandably unimpressed. But besides putting pennies (another relic) in the bank account, the connection stayed with me forever and likely helped me in ways I’ll never know.

A sports writer is sometimes only as good as his subject, and Beliveau was one of the best sports subjects. He made my writing job easy — 90 minutes easy — and see what the result was?

Merci, Jean.