By Steve Silverman
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Derek Jeter’s shining playing career came to an end this past September, and he was paid tribute to like few others who have played professional sports.
The awards were seemingly for his excellence on the field and overwhelming clutch play since he was a key performer on five world championship teams with the New York Yankees. He is the greatest shortstop in Yankees history and perhaps one of the five greatest Yankees of all-time, along with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle (apologies to Mariano Rivera, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford).
But the tributes he was given were as much for the way he conducted himself off the field as they were for his extraordinary play. Jeter played the role of hero, and did it with class and dignity throughout his playing career.
His name was never associated with a drug scandal, crime, drunken behavior or overall rudeness. If you were looking for an athlete or sports celebrity to point your finger at and say there goes an incredible jerk, Jeter was not your guy.
Now he moves into the next part of his life, away from the sporting spotlight. He will do exceptionally well if he can conduct himself half as well as the late, great Jean Beliveau, who passed away Tuesday night at the age of 83.
Baseball may or may not be the national sport in the United States these days, but hockey has always been the sport that defines our good neighbors in Canada, and it always will be.
The sport is revered in cities like Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver, and their hockey icons have always been larger than life.
There may have been a few that were bigger in the sport than Beliveau, but there has never been a classier athlete in any sport.
Today, you can find many stories that illustrate the superb and selfless manner in which Beliveau lived his life. He retired from the Montreal Canadiens in 1971, but he always remained at the forefront of the sport. He dedicated much of his time and effort to helping others, and he did it with kindness and warmth.
What made Beliveau such a great person was that he conducted himself with dignity and respect in everything he did, yet there was not a trace of arrogance to him. He was hockey royalty, but he refused to fall into the trap of celebrity superiority. Not even a trace, not even once.
His career was one of brilliance for the great Canadiens. He scored 507 goals and finished with 1,219 points during his 20-year run in the NHL. His first full season in the NHL was 1953-54, and from that point forward he was always a brilliant performer.
Consider his final season at the age of 39. He scored 76 points in 70 games, and while the Canadiens were expected to get knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the big, bad Boston Bruins, Beliveau and the Habs not only defeated Boston but went on to win the Stanley Cup.
Beliveau scored six goals and had 16 assists during that championship run, and his last game in the NHL came at venerable Chicago Stadium, where he got to skate around with the Cup for the 10th time as a player.
He was strong, healthy and in good shape, and could have played longer if he wanted. The World Hockey Association’s Quebec Nordiques tried to tempt him out of retirement with a contract that would have paid him more than he made during his entire career with the Canadiens, but he never budged.
He knew the time had come to retire, and he did not let the lucrative offer change his mind.
Beliveau also excelled as a hockey executive with the Canadiens, but it was the combination of his dignity and humility that made him such a standout human being.
The sport of hockey and Canada will miss his greatness.
Even though his playing days are over, there is much left for Jeter to accomplish in his life. If he needs to follow an example of how he should conduct himself going forward, he need only look north at the great Mr. Beliveau.
Follow Steve on Twitter at @ProFootballBoy
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