Jean Beliveau 'has no equal'
Jean Beliveau stands next to a portrait of himself in his playing days. (QMI Agency photo)
The words have been repeated so often the past 24 hours: Dignity. Class. Elegant. Regal. Grace. Nobility.
All of them about Jean Beliveau.
He was the most impressive and most important Canadian athlete of our time. A champion. A captain. A caring, kind man. A leader. A person of integrity. A hockey player turned philanthropist, who could create his own time on the ice, make so much of it for so many off it.
Now gone at the age of 83, having survived cancer, a stroke, heart problems and pneumonia, with his name on the Stanley Cup 17 times. There are so many Jean Beliveau stories we could fill this newspaper and others with them.
Here are just a few, some personal, some firsts, a unique look back at a difference-maker in sport and in life.
The on-ice Stanley Cup celebration that has become so common over time, was unintentionally invented by Beliveau.
It happened in Chicago in 1971, Beliveau’s final season, when he was presented with the Cup and the moment got the better of him. He took a lap around the ice at Chicago Stadium, carrying the Cup proudly above his head, followed by his excited teammates. The Stadium crowd, at first stunned by his bravado, then began to applaud the Montreal captain.
“I am not merely celebrating the Canadiens triumph,” Beliveau explained later. “I am celebrating the superb game of ice hockey and what it means to all of us.”
The captain’s lap with the Cup is now a staple of Stanley Cup exuberance, the greatest celebration in all of sport.
Beliveau was renowned for being a gentleman and that was how he intended to play in the NHL. It just didn’t turn out exactly as planned.
And hardly anyone tells this side of his story.
In Beliveau’s first two seasons in Montreal, even at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, he was a target of the opposition. Just about everybody took a run at him and he chose not to respond.
But in Year 3, he made a conscious decision to stand up for himself physically. Not only did Beliveau lead the NHL in scoring for the first time, but he ended up with third in penalty minutes with 143. Only Lou Fontinato and Ted Lindsay had more.
Over the next four seasons, the new Beliveau, was outscored by the legendary power forward Gordie Howe 323-322, but it is surprising to see he bested Howe by a whopping 408-269 in penalty minutes.
Once he had established himself as a physical force in the NHL, teams stopped taking runs at him. In the final six seasons of his career, Beliveau averaged just 34 minutes in the box per season.
Before he guided the Maple Leafs to their four Stanley Cups in the 1060s, Punch Imlach coached Beliveau with the Quebec Aces. Not only did he coach him, he recruited him from the Quebec Citadelles of junior hockey to the amateur Quebec Senior League and intended to keep him out of the National Hockey League.
In his book Hockey Is A Battle, Imlach details the part he played to keep Beliveau in Quebec City, where he was being paid $20,000 — more than any player in the NHL — to play amateur hockey and do some promotional work for local companies.
The Montreal Canadiens, however, owned Beliveau’s NHL rights and ended up purchasing the entire Quebec Senior League, a move Imlach fought hard against, turning it from amateur to professional, and very quickly teams in the QSL started folding. The Habs didn’t just purchase the league: To appease QSL teams they quietly offered to play pre-season games in markets like Chicoutimi and Sherbrooke in order to get the deal done.
“I was out-voted,” wrote Imlach. “The league turned pro.” Beliveau went to Montreal. And a Quebec newspaper demanded Imlach be fired because he had let Beliveau get away.
On Oct. 3, 1953, the Montreal Canadiens signed Beliveau to a five-year contract worth a whopping $105,000. Beliveau went on to win five straight Stanley Cups in Montreal between 1956 and 1960 and five more after that.
Imlach went to Toronto as general manager and hired himself to coach the Leafs partway through the 1958-59 season. Over the next 10 seasons, Montreal with Beliveau would win five Stanley Cups, one more than Imlach’s Maple Leafs could muster.
“Montreal and Toronto, that was the league back then. Everything we have now is because of Montreal and Toronto. And because of guys like Jean Beliveau. We’d play each other 14 times a year. It was a lot easier to play with Jean Beliveau than against him.”
Dick Duff understands. He played for both the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs, won six Stanley Cups playing for those teams.
“I got traded to Montreal and (coach) Toe Blake says to me: ‘I’m putting you with Big Jean.’ I thought I didn’t hear him right. Then he said it again. And I’m thinking: ‘I used to play with Davey Keon. Now I’m playing with Beliveau. I must be the luckiest guy alive,’” said Duff.
“So I asked Toe: ‘You got any advice for me?’ He said: ‘Yeah, he’s got a big stride. Don’t go offside.’ And that was it. That’s all he said.
“I had Jean sitting beside me in the dressing room. And I was in awe of him. He was a great classic player, he could do everything. So I asked Jean one day: ‘Is there anything you want me to do, anything I’m not doing?’ He said no. ‘You know what to do.’
In Game 7 of the 1965 Stanley Cup final, Beliveau knew what to do. He scored at the 14-second mark.
“Then I scored about a minute later, then (Yvon) Cournoyer scored. And that was it.,” Duff said. “We beat Chicago for the Cup.
“And who better than Jean Beliveau to be the first Conn Smythe Trophy winner? That was the first year for the trophy. Who better than him to make history?”
When Beliveau arrived in the NHL, a two-minute power play meant two minutes with a man-advantage, even if you happened to score a power-play goal along the way.
The NHL changed its rules, enabling the penalized player to leave the box once a goal is scored. The rule-change came about ostensibly because Beliveau happened to score three goals in 44 man advantage seconds in a game on Nov. 5, 1955. The three goals were scored against Terry Sawchuk.
The next season, the NHL changed its power-play rules by a 5-1 vote. The only team to vote against the move: Montreal.
“Jean Beliveau played on instinct, incredible instinct,” said Duff. “He would control the centre of the ice and knew how to create space for himself. If you cut and were open, he’d get you the puck.
“He had size, strength, reach. He could really shoot the puck and he was tougher than you might remember. If you got close to him, you got a crosscheck. It was a treat to play with him, a treat to watch him play. And he had time for everybody. No matter who it was. No matter what the situation was.
“He was one of the guys, but quiet. If we went out, he came out. It was always as a group. If we had a little extra (to drink), he’d say we have to do a little extra tomorrow. It was always about the team with him. That was all that mattered.
“Montreal was different than the rest of the teams, still are. They understood they owed people something. They didn’t take their fans for granted. They were always giving back. Nobody understood that better than Jean. It was his pleasure, it was always his pleasure to do something for somebody.
“He was a statesman for us. If there was someone to meet, he met them. If the prime minister came into our room, it was Jean who spoke to him. He could handle any situation. He could have been governor-general and turned that down. I think he would have been perfect for that job.”
Beliveau didn’t always wear the No. 4 for the Canadiens but it’s the number he is known for. When first called up to replace the injured Dickie Moore on an amateur tryout contract, he wore the No. 12 and was paid $100 a game. On Dec. 18, 1952, he scored the first hat trick of his career.
“No. 4 is the number in hockey for me,” said Duff. “I think 4-4-4. Beliveau. Bobby Orr. Red Kelly. How do you beat that?”
Beliveau was awarded everything you could be awarded. Stanley Cups. Order of Canada. Hall of Fame. Conn Smythe Trophy. Hart Trophy. Art Ross Trophy. He retired from playing in 1971 and was a fixture at Montreal games the next 43 years.
“I never heard a derogatory comment about Jean Beliveau,” said Blake, quoted in the book, The Montreal Canadiens, A Hockey Dynasty. “As a hockey player and a gentleman, Jean Beliveau is unbeatable. He has no equal.”