MONTREAL – Jean Beliveau still remembers the excitement of listening to the Montreal Canadiens on the radio nearly 70 years ago.
But little could he have known back then how he would become so closely associated with the hockey team – as a player, as an administrator and then as an ambassador.
“My first memory has to be listening to hockey on the radio in the ’40s,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press. “I go back pretty far.
“I was born in 1931, so I was 10 years old in 1941. I remember it all so well. I would listen to the games with my father and my brothers. Back then, we had this massive radio that had 12 or 13 lamps inside it. We never missed hockey on a Saturday night.
“I also remember Maurice (Richard) getting 50 goals in 50 games in 1945.”
Beliveau lived through many glory years en route to his 10 Stanley Cups, including five in a row between 1956 and 1960 on possibly the greatest team ever.
As the Canadiens get ready to celebrate their official centenary this Friday, Beliveau has some mixed feelings as to which team over the 100 years stands atop the pantheon.
“I thought for a long time that the 1957-58 team was the best,” he said. “We had Jacques Plante in nets, Doug Harvey and everyone (Tom Johnson, Dollard St-Laurent, Jean-Guy Talbot, Albert Langlois and Bob Turner) on defence, while in attack there was the line of Maurice, Dickie (Moore) and Henri (Richard). I was playing with (Bert) Olmstead and (Bernie) Geoffrion.
“Plus, we had a defensive line that scored goals.
“But I have to admit the Canadiens had some great teams in the ’70s, with (Ken) Dryden, the Big Three on defence (Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe) and Guy (Lafleur). One season (1976-77), they lost only eight games.”
Beliveau’s illustrious career also saw him win the Hart Trophy twice and become the first winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy.
He retired in 1971 with 507 goals and 1,219 points.
One of his greatest honours, he said, was being voted captain by his teammates in 1961.
“I wasn’t even assistant captain before that and other players had more seniority than I did,” he said.
“I couldn’t believe it when Toe Blake came out of the room, came over to shake my hand and told everyone I was their new captain. It was an incredible honour. I wasn’t expecting it.
“I just got up and thanked them for having confidence in me.”
But Beliveau doesn’t just live in the past. He rarely misses a game at the Bell Centre and says he likes today’s brand of hockey.
“The players are fast and so big. In my day, there was only Elmer Vasko.
“And I like the way the new rules are applied. Getting rid of the red line to allow long passes is a good thing. I’ve even come to appreciate shootouts. They create so much enthusiasm in the arena.
“But I do have one fear. I’m scared that one day someone is going to be hurt really badly after being hammered from behind into the boards. The league has to do something soon.”
Beliveau says he is very happy he can take part in the centenary celebrations and to share the experience with his wife Elise, his daughter Helene and his grandchildren, Mylene and Magalie.