Jean Beliveau has fond memories of taking part in the various NHL all-star game formats that spanned his Hall of Fame career with the Montreal Canadiens.
“I remember in ’64 playing with Gordie Howe on right and Bobby Hull on left,” Beliveau said. “I really enjoyed that.”
He was hardly alone.
Fresh from winning their third straight Stanley Cup in the spring, Toronto hosted the 1964 all-star game with the Maple Leafs facing a team composed of all-stars from the five other teams of the day.
The legendary line led the all-stars to a 3-2 win at Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 10, back when the showcase event preceded the opening of the regular season.
“Things were a little different,” Beliveau said. “The winner of the Stanley Cup played the all-stars of the league, but there were only six teams. There’s no doubt that the scenario and the formula at that time to me, as I watch today, was a little more tense than what it is today.”
Beliveau and fellow Canadiens legends Guy Lafleur, Henri Richard, Dickie Moore, Yvan Cournoyer and Serge Savard were all on hand for Sunday’s 57th NHL all-star game at the Bell Centre.
Beliveau, Richard and Moore were all members of the Canadiens team that won a record five straight Cups from 1956-60 and all three took part in their share of all-star games on behalf of the defending Stanley Cup champions.
“It’s exciting today like it was in our day but I think it was a little more exciting in our day because you had a little bit more of a challenge,” Moore said.
Beliveau signed a landmark, five-year, $100,000 contract with the Canadiens on Oct. 3, 1953. Joining the team for good after a few brief trials, Beliveau made his full-time debut with the Canadiens in the NHL’s seventh all-star game that evening, the first hosted by Montreal.
He made his final all-star appearance in the 1969 game at the Montreal Forum, when the newly expanded league changed the game’s format to a contest between all-stars from the six teams in each of the East and West Divisions.
Lafleur played the 1975 game in Montreal and Savard, who played in five all-star games, was the Canadiens’ GM when the Forum hosted the 1993 game.
With the Canadiens celebrating their 100th season, it was a natural for this year’s game to be played in Montreal leading up to the anniversary of the franchise’s founding on Dec. 4, 2009.
“There are not too many companies who celebrate a 100th anniversary, so for a sports organization there’s no doubt that it’s a great feat,” Beliveau said.
Lafleur was asked to comment on Tampa Bay centre Vincent Lecavalier’s assertion this weekend that hockey is a form of religion in Montreal.
“Well, it is,” Lafleur said. “We have great fans and we saw a great example (Saturday) morning with the practice. It’s a tough town to beat fan-wise. People are waiting for the Stanley Cup here and hoping that it’s going to be this year, with the 100th year anniversary.
“The challenge is there and it’s going to be tough, but you never know.”