One of the NHL’s all-time greats, Jean Béliveau, passed away today at 83. Over the course of his career, Béliveau won 10 Stanley Cups and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972, the year after he retired, with the Hall waiving the three-year waiting period.
In the days when the highest compliment in hockey was to say someone had “class,” no one had more class than the majestic Jean Béliveau. With his death Tuesday at age 83, hockey has lost not only one of its greatest all-time players, but perhaps its greatest-ever team leader and public ambassador.
The Canadiens announced the sad news of Beliveau’s passing via their Twitter account.
It is with a great deal of sadness that the Canadiens organization learned tonight the passing of Jean Béliveau. He was 83 years old.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) December 3, 2014
Béliveau was, quite simply, the top center of the Original Six era, the archetypical big man in the middle NHL teams have sought ever since. His accomplishments reveal why: 10 Stanley Cups, five as captain – the most by any captain in league history; two Hart trophies and seven other times finishing among the top four in voting; the first Conn Smythe Trophy winner; 507 goals and 712 assists in 1,125 games, his 1219 points the Habs’ record until Guy Lafleur passed him; selected 10 times as a post-season All-Star (including six first-team selections), seven of them in consecutive seasons between 1955 and 1961, and the final one in 1968 at age 38; 176 points in 162 playoff games, which was the most in Cup history when he retired in 1971.
The Canadiens soon hoisted his Number 4 to the rafters of the Montreal Forum just months after he played his final game and the Hall of Fame waived its mandatory three-year waiting period, inducting Béliveau in ‘72.
He succeeded despite constantly matching up against other Hall of Fame centers during the most star-saturated period in pro hockey history, men like Dave Keon, George Armstrong, Norm Ullman, Alex Delvecchio and Stan Mikita.
He had treated fans to the striking image of this tall, rangy center with movie star good-looks towering over everyone, smoothly negotiating the ice, fending off checkers, making a perfect pass or driving the enemy net. Blessed with immense natural talent as well as size, he made everything look rather easy, belying the hours of hard work he devoted to his craft.
His first GM in Montreal, Frank Selke, called Béliveau a “perfectionist and “probably the classiest hockey player I’ve ever seen. He has a flair for giving you his hockey as a master showman. He is a perfect coach’s hockey player because he studies and learns. He’s moving and planning all the time, thinking out the play required for each situation.”
In its 1997 listing of the Top 100 players of all-time, The Hockey News ranked Béliveau as seventh, behind only Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe, Maurice Richard and Doug Harvey – and many who saw him would argue for Béliveau’s place in the Top Five. Legendary Montreal Gazette writer Red Fisher, for one, picked him ahead of Richard and Harvey as the greatest Canadien of all.
As if that weren’t enough, Béliveau was a singular man of unsurpassed integrity and dignity. His regal bearing, resonant voice and suave demeanor made him one of the game’s most instantly recognizable personalities. Even his most fierce rivals revered him, rugged men like Detroit’s Howe and Ted Lindsay, against whom Béliveau went to war during his outstanding 18 NHL seasons for Montreal. They never stopped praising their old foe.
That unparalleled respect extended universally.
“Not once have I heard even an opposing executive, fan or player say anything about him other than laudatory. Even when he breaks their hearts they unite in praise,” illustrious journalist Andy O’Brien wrote in the late ‘60s, adding that – unlike Howe and Rocket Richard — Béliveau was the only superstar he’d ever seen in decades of watching hockey to skate above criticism.
“Off the ice, his handsome features atop an erect six-foot-three, 205-pound frame encased in flawlessly tailored clothes, reflect quiet dignity,” O’Brien continued. “His bilingual remarks before frequent microphones are invariably in good taste and a credit to professional hockey.”
If his longtime teammate Richard was the idol of the people and carried the torch for French Canada as its most passionate on-ice warrior, Béliveau was Quebec’s supreme diplomat of hockey to the world — and a close second in fans’ affections to the Rocket. Even in recent years, while in declining health, Béliveau continued to receive tons of fan mail at his Montreal home and his appearances at the Bell Centre still occasioned huge ovations.
Nicknamed “Le Gros Bill” (after a Quebec folk hero, the subject a 1949 French language feature film) and “Gentleman Jean,” (even though he could pile up penalty minutes, especially early in his career), he spent a lifetime in the spotlight. Long before Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby, Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux, Gretzky, Lafleur or even Orr, Béliveau was hockey’s first postwar teenaged sensation. In 1946 at age 15, he was wooed by pro scouts while playing high school and intermediate hockey in his hometown, Victoriaville. From there, he tore up the Quebec Junior league and the Canadiens got him to sign a B-Form, meaning he’d turn pro only with them.
But the fan adulation accorded him in Quebec City caused him to stay there. He signed with the Quebec Aces, who were classified as an amateur team even though players were paid. Béliveau, in fact, earned $20, 000 his final year with the Aces, more than either Richard or Howe was making in the NHL. He filled the Quebec Senior League rinks, including le Colisée, the city’s new arena which was known as “The House that Béliveau Built.”
Eventually, the Habs purchased that entire league, intending to turn it pro just to get Béliveau’s services. He had planned on joining them anyway and he burst onto the NHL scene for good in 1953. He began his string of All-Star campaigns the next season, and by his third year was the NHL’s most valuable player.
A core member of the Canadiens’ late-50s dynasty of five straight Cup runs, he was the first hockey player to be a Sports Illustrated cover subject. His early feats included scoring three power play goals in 44 seconds in a 1955 game, which led to the rule change that released a player who committed a minor penalty from the box after a goal was scored.
Béliveau was a surprise selection by his teammates to become captain in 1961 but was instantly the right guy for the job. That mid-60s club won four more Cups in five years and featured no fewer than a half dozen other future Hall of Famers, but he managed the dressing room with the same ease he displayed on ice. The great journalist Bert Raymond observed Béliveau needed use only “a word, a touch, a gesture, a look. Sometimes with a great hockey player who has that type of impact – a true captain – a look is enough to get the message across.”
He’d even provide encouragement to the enemy. Once, when star winger Frank Mahovlich was under fire from the Toronto brass and fans, Béliveau told him during a stoppage in play that the Big M would fit in beautifully in Montreal. He was right: A few years later, in 1971, they actually became teammates, linemates and Cup winners for Béliveau’s final season. Mahovlich even assisted on Béliveau’s 500th goal.
His playing career done, Béliveau joined the Habs front office and established a charitable foundation. From then on, he was a frequent and eloquent spokesman for the club and the sport. When the Nordiques entered the WHA in 1972, they offered him a staggering million dollars to play one season and join their organization afterward. Maintaining he could no longer play at an acceptable level, he said no, feeling he would be stealing money and disappoint his fans.
He received countless awards, including the Order of Canada, the country’s highest honor, and his personal diplomatic skills were so highly regarded that in 1994, after he retired from his job with the Habs, he was asked by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to become Canada’s Governor-General. He declined for family reasons, choosing instead to help his widowed daughter raise her two young children. He called it “one of his most difficult decisions.”
He rarely, if ever, failed to please the public, however, a trait honed by facing the omnipresent pressure of playing for the Canadiens. “It made me a better player,” he said. “I was forced to perform night after night. I was, for better or worse, a star—and stars, especially those identified as goal scorers, must live with the constant scrutiny of their offensive statistics….The expectations of others will force you to improve, to perform at a higher level. In Montreal, winning is not only expected, it’s demanded.”
Jean Béliveau always met – and exceeded – the demands with class.