Back in 2008, I was working on a book to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens. It was titled Habs Heroes and it chronicled the top 100 players, in order, to ever play for the team.
Our list was culled from the input of two expert panels – one in Toronto and the other in Montreal. As I met with both, I gently tried to nudge them toward my point of view that Jean Beliveau, and not Maurice (Rocket) Richard, was in fact the player who deserved to be ranked No. 1 of all-time amongst Montreal Canadiens. In the end, the majority sided with Richard, with Beliveau finishing a close second.
Perhaps Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden put it best when he compared the two Canadiens icons this way: “The two greatest figures of the Canadiens in the past 60 years are The Rocket and Jean Beliveau. One of them evokes love, the other evokes admiration.”
If Rocket Richard ignited the passion of the people of Quebec on and off the ice, then Jean Beliveau, who died Tuesday night at the age of 83 after a long illness, kept the embers of that passion glowing brightly through an 18-year playing career and another in the front office. He remains one of the most respected players ever to play the game and he had such a regal presence that he was once offered Governor-General’s post in Canada, a job he turned down to be close to his family after the suicide of his son-in-law.
Beliveau, it should be noted, never had a problem saying no if it were for the right reasons. In fact, I contend that if Beliveau had not been a man of such high principle, he would usurp Rocket Richard in the minds of more people than a young man from Sudbury who idolized him and got to stay up late to watch him score his 500th career goal in 1971.
Consider that the Canadiens wanted Beliveau from the time he was 18 years old. Had he joined them then, he would have been in the lineup from the 1949-50 season. Instead, Beliveau played junior hockey for the Quebec Citadelles for two years. Then, feeling a sense of obligation to the fans who had treated him so well, he spent two more seasons with the Quebec Aces senior team. That took him to 1952-53, a season where he would have won his first Stanley Cup had he played for the Canadiens.
Now consider that Beliveau retired after the 1970-71 season, immediately after winning his 10th Stanley Cup as a player. The only thing was that Beliveau left the game with so much still to give. He was 40 years old, but he had scored 76 points in 70 games his last season, one of the highest final-season totals in NHL history. He certainly could have played a couple more seasons with the Canadiens and could have been a part of the team that won the Cup again in 1972-73.
Unlike Richard, whose play declined badly at the end of his career, Beliveau was showing no signs of deterioration, yet left the game because he thought he could no longer contribute at the level he had in the past. The Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association didn’t think so. They offered him a four-year deal worth $1 million, telling him he could retire after one season and earn the rest of the contract in the front office, but he turned them down. That four-year contract represented more money than Beliveau had made combined in his 18 years with the Canadiens, but he flatly rejected the offer.
Beliveau stands third in franchise history in goals with 507, which is 37 behind Richard and 11 behind Guy Lafleur. He’s second in career points with 1,219, 27 behind Lafleur and fourth in games played with 1,125, 131 behind Henri Richard. His 10 Stanley Cups as a player is one behind Henri Richard for the most in both league and franchise history. But if you add, say, two years onto the beginning of his career and two years at the end, Beliveau ends up as the leader in all those categories by a significant margin.
“Numbers to me are very secondary,” Beliveau once told me, “compared to when people are honest with me. I have a very hard time to split with someone who has been good to me.”
On the day of his death, many in the hockey world are saying the same thing about the man who, like Richard, meant so much more to people than simply being an outstanding hockey player. Beliveau was as graceful off the ice as on and commanded respect simply by living by the golden rule. He was respected by fans and players alike. During the 1971 playoffs, Henri Richard was berating coach Al MacNeil to a reporter after a game and Beliveau gently grabbed his arm and Richard stopped talking. When Canadiens fans were booing the U.S. national anthem to protest the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Beliveau made a public plea for respect and the booing stopped instantly.
Thousands lined the streets of Montreal for Rocket Richard’s state funeral in 2000, two days after an estimated 115,000 filed past his casket at the Bell Centre to pay their respects. The Quebec legislature was closed for the day and government buildings flew their flags at half-mast. Only one other player in Canadiens history, Howie Morenz, has had his body on display at the Canadiens home rink.
Jean Beliveau should be the third.