When Rejean Houle walked into the Montreal Canadiens dressing room for the first time for training camp in 1969, he didn’t do so as just another long shot prospect. After all, he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and a 50-goal scorer who had just come off leading the Montreal Jr. Canadiens to the Memorial Cup. He had every right to have a little swagger in his step.
But he was scared to death. And one of the reasons was the focal point of the room, the Canadiens captain Jean Beliveau. Houle had grown up worshipping Beliveau as most young Quebec players did and wondered how he would ever be able to share a dressing room with such a giant of the game.
“This was a guy I watched lifting the Stanley Cup year after year watching hockey on TV,” Houle said. “And getting in front of that man in the room was very intimidating. For me, I didn’t know what to call him. I didn’t want to call him Jean, so I called him Mr. Beliveau. It took me a little while to get used to that, but he always tried to make us feel comfortable.”
As the tributes for Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau poured in Wednesday, there was one title those paying tribute gave to Beliveau that had a very common thread.
How many athletes, dead or alive, do people refer to with that kind of respect? In his official statement from the NHL, commissioner Gary Bettman used it. Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre referred to him as ‘Mr. Beliveau,’ and Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said, “Respect is a word that comes right away when you talk about Mr. Beliveau.”
Former Canadiens star Mats Naslund can certainly relate. When Naslund played for the Canadiens in the 1980s, Beliveau was never far away. His picture was in the ring of honor the Canadiens had in the Montreal Forum dressing room and most days he could be found working in his office in the arena.
“One thing I remember is he was never complaining about the way the game was being played like a lot of old players do,” Naslund said. “Like I do now. When you play in Montreal, you really get to know the history of the Canadiens and you respect all the players more in Montreal, I think, than any other team. And Mr. Beliveau was one of the most respected. I always called him Mister.”
There is no brand that is more respected and has more class in the NHL – and is right up there in the sporting world as a whole – than the Canadiens. When they put together a ceremony or tribute, there is absolutely nothing rinky-dink or corny about it. Everything is done first-class and with dignity and integrity. And nobody, nobody in the history of this franchise embodied that sense of dignity and class more than Beliveau. Both as a player and an executive, he carried himself with a sense of elan and had the uncanny ability to make everyone from teammates to opponents to fans feel important.
He was well read in both languages, had a keen sense of the game as it evolved and rarely had a negative word to say about anyone or anything. His words and actions carried weight. It would not be a stretch to suggest that Beliveau was the most respected player to ever play the game. Part of that is because he had such an unwavering moral compass. While many stars play well beyond their shelf lives, Beliveau retired in 1971 at the age of 40, despite the fact he had led the Canadiens in scoring in the regular season and scored 22 points in the playoffs. And while veterans in the NHL at the time were chasing the money in the World Hockey Association, the same loyalty that prompted him to make the Canadiens wait for him in the 1950s kept him with the organization two decades later.
Dickie Moore, who played much of his career with the Canadiens along with Beliveau, remembered Beliveau being “a class act from Day 1” of his career in Montreal. Moore said Beliveau represented the perfect segue from the passion and fire of Maurice Richard as captain. Beliveau could certainly take care of himself, as evidenced by the fact that he had 143 penalty minutes in his first Hart Trophy season in 1955-56, which was third only to Lou Fontinato of the New York Rangers and Ted Lindsay of the Detroit Red Wings. But even then, people spoke of what a gentleman he was.
“Rocket was No. 1 at the time and then Jean came along and when Rocket left, Jean replaced him,” Moore said. “In a different manner, you know? They were different types of players. When Jean Beliveau was on the ice, you always knew you were going to get the puck. He carried that puck and he wasn’t selfish with it. He passed it more than anyone else.”
Moore, who said he last saw Beliveau a month ago, had been preparing for the worst, but was heartbroken by the news nonetheless. He said Beliveau had lost about 50 pounds from his 205-pound frame in the last months of his life, but kept up a fighting spirit, much the way 86-year-old Gordie Howe continues to battle through advanced dementia and several strokes.
“That man put up a battle like nobody else would,” Moore said. “And he never complained. When I found out about it this morning, I couldn’t even talk to the first person who called because I felt so terrible.”
Much of the hockey world has been united in that feeling today, including opponents. Former Detroit Red Wing and Toronto Maple Leaf Red Kelly remembered Beliveau giving him a concussion in a game in the early 1960s in Montreal when Kelly chipped the puck past Beliveau, then was pushed from behind into the boards by Beliveau. But he never blamed Beliveau, instead saying it was because he was so tired. Also a Member of Parliament at the time, Kelly was running late with government business in Ottawa that day and arrived at the game in Montreal just before it began. Because of that, he wasn’t focused when he was on the ice and put himself in a vulnerable position.
As a player, Kelly said he could see a special player from the time the Red Wings would go to Quebec to play exhibition games against the Quebec Aces senior team. He said Aces coach Punch Imlach, who later coached the Toronto Maple Leafs to four Stanley Cups, would have an Aces forward skate behind Beliveau on every rush up the ice to force Beliveau to increase his speed through the neutral zone.
“He was such a smart player with the puck and he had that long reach,” Kelly said. “He could reach just a little further than most players. He could shoot and stickhandle and was one of the smartest players I played against.”
Beliveau’s reach, both on and off the ice, was enormous. One thing Houle said many people don’t realize about Beliveau is how active and passionate he was about the Canadiens charitable efforts. Houle said rather than simply be content filling a figurehead role, Beliveau was renowned for getting his boots on the ground when it came to helping with charitable efforts.
“He was by far the guy I saw most going around to help people,” said Houle, the former Canadiens GM who is now an ambassador for the team. “He spent all kinds of time off the ice working with volunteers and helping people who needed it. And with the players, he was always there to listen to the guys when we needed help or needed to get things for the team. He was always there to represent us and he did it with a lot of pride.”
The Canadiens announced Wednesday that Beliveau will lie in state at the Bell Centre Sunday (Dec. 7) and Monday (Dec. 8), where fans can pay their respects from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. His funeral will be held in Montreal next Wednesday.