There aren't many sportsmen I actually idolized growing up, making judgements about character at an age when we're supposed to be too young to do that. Especially in the days before 'role model' had entered our vocabulary. One of the few was Jean Beliveau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, a man who brought a level of grace and elegance to the speed and violence of hockey which I hadn't imagined possible before.
My dad was a hockey player, and as a youngster I probably loved the game more than he did. I got him to take me to see the New Haven Blades of the old Eastern League; his high-school team had practiced on the ice at the New Haven Arena, sometimes with the low-level pros in attendance. I watched the New York Rangers, the most southerly of the National Hockey League's six teams, on local TV from New York, and it was watching the Canadiens give a lesson in hockey to the Rangers, with Professor Beliveau the primary instructor, that made me a Montreal fan.
In fact, Jean Beliveau changed my life. Because I became a Canadiens fan, I wanted to live in Montreal, and eventually moved there in 1975. I met my first wife, who forced me to choose between Montreal and her, or more specifically her desire to return to England. I chose her. Were it not for Jean Beliveau, I'd likely still be living in Montreal. Or at least Connecticut.
That team I first saw included Maurice 'Rocket' Richard, Bernie 'Boum Boum' Geoffrion, the defenseman Doug Harvey, with all of Beliveau's control but somewhat less elegance, and goaltender Jacques Plante. We thought of French-Canadians as volatile, and Richard, Geoffrion, and Plante certainly reinforced that image (not long after this, Canadiens' coach Toe Blake would grow exasperated with Plante and trade him to the Rangers for Gump Worsley). Look at the pictures: Richard's fire and Beliveau's ice; Beliveau looks like a smooth white collar criminal and Richard his hit man. Beliveau was anything but volatile; he was usually the biggest man on the ice, but he skated effortlessly (like my dad), while controlling his stick and the puck the way only much smaller skaters were expected to--and players with such skills were often thought soft (the Blades' Raymond Carpentier was called 'FiFi' by the harsh fans at the Arena). Beliveau was anything but soft, without being aggressive. He seemed to absorb checks, and punish the aggressor by beating him with a goal. They played without helmets, and you rarely saw strain on Beliveau's face. As Charles Pierce pointed out today, 'Jean Beliveau actually is everything people in
New York thought Joe DiMaggio was'.
I didn't know at the time what a legend Beliveau already was in Quebec. He'd starred in junior hockey in Victoriaville and then for the Quebec City Citadelle. He got a two game tryout with the Canadiens, but rather than sign he moved to the Quebec Senior League, to play for the Aces, in what was nominally an amateur league. Quebec City built a new Le Colisee to accommodate the crowds, and Beliveau earned $20,000 a year, more than Richard or Gordie Howe got in the NHL. After a 50 goal second season in Quebec,he had another three game trial with the Canadiens, scoring five goals. Montreal GM Frank Selke was so frustrated he bought the entire QSHL, so he would be able to get Beliveau to Montreal. In his third season the Canadiens began a run of five straight Stanley Cups between 1956-60. In '61 Beliveau became captain after Richard's retirement, and a fallow period began, but with new GM Sam Pollock retooling they won another five Cups in the seven years between 1964-71. That gave him ten as a player; only Henri Richard, with 11, has more.
The 1971 Cup was the greatest. Beliveau, 39, had been persuaded by Pollack to play one last season. He responded by going over the 500 goal mark for his career, finishing as the team's leading scorer. The Habs finished third in their division, but late in the season the arrival of rookie goalie Ken Dryden propelled them past the Big Bad Bruins in the playoffs, with Dryden repeatedly robbing Phil Esposito, and then past the Chicago Black Hawks in the final. I had found a fellow Canadiens' fan on campus at Wesleyan, Rob Ingraham, and following the games in whatever ways we could cemented my devotion.
Beliveau retired, his place taken by Guy LaFleur, the latest junior sensation centre out of Quebec City. Again, getting LaFleur wasn't straightforward. There was now a draft of amateur players. Pollock held the first draft pick of the California Golden Seals. He traded Ralph Backstrom to the Kings to help them finish ahead of the Seals, insuring the pick would be first overall. LaFleur couldn't become another Beliveau, sadly, but he eventually moved to right wing, where he became another of the all-time greats.
Under Coach Scotty Bowman, the LaFleur-led Canadiens would win five more cups, in 1973 (I came home early from Europe just to watch those finals) and four years in a row from 1976-79. They played hockey the way Canadiens teams were supposed to play, skating past Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies the same way Beliveau had skated past thugs before them. On New Year's Eve 1975 I watched on television as they played one of the greatest games of hockey I've ever seen, maybe the greatest, a 3-3 tie with the Central Red Army Sports Club (CSKA Moscow). It was New Year's Eve and maybe that's why my English girlfriend wanted to get out Montreal toute suite.
After he retired, Beliveau got his name on seven more Stanley Cup Trophies, as an executive with the Canadiens. That's 17 in all, which no one can match. The NHL is unrecognizable from the days of the 'original' six, who aren't original at all. Hockey has changed just as much. The league has players from all over the world, the teams stretch from Tampa to Los Angeles to Nashville to Columbus Ohio. The change didn't affect the way Jean Beliveau represented the Canadiens, hockey, Montreal, Quebec, and Canada all his life. He founded a charity, was offered the position of Governor General of Canada by Prime Minister Jean Chretien, saw his face on a Canadian postage stamp. When the Canadiens celebrated their centennial year, and they brought back their living greats, the biggest applause was reserved for Beliveau, as well as the most touching introduction, from 'Mr. Hockey', Gordie Howe, already showing signs of decline but insisting on presenting his old rival himself. When Beliveau retired, he stood second on the NHL's all-time scoring lists, second only to Howe.
By strange synchronicity, I wrote Howe's obit for a paper last week; he had looked about to die after suffering a stroke. I couldn't get anyone to take one of Beliveau; Howe was the greater figure in the game's history, and I have heard other people, including my friend Steve Berman, not a hockey fan, speak of meeting in Howe in terms of awe. I'm sure I would too. But he can't occupy that space Beliveau does for me. In a way, it's better I didn't write his obit; it would have been hard work leaving out much of what I've written here.
There's now a statue of Le Gros Bill outside the new Bell Centre, alongside Maurice Richard, Howie Morentz, and Guy LaFleur. The Canadiens could have easily included a dozen more players. I never saw him in the old Forum, not even when I worked there during the '76 Olympics, when I did meet another of those few idols of my childhood, basketball's Bill Russell. I would have loved to see the two of them together. But this way, my image of Jean Beliveau can remain intact from when I watched that first game against the Rangers, somewhere around 1960. And he never gave me any reason to reduce him from the stature of the idol he was to me then.
Not long after I was born, someone put a couple of lines of poetry up by the exit of the Canadiens' locker room. The poem is called 'Flanders Fields', written in English in 1915 by John McCrae, a colonel in the Canadian army. Those lines have reminded players for Les Habitants how important it was, and is, to wear Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. They say:
To you from failing hands we throw the torch,
be yours to hold it high.”
No one ever held it higher than Jean Beliveau.