There never was and never will be another hockey player like Jean Beliveau. The 31 years since his retirement have proven that.
Beliveau played on 10 Montreal Canadiens' Stanley-Cup winning teams and captained five of them. He was the greatest captain of the most successful sports franchise in history. At the time of his retirement after the 1970-71 season, Beliveau was the Canadiens' all-time leading scorer and the NHL's all-time leading playoff scorer.
He was the winner of the first Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965 and concluded his career with a Stanley Cup in 1971 when he had 22 points in 20 playoff games at age 40. He was twice named the winner of the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. He led the League in scoring in 1955-56 and was runner-up three times, including once to his linemate, Bernie Geoffrion. He led the NHL in goals twice and assists twice.
Need more proof of Beliveau's greatness? He was a perfectly balanced, muscular natural athlete who towered over his competition in size and skill. He was 6-foot-3, 215 pounds when the average NHL player was 5-10, 180 pounds.
Beliveau was a strong and nimble skater, able to make remarkable changes of direction at top speed. Despite his size, he had quick feet in tight places. On the rush, he had long, graceful strides that gobbled up ice. He had a powerful shot, but was equally adept at going top-shelf or five-hole. He scored many times with opponents draped over him.
Beliveau scored 507 goals and added 712 assists for 1,219 points in 1,125 NHL regular-season games, a 1.08 points-per-game average. He was just as good in the playoffs, scoring 70 goals and adding 97 assists for 176 points in 162 games, again a 1.08 points-per game average.
"Any parent could use Jean Beliveau as a pattern or role model," NHL President Clarence Campbell said at Beliveau's retirement ceremony. "He provides hockey with a magnificent image. I couldn't speak more highly of anyone who has ever been associated with our game than I do of Jean."
He was the first-line center on the only team to win five straight Stanley Cups, the 1956-60 Canadiens. They played a fast, offensive style called "firewagon hockey" that often resulted in routs. It was common for the Canadiens to break open close games with four- and five-goal outbursts.
"The Canadiens of that time were known for our skating," Beliveau said. "We were a very good skating team and we were known as an offensive-minded team. We had the caliber of talented players to play that type of game. And we had quite a few of them. The offense was well supported when Doug Harvey was on defense and when you have great goaltending you can go all out.
"We had a great power play. They changed the rule (allowing the penalized player to return after a power-play goal) in 1957 because of one penalty against Boston, I got three goals in 44 seconds. I think Terry Sawchuk was in the net."
Only the great goaltending of Toronto's Johnny Bower and Sawchuk in 1967 kept the Canadiens of the late 1960s from repeating the feat. Beliveau's Habs won in 1965-66 and 1968-69.
From humble beginnings, the one-time altar boy rose to be a sports superstar and the most visible and influential French voice for national unity. He urged Quebecois to preserve the Union and urged the rest of Canada to value its French heritage, doing so without losing friends on either side. As a result, he was the only NHL player ever asked to become Governor-General of Canada, a post he declined because his family needed him then.
Following his career, he continued as an executive with the Canadiens, built a corporate conglomerate under the aegis of Jean Beliveau, Inc., and personally directed the significant charitable contributions of the Jean Beliveau Foundation.
Major superstars like Mario Lemieux, Phil Esposito and Joe Sakic each have some, even many, of the attributes that Beliveau displayed on ice, but none has them all. All three have two Stanley Cups, Beliveau has two handfuls.
Beliveau is flattered by the comparison to Lemieux, who has produced nearly two points per game during his career.
"People tell me my style and Mario Lemieux's style are quite similar. We are both tall and have a long reach. I've heard that on quite a few occasions that we have a similar style," he said. "You play according to what God gave you. I was a pretty good skater for a tall guy and I had a decent shot. You use the assets that you have. I was always a center. I enjoyed a nice passing play as much as a goal. Maybe that's why everyone wanted to play with me. You have to skate in this game. The faster you skate, the quicker your moves. If you're slow skater, your moves will be slow."
He was tremendous on faceoffs, one of the best of his time, and credited veteran Elmer Lach for his early development. In a Stanley Cup game, Beliveau at the left faceoff circle, chopped down on a puck, sending it up like a nine-iron shot in front of Bernie Geoffrion who tapped it with his blade into the net, perhaps the best, planned play in hockey history. He chuckled when reminded of it.
"I always had the feeling in the opponent's end that, just before the faceoff, have a quick glance at their positioning," Beliveau said. "If the two defenders were wider, I'd look at Geoffrion and nod for him to go for the net. I'd try to flip it there. Even today when I'm watching the game, I can see that the wing man doesn't know what the center has in mind."
"I'll never forget in my 'cup of coffee' in 1958, my first game was against Montreal and my coach, Rudy Pilous sent me out against Beliveau," said 5-foot-8 Stan Mikita, a fellow Hall of Famer. "I went to faceoff circle against him. Most guys I could look in the eye or up two inches. This was like looking at a skyscraper."
Beliveau speaks slowly, considering every word and has six decades of hockey stories to tell, some hilarious. For all his personal accomplishments, the three things in hockey that he is most proud of are being elected captain of the Canadiens; the supportive, winning atmosphere they created; and his playmaking skills.
"When you played with a good team like I did and you had a lot of success, there's no doubt that all the championships bring you great joy," Beliveau said. "One of the greatest moments in my career was when was my teammates elected me captain in 1961. I was not even an alternate captain at the time. Coming from your teammates, it's a great honor. I never expected it. You certainly feel great about it. I always thought maybe I had the right temperament to be captain. It was one of my greatest satisfactions.
"It was a great family atmosphere that we had on the Canadiens, working together toward common goals of finishing first and winning the Stanley Cup."
"It's hard to put into words how we felt about Jean," teammate Ralph Backstrom told Stan Fischler. "We were so damned proud to have him as our captain."
Beliveau had great collaboration for many seasons with Geoffrion but he said the line's success resulted from left wing Bert Olmstead's work ethic.
"I was well supported by Bert Olmstead," he said. "Bert was always after us. He would say, 'You could do this better, that better.' After he left, I looked back and said he made us play our best hockey. I always had a lot of respect for Bert. He was very hardworking.
"Sometimes, he'd be in the corner fighting for a puck. I'd go help him and he'd give me a hard time and say, 'You go to the net. You won't score from the corner.' You see a teammate working hard in corner, you want to help. But he'd get the puck and make the pass to the front of the net. When he did, he expected to see me and Bernie in front."
The Toronto Maple Leafs acquired Red Kelly, a Norris-Trophy winning defenseman with the Detroit Red Wings in the 1950s, in 1960 for the specific purpose of playing center and neutralizing Beliveau. The tactic sometimes worked. Both teams won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. Toronto's six-game victory in 1967, the last year of the Original Six teams, is the bitterest pill for Beliveau. The next two seasons, he stormed back to lead the Canadiens to the first two Stanley Cups of the expansion era.
"We lost to Toronto in 1967. It could have been another five championships there," Beliveau said. "I thought we had a better team than Toronto but Sawchuk and Bower beat us. They were both tremendous. We didn't have many big names between 1966-70. I thought everyone played so well. Nobody talks about those five years. I thought my teammates deserved great credit."
Bower made 62 saves in the two-overtime third game, the series' turning point. He was hurt warming up for Game 4 and Sawchuk finished the series, winning Games 5 and 6.
"I have a lot of admiration for John Bower," said Beliveau, still shaking his head about Game 3. "He's a great guy and a great goaltender."
Kelly has deep respect for his long-time foe.
"He was big and had a long reach, and he was sooo strong," Kelly said. "Most guys would try to check him but he had a reach that was just a little further and he'd be able to get the pass away. He was a very heady hockey player, very smart around the net. He could move the puck quite a distance when he was stickhandling. He was tough on the goaltenders.
"Most of all, he was a great team player," Kelly said. "He wasn't all for himself. He was for the team. He did what was best for the team."
"When I am asked how I would like to be remembered, it is as a team player," Beliveau said. "My personal record was second to the team success. It was one of the reasons the players voted me captain. After I overcame the shock of being named captain I addressed my teammates. I told them I was at their disposal at any time, 'If you go through a bad time, a rough time, if you have personal problems, whatever, if you are thinking I can be helpful, ask me."
Beliveau also was a company man. He gladly allowed coach Toe Blake to use his line as a testing lab for rookie forwards.
"I'd tell the players, 'I'm the veteran of the line, I'll be OK. You play your game. There's no need to change it for me. For a while I had John Ferguson on the left and he had his best year with 29 goals."
Players like Ivan Cournoyer, Bobby Rousseau, Marcel Bonin, Gilles Tremblay and Dick Duff broke in on Beliveau's line. He played his final season as a favor to General Manager Sam Pollock who wanted to inculcate the “Canadiens Way” in a group of young players that included Marc Tardif, Guy Lapointe, Phil Roberto, Rejean Houle, Bobby Sheehan, Larry Pleau, Guy Charron and Pierre Bouchard. Ken Dryden joined the team just before the playoffs, which he would come to dominate.
"I wanted to retire the year before but Sam Pollock asked me to play another year," Beliveau said. "It was a team in transition. 'I'd feel more secure if you were in the room, Jean,' Sam said. "When Sam asked me to do that 10 years after I was named captain, I said, 'OK, but it will be my last one.'
"There's a quality type of game that you enjoy playing," Beliveau continued. "I thought at 40-41, it would ask a lot of me physically. That's why I refused Quebec in the WHA in 1972 when they offered me a contract higher than any in my 18 years in the NHL. I told them, "I wouldn't be honest to you, to the fans and to myself."
Pollock rewarded Beliveau by naming him a senior vice president upon his retirement from the ice. Beliveau stipulated that the job be in corporate administration, spurning coaching or player-personnel administration.
Principles have always guided Beliveau. He learned them at home.
Beliveau's father, Arthur, was a hard-working man of great principle and proved to be an excellent advisor at the start of his son's career. Following a great junior career with the Quebec City Citadelles, Beliveau made his NHL debut in 1951. He had a goal and an assist in two games. He also played a game with Quebec Aces of the amateur Quebec Senior Hockey League that season and scored two goals and had an assist.
A bidding war between the Aces and Canadiens raged for the next two seasons, affected by corporate leaders and influential politicians in both cities. Not until Bobby Orr would there be such anticipation about the arrival of an NHL rookie. In his two seasons with the Aces, it was said Beliveau made more money -- mostly through corporate endorsements, a generation of Quebecois knew him as the Laval Ice Cream man -- than any player in the NHL. The Canadiens prevailed and Beliveau returned to the NHL in 1953, scoring five goals in three games.
He became a regular in 1953-54, scoring 13 goals and adding 21 assists in 44 games. He is still in awe about joining the team.
"If you go back to the start of my professional career, becoming a member of the Canadiens was one of my greatest thrills. Here in Quebec, when you are a youngster, you dream about wearing the Canadiens uniform, "Beliveau said. "When you learn that you have the tools to become a member of the Canadiens, well, I'd been dreaming about it since I was a little boy."