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Beliveau put Canadiens first after becoming initial Conn Smythe winner

Captain made Stanley Cup center of celebration in 1965, setting bar for future honorees

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Jean Beliveau made hockey history 55 years ago Friday, voted the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the 1965 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It says a great deal about the Montreal Canadiens legend, the consummate team player, that you'll not read a word about it in his 1994 autobiography, "My Life in Hockey."

In the pandemonium of victory on Montreal Forum ice in 1965, and in the Canadiens dressing room later, the Conn Smythe Trophy lived in the long shadow cast by the Stanley Cup.

Montreal had just ended its four-year championship "drought" (Beliveau's word), having not won since its streak of five from 1956-60. The celebration was all about the Canadiens winning their 13th championship, no matter that the captain had just been voted MVP of the playoffs.

Video: 1965 Cup Final, Gm7: Beliveau wins Conn Smythe

So it is to this day that the Conn Smythe Trophy is embraced by its winner but quickly pushed aside after it's been accepted, usually into a room where it sits alone before being locked back in a crate, to be enjoyed later.

The Canadiens had just defeated the Chicago Black Hawks 4-0 in Game 7 of the 1965 Stanley Cup Final, Montreal's third straight home shutout. The Canadiens had needed six games to eliminate the three-time defending champion Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL Semifinals.

Beliveau was voted the Conn Smythe winner after scoring 16 points (eight goals, eight assists) in the playoffs, including four game-winning goals. The center's goal 14 seconds into Game 7 proved to be the Cup clincher.

Jubilant members of the 1964-65 Montreal Canadiens gather on Montreal Forum ice around the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy won by Jean Beliveau.

 

In the tumult at the Forum, Beliveau accepted the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup from NHL President Clarence Campbell through gritted teeth. Midway through the first period, he had a dental plate broken by a crushing check from Black Hawks defenseman Pierre Pilote, and popped in a backup plate that he kept for such emergencies.

"The check shook me up and woke me up at the same time," Beliveau said. "This is the best of the six championships I've been on. There's more satisfaction because no one in the room (the media) thought we would win. But the players were more optimistic."

A playoff MVP award had been in the works for about a year, since Campbell had mused during the 1964 Cup Final about some way to recognize the postseason MVP.

The engraving of Jean Beliveau's name on the Conn Smythe Trophy, and Beliveau with the trophy on May 1, 1965, in the Canadiens dressing room at the Montreal Forum.

 

"Baseball picks the best player in the World Series and gives him a car," Campbell said, quoted in the 2011 book "Hockey Hall of Fame MVP Winners & Trophies," by Bob Duff and Kevin Shea.

"The National Football League awards an automobile to the top man in its final. Canadian football used to similarly recognize the outstanding performer in the Grey Cup. It would be a good thing for the NHL to do the same thing."

Campbell's thinking aloud quickly led to talk that such an award would be named for Conn Smythe, who had bought the Toronto St. Pats in 1927, changed their name to Maple Leafs and financed the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens, which opened in 1931. Smythe oversaw the famous arena and all that went on inside it for more than three decades.

Toronto Maple Leafs center Dave Keon, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner in 1967, and a portrait of the man for whom the trophy is named.

 

On June 11, 1964, the NHL's six League Governors, including Smythe's son, Stafford, representing the Maple Leafs, unanimously voted that a trophy to honor the playoff MVP would be established bearing Conn Smythe's name.

Stafford Smythe announced that he would provide the trophy, which ultimately would be a stunning silver replica of Maple Leaf Gardens atop a wooden base, with a large maple leaf behind the building itself. The names of winners would be engraved on individual plaques, also in the shape of maple leaves.

Over the years, three tiers have been added to the base; originally accommodating 12 sterling leaves, the trophy now has 72. St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly is the most recent winner engraved, for his role in the 2019 championship.

St. Louis Blues center Ryan O'Reilly, the 2019 Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

 

League Governors voted Beliveau winner of the inaugural trophy. When he accepted it from Campbell, the President was showered with boos by fans who held a grudge for the president's controversial 1955 suspension of Canadiens forward Maurice "Rocket" Richard, by now almost five years retired. (Richard was in the Forum and celebrated the championship with Beliveau in the dressing room.)

"Shortly after 10 p.m. that night, I hoisted my first Stanley Cup as captain of the Canadiens," Beliveau wrote in his autobiography.

The captain was forever proud of the Conn Smythe but chose not to mention it in his book, believing that to do so would deflect from the team's accomplishment.

Since 1971, the trophy has been voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association. It has been awarded 54 times to 47 players. Centers have dominated; the Conn Smythe has gone to one 18 times. It has been awarded to a goalie 16 times and a defenseman 10 times, with a right wing winning the trophy seven times and a left wing three times. Six players have won the award more than once: goalie Patrick Roy three times, and centers Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby, defenseman Bobby Orr and goalie Bernie Parent twice each.

Only once has a Maple Leafs player been awarded the trophy named for the team's founding father: center Dave Keon, in 1967. A player from every Original Six member, the NHL's teams from 1942 through expansion in 1967, has won it at least once.

The 1965 Stanley Cup champion Montreal Canadiens. The Conn Smythe Trophy sits in front of its winner, captain Jean Beliveau.

 

The trophy has been awarded five times to a player on the losing team in the Cup Final: goalies Roger Crozier of the Detroit Red Wings (1966), Glenn Hall of the Blues (1968), Ron Hextall of the Philadelphia Flyers (1987) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (2003), and right wing Reggie Leach of the Flyers (1976).

There have been Conn Smythe streaks of three or more years for three teams: the New York Islanders (Bryan Trottier, Butch Goring, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith, from 1980-83), the Flyers (Parent twice and Leach, from 1974-76) and the Canadiens (Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Bob Gainey, from 1977-79).

After winning it 55 years ago, and being prodded by photographers in the dressing room, Beliveau gave the Conn Smythe Trophy a kiss, then quickly set it down, the Stanley Cup taking center stage in the celebrations.

In so doing, Beliveau set the bar that has been in place ever since: On hockey's grandest stage, it is team glory before the honor of an individual.

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