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Beliveau's linemates are his biggest fans

by John McGourty
Jean Beliveau There have been many great lines in NHL history, but few better than that of Jean Beliveau centering right wing Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion and left wing Bert Olmstead. The trio played together from 1953-54, when Beliveau joined the Montreal Canadiens on a full-time basis, until the end of the 1957-58 season when Olmstead was taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the intra-league draft.

The line was a model for all that followed in that all three players had different strengths that served to obscure any weaknesses.

In fact, they were very much like the famed New York Islanders’ line of Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies, except that Beliveau was much taller and faster than Trottier. Geoffrion and Bossy were great goal scorers; Trottier and Beliveau were incredibly intelligent and determined centers with great passing skills and Olmstead and Gillies were among the best ever at digging pucks out of corners and grinding along the boards. All six players were known for their unstinting work ethic.

"Jean Beliveau was just like an artist on the ice," Geoffrion said. "He knew exactly where I was and I always knew where he was. He was a natural in everything he did. He was as close to a perfect hockey player as you will ever see. It was very rare to see him make a mistake on the ice."

"Lots of people say that was the best line ever, Jean and Bernie and me," Olmstead said. "Jean was smart, hardworking, emotionally level and a complete hockey player. He was coachable, a real good student who wanted to learn. He could really play. He is at the top of the list of teammates that I played with.

"Boom Boom could do everything: Skate and score. He could really shoot and he was coachable. We all wanted to learn. We had Dick Irvin and Toe Blake for coaches. We had to play good because we weren't making any money and had to get to the playoffs," Olmstead said, laughing.

Olmstead also talks about a sixth sense that the line had about each other's positioning. In his autobiography, Beliveau talks about Olmstead ordering him not to assist him in retrieving pucks along the boards. Whether he was fighting one, two or three opponents, Olmstead promised Beliveau he would get him the puck if Beliveau was in front of the net, in position to shoot. It worked that way for five years.

"There wasn't enough room for both of us in the corner and somebody had to score the goals," Olmstead said. "I knew I could get the puck so I told him, 'Don't move from where I last saw you. It takes me three, four or five seconds to get the puck and it's going where I last saw you.'

"You gave Jean the puck in the slot and it was in!" Olmstead said. "We didn't have to do fancy plays, just bread and butter. If it didn't go in, somebody made a hell of a stop."

"He was such a great center, the best I've ever seen," Geoffrion said. "He was definitely the best as far as thinking about what he was doing out there, not just with me but with anybody who played with him. They had to have success. It goes both ways, I guess. I could put the puck in the net and he could make the plays."

John Ferguson led the American Hockey League in goals and penalty minutes the year before he was brought up to the Canadiens. He started his NHL career in 1963 on a line with Beliveau and Geoffrion.

"Toe Blake said, 'I want you to play with the big guy and protect him.' I scored a couple of goals in my first game in Boston and I was in the Top 10 in scoring early in the season until I nearly tore my thumb off in a scuffle with Eddie Westfall.

"I had a heart attack a little while ago and I was so thrilled to get a call from Jean. It really picked up my attitude," Ferguson said. "I was with him a couple of weeks ago, just before training camp. He's such a wonderful gentleman."

Beliveau was a good baseball player in his teens and was offered a professional tryout. His father had taken him to Boston Red Sox games and he admired Ted Williams. Geoffrion thinks they were comparable players, among the best that ever played their sports.

"Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Jean Beliveau, they were naturals," he said. "When you have that gift, it looks easy. Everything he did seemed so easy but he was a hard worker and that is why he had success."

Beliveau, with his long strides, great strength and exceptional vision, did make it look easy but his teammates knew the hours of practice and thought that went into his game. He speaks carefully and gives all decisions a great deal of thought. He brought a sense of tranquility to the Canadiens.

"He's very quiet and likes to read a lot," Geoffrion said. "He was always thinking about the game and his family. He is a very good family man. Jean always tried to relax and made the rest of the team relax. I was never nervous playing with Jean."

"Jean led by example," Ferguson said. "We had to come to practice in shirt and ties. Jean would come in well dressed and well groomed with the Daily News and the Journal de Montreal under his arm. He was so well respected. We policed ourselves pretty well but Jean was the boss."

Beliveau, inadvertently, was responsible for a younger neighbor making it to the NHL and eventually joining him in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Rod Gilbert, the great right wing of the New York Rangers in the 1960s and 1970s, was also born in Victoriaville, Quebec.

"Jean Beliveau was probably the greatest hockey player of all time," Gilbert said. "I was a kid and television was new and we watched him play for the Quebec Aces. He dominated the Quebec Senior League, which was just a step below the NHL. He could take the puck from behind his net and score at will. We knew he would be in the NHL but the Canadiens had to buy the entire league to get him to play for them.

"I kept watching him and thinking if someone from my hometown, only 5,000 people, could make it, maybe I could follow in his footsteps. Maybe because we drank the same water! Whatever, it gave me confidence. It was funny but Boom Boom was actually my idol because he was also a right wing and he had the great slap shot. Later, Andy Bathgate was my idol.

"Jean Beliveau was the greatest puckhandler of his era and maybe all time," Gilbert continued. "Nobody was shiftier with the puck or had his reach. In that sense, he was like Mario Lemieux. Jean Ratelle modeled his game after Beliveau and was a classy playmaker, a tremendous puckhandler with great passing ability, but he was not as big as Jean and Mario."

Gilbert says one thing sets Beliveau apart.

"They had to change the rules because of him," he said. "When he joined that Montreal power play with Doug Harvey and Boom Boom and Rocket Richard, they would often score two, three or four goals during the two-minute penalty. They changed the rule to let the penalized player return after the first goal."

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