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100 Greatest Players

Jean Beliveau: 100 Greatest NHL Players

One of game's greatest ambassadors won Stanley Cup 17 times as player, executive with Canadiens

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

From his much-heralded signing with the Montreal Canadiens in 1953 through his retirement in 1971, Jean Beliveau's glittering career was one of staggering statistical accomplishment:

There were his 10 Stanley Cup championships won as a player and another seven as an executive vice president of the Canadiens, his name appearing on the trophy an unprecedented 17 times.

 

Video: Jean Beliveau's name is on Stanley Cup 17 times

 

There were the Hart trophies Beliveau won in 1956 and 1964 as the NHL's most valuable player, his Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer in 1956, his being awarded the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1965, and his 13 appearances in the NHL All-Star Game.

Beliveau's incredible statistics led to his being installed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 alongside his great friend and rival Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings. That marked the first time that the customary three-year, post-retirement period to induct elected players was waived (Beliveau retired in 1971).

But to truly appreciate Beliveau was not to see him on the ice. It was to see him with people, circulating gracefully among the slack-jawed masses thunderstruck just to be breathing the same air. It was to witness this -- and his quiet, selfless charity work -- that made you understand why he remains widely regarded as the greatest ambassador the game has known.

 

JEAN BELIVEAU CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,125 | Goals: 507 | Assists: 712 | Points: 1,219

 

If there were 100 people in a room and you had one minute to speak with Beliveau, you were to him the only person in the room. He would address you by name, ask you more questions than you would ask him and, if you met him again many years later, he could stun you by remembering your name and recalling the details of your brief conversation.

Beliveau arrived with the Canadiens in 1953 from the semiprofessional senior-league Quebec Aces as a long-courted superstar-in-the-making. He was signed on Oct. 3, 1953, to a five-year, $105,000 contract, at the time the most generous in the NHL.

"It was simple, really," Canadiens general manager Frank Selke said that day. "All I did was open the [Montreal] Forum vault and say, 'Jean, take what you think is right.' "

Given what the Canadiens would get in return on the ice, in the front office and in the community for the next six decades, until his death in 2014 and beyond -- his aura is still aglow around the team to this day -- this man was an absolute steal.

Born Aug. 31, 1931, in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Beliveau, the first of eight children, was an altar boy and sang in the choir at the family church, growing to be a fine teenage pitcher in the summer -- at 16, he was offered a minor-league contract to play baseball in Alabama, which his mother declined on his behalf -- and an enthusiastic hockey player in the winter.

The family moved to Plessisville when Beliveau was 3, then settled in Victoriaville when he was 6. The hinterland of Quebec was his home before bigger cities came calling.

The young center would leave home in 1949 at 18 to play for the junior-league Quebec Citadels, having started in organized hockey as a 12-year-old before moving up at age 15 to the intermediate Victoriaville Panthers.

Beliveau would graduate to play for the senior Quebec Aces from 1951-53 before Selke finally convinced him, after much negotiation and a couple of impressive call-ups to the Canadiens, his place was in Montreal.

"He's great," Canadiens superstar Maurice "Rocket" Richard said of Beliveau following the latter's second call-up, a three-game stint in the 1952-53 season. "He's got the greatest shot I've ever seen in hockey and he's a fine man. He could help this team plenty and I wish he would change his mind."

And so Beliveau did, finally, moving to Montreal and signing with the Canadiens in October 1953. He had been married then for four months to Elise Couture, a young woman from Quebec City whom he'd met at a social event in Lac Beauport two years earlier.

It's no wonder that it took much work for the stubborn Selke to lure his gilt-edged prospect to Montreal. Earning a wage in Quebec that would have been princely in the NHL, adored by the provincial capital that lay at his feet, Beliveau was also heeding the advice of his father.

"Loyalty is another form of responsibility," Arthur Beliveau had often told his son, as related in the player's 1994 autobiography, "My Life in Hockey." "If you feel that you owe something to someone, no matter what the debt, it behooves you to pay it. Sometimes, those very people will do or say something to indicate that they are discharging the debt, but only you will know what the best policy will be. Your good name is your greatest asset."

It was a lesson that would be engrained in Beliveau every step of his life.

Beliveau would come to dominate the sport so quickly and so completely that by 1955-56, his third full season, he was being hailed by Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, who did not often praise players. It's not a coincidence that Beliveau was hitting full, glorious stride as the Canadiens began their historic run of five consecutive Stanley Cup championships from 1956 to 1960.

"Beliveau is the greatest thing that could have happened to the modern game," Smythe said in a 1956 Maclean's magazine profile. "They say there's no room left for stick-handling and brains and technique. When has there ever been a better stick-handler? Who has ever shown more savvy? Who ever got a shot away faster? And where did this kid come from? He came from the helter-skelter modern game! Helter-skelter, my eye!"

Beliveau's output would be nearly off the charts: 586 goals and 809 assists in 1,287 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games, every one for the Canadiens, most played during the NHL's pre-expansion era. The center (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) missed the playoffs once in his 18 seasons, in 1969-70, his second-to-last NHL season. He captained the Canadiens for a decade until his retirement.

"It is hard, but I will play no more," Beliveau said on June 9, 1971, hanging up his skates after having enjoyed a Stanley Cup-winning season during which he scored his 500th goal. "I only hope I have made a contribution to a great game."

He immediately stepped into the Canadiens front office, where he offered sage counsel to team ownership for 22 years until he stepped down from his hockey family for a second time on Aug. 31, 1993, his 62nd birthday.

His second retirement was a great joke in the eyes of Elise, who saw her husband busier than ever, making countless public appearances, many of which were never on any schedule.

One of Beliveau's best friends, the incomparable Gordie Howe, was in Montreal in 2007 for a fundraiser in Beliveau's honor, a black-tie evening that raised more than $1 million for children's hospitals and charities in Quebec.

"I had the good fortune to first meet John in Quebec City," Howe recalled of their first encounter, a 1950 exhibition game between Howe's Red Wings and Beliveau's Quebec Aces.

Always, it was John, never Jean.

"We talked a little bit. I looked at John, saw some of the moves he made in practice. We went into the room between periods and somebody said, 'Someone stay close to that guy, he'll kill us.' Later I said, 'John's going to be unbelievable.' I'd have been a heck of a scout. We were all in agreement in the bus that night - that kid's going to be a star, and he didn't disappoint any of us."

Howe's one question had been about the boiling point of the young man's blood; Beliveau's reputation painted him as a bit of a gentle giant.

"I wondered, 'Is John mean enough to be a hockey player? What if I run him?' " Howe said. "Well, I gave him a little run and he just smiled. I said, 'Yeah, he's OK,' and that's the only time I ever tested him.

"I admire John not just because of his great, great ability as a hockey player, but for his demeanor in public. He's a complete gentleman. He came out to Saskatoon for a parade long ago, and four of my sisters came home 15 minutes after meeting him and said, 'We used to be Detroit fans.' The respect I have for this man is unreal, and it started the first time I ever saw him up in Quebec City. If you think he's a good hockey player, as a gentleman he's even better.

"John was an entertaining, unselfish, tremendous player with the ability to set up goals at will," Howe said. "As much as I've talked about him through the years, I've never had anyone say a darned thing bad about him. We didn't play on the same team but I consider John my friend. And that makes me a better man."

The feeling was entirely mutual. Beliveau and Elise often spirited Howe and his wife, Colleen, secretly to their Montreal-area home for dinner during their playing days, a time when fraternization with opposing players was against the rules.

Beliveau's renowned qualities of leadership and diplomacy extended well beyond the rink. He was asked in 1994 by Canada's then-Prime Minister, Jean Chretien, to consider putting his name in candidacy to become the country's Governor General, a job that assuredly would have been his. But he graciously declined, citing a need to spend time at home and to be a strong presence for the two young girls of his widowed daughter, Helene.

In the early 1990s, Beliveau twice declined Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's offer of a Canadian Senate post.

Over the years, he was presented with the Order of Canada - fiercely proud of his country, he wore the Order's pin on his lapel every day - and the National Order of Quebec.

Beliveau also was decorated with honorary doctorates by several universities, including McGill in Montreal, was added to Canada's Walk of Fame, and was honored by civic and charitable groups at every turn.

In 2003, the Canadiens created the Jean Beliveau Trophy, awarded annually to the player on the club who best exemplifies leadership qualities in his community.

He lived every day of his adult life in the public eye without once putting a foot out of place; for more than half a century, from 1953 until the first of two strokes cut into his legendary energy, he answered by hand each of the thousands of pieces of fan mail that came his way.

If the incandescent Richard, who died of cancer in 2000, was often viewed as the furnace of the Canadiens, then surely Beliveau was the conscience, even the soul of the franchise, a steady compass who unfailingly led by his sterling reputation and the example he set.

On the ice and in the dressing room, Beliveau fully filled the huge skates of the Rocket, something that seemed unthinkable when Richard retired in 1960.

Beliveau died on Dec. 2, 2014, following a long illness. As was the case with Richard in 2000, Beliveau lay in state at Bell Centre, where thousands of loyal fans and a great many whose lives had been profoundly touched by him, his actions or just his reputation filed in to pay their respects. His funeral was carried bilingually on live television in Canada, flags across the country flying at half-staff.

In his autobiography, the radiant star of hockey's golden era wrote of how he wished to be remembered:

"Everything I achieved throughout my career, and all the rewards that followed, came as the results of team effort," Beliveau wrote. "If they say anything about me when I'm gone, let them say that I was a team man. To me, there is no higher compliment."

 


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