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Training camp mirrored Beliveau's growth to stardom with Canadiens

Hall of Fame center evolved from nervous teenager to captain, 10-time Cup winner

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- The late Jean Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cup championships as a member of the Montreal Canadiens, known as much for his cool in the heat of action as for his superb skating and playmaking skills.

But in 1950, when Beliveau arrived at his first NHL training camp under often-intimidating taskmaster coach Dick Irvin, he was a sweaty-palmed, wet-behind-the-ears teenager who was so nervous he could barely lace his skates.

"Yes, I was very nervous," Beliveau admitted a decade ago of his just-turned-19 self. "It was quite an experience. Imagine what it was like to play alongside your heroes, men who were practically legends."

Indeed, seven future Hall of Fame players, including himself, were at that camp. Beliveau was skating with goaltender Bill Durnan, defensemen Butch Bouchard, Doug Harvey and Ken Reardon, and forwards Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach.

Beliveau took part in Canadiens camp for four consecutive years, dazzling onlookers with his impossibly long strides and butter-soft stickhandling. He even had two tastes of the NHL, playing two games for Montreal in 1950-51 and three in 1952-53.

But every autumn the man nicknamed "Le Gros Bill" returned to Quebec City, fiercely loyal to the people who were paying him a princely annual wage of $20,000 to play for future NHL coach Punch Imlach's Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. He finally signed with the Canadiens on Oct. 3, 1953, a signature witnessed by general manager Frank Selke and Irvin in the GM's office at the Forum, and began an 18-year career that finally would drop anchor in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In those days, the Canadiens' training camp would run 32 or 33 days, a marathon compared to the sessions of less than 20 days (for veterans) that will be run by NHL teams beginning this weekend.

If the on-ice sessions weren't grueling enough, camp sometimes featured some challenging events off the ice as well. In 1949, Irvin sprung a pop quiz on his players that made it into the final two paragraphs of a Montreal Gazette report detailing a few roster moves for a three-game preseason trip into Providence, Rhode Island, Springfield, Massachusetts, and Buffalo.

"Irvin also announced that Doug Harvey was top man in the 'examination' Irvin held last week at the camp," the news began. "It was a written test on hockey rules, and some of the questions were not only tough but tricky. Harvey received 80 marks of a possible 100. Hal Laycoe was second with 79 and Elmer Lach third with 77. Harvey won a $10 prize for his efforts.

"Irvin said many of the French-speaking boys on the squad did well and had higher marks than some of the English-speaking fellows, although the whole examination was conducted in English."

Beliveau remembered usually reporting to camp 10 to 12 pounds above his playing weight of 205 or 206 (the League average ranged from about 175 to 185 pounds during his career), excess baggage he would easily shed from his 6-foot-3 frame once workouts began.

"There were other boys who would report heavier than that, but we were professionals and we were conscious of our responsibilities," he said. "We had to determine what weight was best.

"And then," he added with a chuckle, "(coach) Toe Blake always had his charts to help us find that weight."

Canadiens teammates Ralph Backstrom and John Ferguson, among others, would routinely pose playfully in full uniform standing on a doctor's scale for training-camp photographers.

Year-round conditioning was unheard of, simply because players were too busy to take care of themselves during the offseason. Even top stars weren't paid enough to allow them to take four months off, so players worked second jobs from May through September. Many spent the summer delivering beer or soft drinks.

Beliveau had an office job with Molson Brewery, a company he would consider his second family during a decades-long relationship that would bring him to the corporate boardroom. For four summers, he moved his family to Quebec City and nearby Levis to manage product distribution, and even during the season he would report to Molson's Montreal headquarters, where he'd work from the end of Blake's 10 a.m. practices until dinnertime.

Training camp was almost an afterthought in Montreal's newspapers and the prelude to the season was hardly the media circus it is today. A nine-paragraph Montreal Gazette wire report on the opening day of Beliveau's first camp was displayed below a mixed doubles tennis event at one of the city's tennis clubs, a Quebec assistant-pro golf tournament, a rugby preview and high-school football.

"We usually had only two reporters at camp, Jacques Beauchamp and later Red Fisher," Beliveau said of two iconic newspapermen of their day. "There was no hockey on television, and there was very little radio coverage.

"Even then, radio reporters would have these huge tape recorders. The other day I had a student over to interview me -- and he had a video camera."

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

Fisher, the retired dean of Montreal's English-language sportswriters, has recalled the 1961 training camp held in Victoria, British Columbia. The Canadiens lived for two weeks at the elegant harborfront Empress Hotel before taking the train back to Montreal, stopping to play exhibition games along the way during a barnstorming tour that brought one of Canada's two NHL teams into the country's hinterland.

"One day, about 20 players rented a boat to cruise between Vancouver Island and the mainland," Fisher remembered. "It wasn't long before Doug Harvey was waving some guys, including Beauchamp and myself, down below for a poker game."

The gamblers staggered up on deck four hours later, back in port, cigar smoke stinging their eyes as they blinked back the sunshine that had washed over some of the country's most magnificent scenery.

"Never saw a mountain," Fisher said, shaking his head. "And not only that, I lost money."

The 1961 Western Canada training-camp swing also was eventful for Beliveau, who was injured during a game in Trail, British Columbia. He had a bad case of the flu and was playing against his better judgment to please the fans when he had half the ligaments in a knee torn in a collision.

He returned home for treatment and was wearing a full leg cast back in Montreal when teammates voted him captain of the Canadiens. Beliveau wore the "C" on his jersey until he retired a decade later.

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