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Jean Beliveau, Canadiens great, dies at 83

by David Kalan

Rare is the talent so great that a sports franchise would buy an entire league to secure his services. Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens was such a talent.

Beliveau died Tuesday at the age of 83.

Despite being born in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Beliveau did not have a burning desire to play for the legendary NHL team nearby. In fact, he spurned several offers from Montreal general manager Frank Selke to sign a contract, choosing instead to play with the Quebec Aces of the amateur Quebec Senior Hockey League. Eventually, Selke had the Canadiens buy the whole QSHL in 1953, turning it into a professional league and securing the rights to Beliveau in the process.

It was one of the great investments in hockey history. The Canadiens have had great players including Maurice Richard, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy; however, few cast a shadow like Beliveau, known affectionately as "Le Gros Bill."

Beliveau spent 18 full seasons with the Canadiens from 1953-71 after his two amateur tryouts. In 1,125 games, he scored 507 goals, set up 712 others and finished with 1,219 points. He played in 13 NHL All-Star Games, won the Hart Trophy as League MVP twice (1956 and 1964), the Art Ross Trophy as top scorer in 1956, and the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 1965.

Beliveau is widely regarded as the greatest center in the history of the winningest organization in hockey.

Dwarfing those accomplishments, however, is that Beliveau was a member of 10 Stanley Cup-winning teams as a player and seven more as an executive with Montreal. His name has been engraved on the Stanley Cup 17 times, more than any individual.

Wayne Gretzky wrote in his foreword of Beliveau's autobiography, "Having had the good fortune to win four Stanley Cups in my career and to experience the satisfaction and lifelong friendships that are generated by such a difficult and collective effort, it is mindboggling to recall that Jean Beliveau accomplished the feat no fewer than ten times as a player and seven times more as a senior executive with the same organization. I don't think there can be any other figure in the history of professional team sports who better exemplifies the word 'winner.'"

Beliveau is second all-time in Canadiens history in points and assists, third in goals, and fourth in games played. He became the fourth player in NHL history to reach 500 goals when he scored on Feb. 11, 1971, and was the second player in League history to score 1,000 points, joining Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings in that exclusive club on March 3, 1968, in his 911th game.

His 10-season run as captain, during which Montreal won the Stanley Cup five times, is tied with Saku Koivu's as the longest in Canadiens history.

Beliveau, whose No. 4 was retired by Montreal on Oct. 9, 1971, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 after the Hall waived its usual mandatory three-year waiting period.

"Jean was a star of stars," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said upon presenting Beliveau with the NHL Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. "The fans loved the way he played, but they loved him even more for his humanity, the pride he took in his profession and the standards of excellence that he set. He is the emblem of elegance and class.

"Even today, nearly 40 years after his retirement, Jean Beliveau is greeted with the same reverence wherever he goes. He inspires in others the same love for hockey that always has been his trademark -- and always will be."

With such an overwhelmingly impressive resume, it seems stunning hockey wasn't the first arena in which Beliveau shined, and he nearly went professional in a completely different sport.

Beliveau grew up playing baseball in the summers and regularly watched the minor-league Montreal Royals, the starting point of Jackie Robinson's career. When Beliveau was 15 years old, he was offered a minor-league contract by a scout who had been impressed by his ability to pitch. The deal was nixed by Beliveau's mother, Laurette.

The influence of his parents would be a recurring theme in the course of his early career, which by extension dramatically influenced the Canadiens and hockey. When the Canadiens initially attempted to sign Beliveau to a "C Form" contract, which would have given him $100 cash immediately but would have bound him to Montreal's NHL franchise, the scouts were directed to his father, Arthur, who immediately balked at a contract that wouldn't allow his son to control his future.

Selke and the Canadiens eventually settled for a "B Form" contract that enabled him to remain an amateur but required Beliveau to play with the Canadiens if he turned pro. However, after Beliveau made only brief appearances with the Canadiens in the 1950-51 and 1952-53 seasons and didn't seem interested in leaving the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, Selke decided to buy the entire league and convert it from amateur to professional.

With the Canadiens now in possession of Beliveau's rights (along with the rights of every other player in the league), the 22-year-old was forced to join the team for the 1953-54 season.

The litany of accomplishments that followed weren't bad for someone who never played organized hockey before the age of 12. Born Aug. 31, 1931, Beliveau was the oldest of eight siblings. He learned hockey on a backyard rink, like so many of his contemporaries.

"[S]hinny at the Beliveau Forum may have been technically primitive, devoid of positional play and five-on-five chalk-talk strategies, but we were allowed to concentrate on the basics, learning how to skate, stickhandle, and shoot," he wrote in his autobiography, "Jean Beliveau: My Life in Hockey."

It was in that Beliveau Forum that he picked up the first skills and influences that would make him one of the greatest players on the Canadiens despite a childhood Beliveau said was typical for a French-Canadian Catholic family and "in no way remarkable."

However, the dedication to hard work and strong values valued by his parents made Beliveau a figure that was as remarkable as his childhood wasn't. In addition to his exploits on the ice, Beliveau was an active force for charities in Quebec and throughout Canada, founding the Jean Beliveau Foundation in 1971, an organization he would later transfer to the Society for Disabled Children in 1993.

Such charitable work brought Beliveau honors through the years. He was named a Knight of the National Order of Quebec in 1988, named a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1998, added to Canada's Walk of Fame in 2001 and has been the subject of postage stamps. In 1994, Beliveau was offered the position of Governor General of Canada, which he turned down to spend time with his family.

In 2003, the Canadiens introduced the Jean Beliveau Trophy, which is awarded to the Montreal player who best demonstrates community involvement and spirit. As well, he was an honorary captain of Canada's gold medal-winning 2010 men's Olympic hockey team.

During the final two decades of his life, Beliveau battled numerous health issues, including cardiac-related issues in 1996, as well as a cancerous tumor discovered in his neck in 2000. In January 2010, he was hospitalized after suffering a stroke.

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