To say that Jean Beliveau is an all-time great player is, of course, correct. But it doesn't tell the whole story.
From his debut with Montreal Canadiens as an amateur during the 1950-51 season to his finale in Game 7 of the 1971 Stanley Cup Final, when he won his 10th championship as a player, Beliveau excelled in all facets of the game while playing with the smooth grace that's almost never seen in any sport. His greatness was such that the Hockey Hall of Fame waived its mandatory three-year post retirement period and inducted Beliveau in 1972 alongside his longtime friend and rival Gordie Howe (who also retired in 1971).
And like Howe, his playing career was only the first act. He got his name on the Stanley Cup seven more times as an executive with the Canadiens. His selfless charity work, done quietly, benefitted thousands of people, many of whom had never seen him play. The grace and kindness he showed while dealing with people made him, along with Howe, among the great ambassadors in hockey history.
But one of the great careers in NHL history nearly didn't happen.
The Canadiens ended up having to buy an entire league to get Beliveau to turn pro; he was already earning more money than many NHL players while playing for the Quebec Aces in the Quebec Senior Hockey League. He finally signed with the Canadiens in October 1953, was a First-Team All-Star in his second season, then won the Hart and Art Ross trophies in 1955-56 while helping Montreal win the first of an NHL-record five consecutive Stanley Cup championships.
Appropriately, Beliveau retired on top in 1971, helping the Canadiens upset the regular-season champion Boston Bruins in the Quarterfinals, defeat the Minnesota North Stars in the Semifinals and outlast the Chicago Blackhawks in a seven-game Final. He had 22 points, including a League-best 16 assists, in 20 playoff games at age 39.
"It is hard, but I will play no more," he said on June 9, 1971. "I only hope I have made a contribution to a great game."
In his NHL100 profile of Beliveau, NHL.com columnist Dave Stubbs outlined some of what made Beliveau special:
"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 [Maurice] 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."
Artist Tony Harris has his own memories of a meeting with Beliveau.
"I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr. Beliveau a few years before his passing," he said. "I was commissioned to paint his portrait for a charity auction and he had graciously agreed to sign it. The visit was scheduled for only 15 minutes, but he insisted we stay to have coffee and two hours later we left feeling like we'd won the lottery. What a special man."
Video: Jean Beliveau's name is on Stanley Cup 17 times
Maurice Richard, a longtime teammate of Beliveau with the Canadiens, was a different kind of player and hero. Beliveau was smooth and graceful; Richard was full of fire, the most fearsome forward of his generation on the ice and a hero to French-Canadians throughout Quebec. Though he died from cancer on May 27, 2000, he's still an icon in his native province. The Canadiens' affiliate in the American Hockey League was renamed the Laval Rocket when it moved from St. John's, Newfoundland, to north of Montreal this season.
Richard's NHL career hit a few bumps in the early going, injuries cost him most of two seasons before he established himself by scoring 32 goals in 46 games (during a 50-game season) in 1943-44. He was even better in 1944-45, becoming the first player in NHL history to score 50 goals, and doing it in 50 games.
The combination of Richard on right wing, with Toe Blake on the left and Elmer Lach at center became known as the "Punch Line" and dominated the League through much of the 1940s. Richard was a First-Team or Second-Team All-Star for 14 consecutive seasons. He scored five goals and had three assists against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 28, 1944 -- after spending the day moving -- and came out of the locker room after sustaining a concussion to score the winning goal against the Bruins in Game 7 of the 1952 Semifinals.
Perhaps no one in NHL history had the burning desire to score that Richard did.
"What I remember most about the Rocket were his eyes," said former Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Glenn Hall, a fellow Hall of Famer. "When he came flying toward you with the puck on his stick, his eyes were all lit up, flashing and gleaming like a pinball machine."
Richard was captain of the Canadiens when he retired in 1960 after Montreal's fifth consecutive Stanley Cup championship. His NHL record of 544 goals was broken by Howe in 1963, and he's not even in the top-25 goal-scorers now. But it's no accident that the award given annually to the NHL's top goal-scorer is the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy.
In his NHL100 profile of Richard, Stubbs touched on some of what made No. 9 so special:
"Richard achieved all he did from modest beginnings. He was a better baseball player than hockey player growing up in the north end of Montreal. The oldest of eight siblings, raised during the Great Depression, he played his first organized hockey for a parish team, falling so deeply in love with the game that as a schoolboy, he sometimes would skate six days a week on a half-dozen teams, then practice the seventh day on the backyard rink with his father.
"The Rocket -- as he would be nicknamed by teammates, then the press -- would never see a game at the Montreal Forum before he played there, his family unable to afford a ticket. But Richard would almost singlehandedly fill the building for years with his keen nose for the net and his tenacious drive to get there.
"Like Howie Morenz 63 years before him, the Rocket would lie in state in Montreal's hockey arena -- Morenz in the Forum, Richard in the Bell Centre -- where tens of thousands of fans filed past to pay their final respects.
"'Maurice Richard will forever be the man who defined and then embodied the purest hockey tradition," then-Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said upon Richard's death. "What really set him apart, and what his fans loved most about him, was his extraordinary intensity. He played with great feeling and flair and pursued victory like none other. The combination of passion and skill are what made him such a phenomenal player.'"
Harris, like Hall, said he was fascinated by Richard's eyes.
"I always thought that hockey had the best nicknames," he said. "I never saw the Rocket play but those who did say he was something special. When working on his portrait I was having trouble researching his eye color so I asked NHL.com's Dave Stubbs, a noted Canadiens expert. He texted me four words, 'Black. Black like coal.' I thought that was pretty cool."