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Beliveau's 500th goal as classy as he was

Milestone for Canadiens legend came 45 years ago today

by Dave Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist/Historian

MONTREAL -- It wasn't the most famous goal Gilles Gilbert would surrender at the Montreal Forum. Numbers 1 and 1a would come later, while he wore the uniform of the Boston Bruins: 

On May 10, 1979, Montreal Canadiens sniper Guy Lafleur scored on Gilbert with a dying-minutes, game-tying power-play slap shot, the goalie falling back in almost slow-motion anguish as the Forum erupted. 

And then Canadiens forward Yvon Lambert beat him in overtime to end the legendary -- infamous, if you're a Boston fan -- seven-game semifinal Stanley Cup Playoff series that will forever be known for too many Bruins on the ice. 

But eight years earlier, on Feb. 11, 1971, Gilbert was the victim of the milestone goal of one of hockey's greatest legends, beaten for the 500th regular-season goal of Jean Béliveau. 

This, after the Minnesota North Stars rookie had yielded Béliveau's 498th and 499th in the visitors' 6-2 loss, the Canadiens icon's three-goal effort the 18th and final hat trick of his illustrious career. 

With his 500th, Béliveau joined a select few: the Detroit Red Wings' Gordie Howe, then at 782 goals; retired Canadiens star Maurice Richard, and then-active Chicago Blackhawks forward Bobby Hull, each at 544. 

Béliveau's 500th came on a beautiful rush up Forum ice 6:42 into the second period, the Canadiens leading 2-1 on Le Gros Bill's first-period goals, and every one of the 16,158 spectators on the edge of their seats, knowing they might be witness to history. 

On the final fairways of his Hall of Fame-bound, 18-season career, soon to win his 10th Stanley Cup, Béliveau was near the end of a 90-second shift -- imagine that today -- and considering a hard cut left to the Canadiens bench. 

But then the graceful 39-year-old centerman realized linemate Frank Mahovlich was in full, glorious flight with the puck, racing up the rink with wing Phil Roberto in hot pursuit. 

"I saw them breaking or I might have gone to the bench," Béliveau would say in the dressing room after the game. "But I thought I could at least trail the play for a rebound and I tried to give it one last effort. You know, those last efforts have paid off over the years." 

Needing just four loping strides to travel from his own blue line to center ice, Mahovlich dropped the puck to the trailing Roberto as he crossed into the North Stars end. 

Covered and checked, Roberto in turn drop-passed to Béliveau, who had joined the rush, and cut to the right boards, Mahovlich peeling off to the Minnesota net. 

"Roberto was sideways when he got the puck from Frank and probably saw me coming," Béliveau would say. 

So Béliveau took the pass near the top of the faceoff circle and charged right at Gilbert, a quick bit of crafty stickhandling putting the puck on his backhand as the goalie dropped to the ice, cleanly deked. 

Flying past the net, Béliveau's backhand caught just inside the far post and curled into the goal, Mahovlich positioned for the deflection had the puck skittered wide. 

It was almost an exact copy of Béliveau's second goal of the night, though on that one he went short side. The first had come on a thunderous, partially screened slap shot from between the North Stars blue line and faceoff circle. 

"[Gilbert] went for the fake so easily the time before that I tried it again," Béliveau said of his 500th, his 18th goal of the season. 

In no way was the veteran superstar knocking the 21-year-old netminder. Indeed, Béliveau was gracious in the spotlight, quietly seeking a word with Gilbert after the game. 

Typically, on none of his three goals had he celebrated boisterously, just lifting his stick gently after his 500th, the puck retrieved for him by a linesman as the Forum exploded in tribute. 

Years later, in a television biography of Béliveau, Gilbert recalled meeting his own parents in the Forum after the game that night when he spotted Béliveau nearby.

"I thought, 'What is he doing here? I think I've seen enough of him tonight,'" Gilbert remembered. "He came up to me and, almost apologetically, told me that it didn't matter who would have been in net, it was a night where everything went his way. 

"He told me that I would have a long and successful career in the NHL, gave me his hand and left. It's special. I don't think anybody else would have done that." 

Mahovlich told Montreal Gazette columnist Ted Blackman he had the best seat in the Forum to see Béliveau's landmark goal. 

"I was at the other post waiting in case there was a rebound. There wasn't," the "Big M" said. "Some goal. I had an assist on Gordie Howe's 700th too (for Detroit, scored Dec. 4, 1968 in Pittsburgh). That was a good goal too -- a three-way passing play with me and Alex Delvecchio." 

Roberto, then 22, called Béliveau's milestone "the biggest thrill of my life." 

"Just to be on the ice when it happened, let alone get an assist," he said. "My first NHL goal was a thrill, but every player has one of those. Not too many are there for someone's 500th." 

Béliveau scored seven more goals in the final days of the season to finish his career at 507, his last coming April 3, 1971 against New York Rangers goalie Gilles Villemure. He then led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup championship against the Chicago Blackhawks six weeks later, his 10th as a player. 

Béliveau would retire in an emotional announcement on June 9, 1971 in a packed Montreal hotel ballroom, his 500th goal even more dramatic given his decision months earlier to hang up his skates at the end of the season. 

Including playoffs, Béliveau scored 586 goals with 809 assists in 1,287 games, all of them with the Canadiens. 

He won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player in 1956 and 1964, earned the 1956 Art Ross as the League's top points-getter, and in 1965 was awarded the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy, presented to the MVP of the playoffs. 

The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder missed the playoffs once in his 18 seasons, his second-to-last in the NHL, and appeared in 13 All-Star Games. His name appears on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times, having won seven championships during 22 post-playing years as the Canadiens' senior vice-president of corporate affairs. 

Béliveau died Dec. 2, 2014 following a lengthy illness. Among the many hundreds of mourners at his funeral eight days later was Frank Mahovlich, who largely engineered his former captain's historic goal. 

The fourth man in NHL history to score 500 goals, Béliveau today ranks 39th on the League's all-time list. He'll soon be joined at 507 by the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, who on Thursday was one behind. 

In a talk shortly after Béliveau's passing, longtime Canadiens chief surgeon David Mulder considered the special relationship he had since the 1950s with one of the greatest players in the game, a dear friend he had known through thick and thin, through sickness and health until the very end. 

And as we spoke, one of the sharpest images that came to Mulder's mind was the game in which Béliveau scored his 500th goal, 45 years ago Thursday. 

"I was covering that game [as team doctor] purely by chance," he said. "I can remember them taking pictures of him. I was saying to him, 'My gosh, 500 goals,' and Jean's answer was, 'Well, if you stay around long enough, you can score 500 goals.' 

"Which was absolutely typical of him."

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