He towered, literally and figuratively, over hockey’s greatest franchise, but perhaps the most telling measure of Jean Béliveau’s stature was the way in which most everyone referred to him.
Never as ‘Jean’, but as ‘Monsieur Béliveau.’ It was a form of reverence and respect that wasn’t bestowed on his contemporaries or other Montreal Canadiens legends – Maurice Richard was “le Rocket” to all and sundry, Guy Lafleur was never anything other than “Guy.”
Then again, no one, not even his fiery former teammate Richard, personified the Canadiens longer or more completely than the elegant Mr. Béliveau, known in his playing days as “le Gros Bill.”
And few professional athletes have exuded as much class and dignity.
“I don’t know that Jean Béliveau ever had any enemies,” said former Habs defenceman and Hall of Famer Serge Savard.
“There’s not a classier guy in the world than Big Jean,” added long-time rival and former Chicago Blackhawks great Stan Mikita. “He’s the first man I’ve seen who was over 70 years old that didn’t have a hunchback. When he carried all those young Canadiens, he was strong enough to do that.”
Jean Arthur Béliveau died Tuesday night at the age of 83, the Montreal Canadiens said. He was born Aug. 31, 1931 in Trois-Rivières, Que., the oldest of Arthur and Laurette Béliveau’s eight children. He grew up in Victoriaville, about 70 kilometres to the southeast.
The first memories Béliveau had of the team he would eventually lead to 10 Stanley Cups were from sitting beside the family radio listening to games.
“I guess you could say I’ve spent my life with this team,” he told The Globe and Mail in late 2009.
In that era, there was no such creation as minor hockey – kids were usually coached by the local priests (no girls were invited), and played with their peers until they were deemed good enough to play against teams of factory workers from neighbouring towns on Saturday nights.
“My parents gave me a pair of skates when I was three, maybe four years old – everyone had a sheet of ice in their yard back then – so my friends and I started skating, then we started listening [to the radio], then we started dreaming, and eventually we started maybe seeing ourselves in that Canadiens jersey,” he added.
Mr. Béliveau’s promise as a hockey player was evident from a young age – he originally drew the Canadiens’ notice as a 15-year-old, when they acquired his professional rights – but by the time he went to play for the junior Quebec Citadels in the late 1940s, he was a 6-foot-3-inch man-child with the grace and deftness of a much smaller player.
He was also a baseball player of some repute, turning down minor-league contract offers in his teens and playing elite-level ball in the mining town of Val d’Or – but hockey was always going to be his sport.
After his junior career with the Citadels, Béliveau signed on with the semi-pro Quebec Aces, rebuffing the Canadiens’ initial advances – the Aces were owned by the Canadian Anglo Pulp Company, and could afford to pay their star draw.
In 1950, he was called to Montreal for a two-game tryout and returned for another trial stint in 1952.
The following year, Béliveau married Élise Couture, who would be his constant companion for 61 years, and on Oct. 3, 1953, finally decided to accept a contract offer from the Habs (by then the Canadiens had decided to buy the Aces and the entire Quebec Senior Hockey League, a move meant to force his hand).
The club thought enough of Béliveau to make him the first rookie in Canadiens history to be offered a multiyear contract – worth a total of $105,000, an unheard-of sum in the day – and inserted him in the lineup that very night.
And so began a career that would bind him to his childhood heroes for 18 full seasons on the ice and another four decades in the executive suite and boardroom.
He joined the team just as its biggest star, Richard, was reaching his zenith as a sporting and cultural icon, and immediately understood the symbolic importance of the fabled jersey when he first pulled it on.
“There are a lot of people who still see the Canadiens as a representation of themselves,” Béliveau said in 2009. “And the fans invest their emotions and identities, especially when it’s going well.”
Or as Serge Savard put it: “He was a hero for all the players of my generation. Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard were our idols. And in everyone’s memory, he’s more than just Mr. Hockey, he was Mr. Gentleman as well.”
It wasn’t long before the tall, charismatic Béliveau became the Habs’ focal point – and the NHL’s.
A few years ago, Mikita recalled how he could hardly believe it the first time he skated out for the opening faceoff of a game and looked up to see Béliveau.
The younger Mikita even committed the lese-majesté of winning the draw, earning him a blast of 1950s-style trash-talk.
“‘Kid, that’s the last one you’re going to win.’ And he was probably right,” Mikita said. “He handled himself in everything that he did in a classy way. Maybe too much so when he kicked the puck into the goal in the seventh game I think here in Montreal. They won 4-0 and it was the winning goal.”
Mikita’s comments highlight a lesser-known facet of Béliveau’s game.
Yes, he could skate, shoot, and pass with the best of them, but he also had a flintier, no-nonsense side.
After taking a constant battering at the hands of the NHL’s toughest players in his first two seasons, Béliveau took matters into his own hands and in 1955-56 set a team record, long since eclipsed, for penalty minutes – a surly season that coincidentally saw him win the scoring title, the Hart Trophy as most valuable player and lift the Cup for the first time.
Led by Béliveau and their aging star, Richard, the Habs won five consecutive Cups – over that span, Béliveau racked up 395 points.
In 1961, Béliveau’s teammates elected him to succeed Richard as captain; Bernard “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion, who had more service time, was famously put out by the decision.
Béliveau, realizing this, trooped upstairs to tell general-manager Frank Selke he didn’t want to accept the ‘C’.
“He said ‘what do you want me to do? Go downstairs and tell them they picked the wrong guy?’ ” Béliveau told Hall of Fame hockey writer Red Fisher in 2003.
Early in his final season of 1970-71, Quebec was gripped by the October Crisis.
The Habs would offer a welcome distraction from the social and political divisions of the day and it can’t be a coincidence they were led by an estimable captain who managed throughout his career and public life to remain above the political fray.
The then-39-year-old Béliveau was a point-a-game player that year. And he emulated Richard by ending his career with a sip from Lord Stanley’s Cup, having scored 22 points in the playoffs.
When he put away his uniform and skates for good, he held the team records in most statistical categories, such was his station that the team retired his No. 4 jersey the following October. The Hockey Hall of Fame waived its traditional three-year waiting period, inducting him immediately.
For the next two decades, he worked in various capacities in the Habs’ administrative offices (“I remember when the marketing department was one guy,” he joked), and continued to represent the team as an ambassador until the time of his death.
His association with the club spanned six of its eleven decades of existence.
Through it all, Béliveau and Élise lived in the same modest house in the South Shore Montreal suburb of Longueuil (it was their domicile for 50 years, before moving to a nearby condo tower in 2008), raising their daughter Hélène, born while he was playing a Stanley Cup final game in Boston in 1957.
In his years as a Canadien – a record 10 of them as captain – Béliveau would capture 10 Stanley Cup championships, two Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player, an Art Ross trophy as the league’s top scorer, and the Conn Smythe trophy awarded to the most valuable player of the playoffs.
A strapping 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds in his playing days, he remained an imposing and dignified presence even as a silver-haired octogenarian – he was a reliable presence with Élise in their usual seats behind the home players’ bench first at the Forum, then at the Bell Centre.
In the early 1990s, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney offered Béliveau a seat in the Senate; he declined the job on two occasions, and in 1993 told an interviewer that he did so immediately because “I didn’t want someone so important to waste a Saturday.”
Some years later, Jean Chrétien, Mr. Mulroney’s successor, offered Béliveau the chance to be Governor-General, but he demurred because of his commitments to his family and grandchildren – he also suggested he wasn’t worthy of the honour.
After retiring from the game, Béliveau amassed dozens of corporate board appointments, for years, he sat on the board of Molson Breweries, his daughter told the Journal de Montréal in 2003 that her father once scolded her for drinking Labatt at a party with her friends (“What will people think?”)
He also piled up honorary degrees and civilian awards by the bushel, a testament to his tireless charitable and community work.
In the 1970s and 80s, his eponymous foundation spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help youth in distressed communities – in typical form, the body did so with zero fanfare.
Béliveau had battled health problems since the mid-1990s, when he was first hospitalized for a heart ailment.
In 2000, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, though he quickly recovered after a punishing course of treatments.
He was in hospital again in 2008 after a fainting spell at a friend’s funeral and again in January of 2010 with a stroke, though he was back in his customary seats by the time the conference finals rolled around.
In December of that year, Béliveau was presented with a ring by Hockey Canada to commemorate Team Canada’s Olympic gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Games; he had long said one of his professional regrets was not having had the chance to represent his country on the ice.
Béliveau had been named the team’s honorary captain but was unable to attend the Olympics in person because of his stroke.
So he was surprised when the phone rang just as he was settling in to watch the gold-medal game.
“Five minutes before the start of the game, I was sitting in my chair and I received a call from [Hockey Canada president] Bob [Nicholson] and [Team Canada general manager] Steve Yzerman, and this I will never forget,” he said the night of the ring ceremony. “In our lives, we all have events that stand out, and this was one of them.”
Around the time of the Habs centennial in December of 2009 – Béliveau was of course a central figure in the gala celebration – he told The Globe he had no plans to slow down because of his advancing age.
But a year later, standing among the hockey grandees assembled for the Hockey Canada ring presentation, he said “I’m not getting any younger, you know, so I have to take it easy, there aren’t so many evenings out any more.”
“I have to save my energy for the games at the Bell Centre,” he added with a laugh and a twinkle.
He would continue to attend home games regularly until 2013, when poor health made it impractical.
In early 2014, he broke a hip in a fall, and in late summer was in hospital with pneumonia.
Béliveau is survived by Élise, their daughter Hélène, and grandchildren Mylène and Magalie.
With a report from Tu Thanh HaReport Typo/Error