Yves Boisvert is a columnist with La Presse
When Maurice Richard passed the flame of the Montreal Canadiens to Jean Béliveau in 1960, it foreshadowed the entry into modernity of much more than just a hockey team.
The days of the original six were numbered. Soon, six other teams would join the National Hockey League and a player's association would be founded. And, a Quiet Revolution was beginning in Quebec.
Unwittingly, "Rocket" Richard embodied the struggle of the French Canadians in an English-dominated economy. Fathers still tell their children about the legendary five-goal, three assist game in 1944. Mr. Richard was exhausted after having spent the day moving his furniture into a new house. He was refused a day off by legendary Canadiens coach Dick Irvin. Many working men could relate. But, despite the bruises, black eyes, torn sweaters and injustices, the Rocket always came out a winner. A riot causing $100,000 in damages took place at the Montreal Forum in 1955 after he was suspended for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. It was a prefigurative moment of nationalistic affirmation.
Mr. Richard, a man of few words, was always baffled by the social and political role that was bestowed on him. But it is not up to heroes to control their own narrative.
By style and by character, Jean Béliveau would be a very different kind of hero. Mr. Richard was a raging, storming, instinctive player. The 6-foot-3 Mr. Béliveau was an elegant skater that made everything look easy. "Beautiful and pure as a poem," said Roland Giguère, a great Quebec poet.
At the end of the game in which he scored his 500th goal, Mr. Béliveau went in the rival team's locker room to offer his apologies to the goaltender.
No foul language, no excess, no scandal, no controversies: the man seemed a slick, almost perfect human being, and the legend just kept on growing.
One of my first assignments as an intern at La Presse was to cover his foundation for young people. Mr. Béliveau had started it with all the gifts given to him when he retired ($155,000). I was not allowed to call him "le Gros Bill," as he was known by veteran journalists. The copy editor decided "Le Grand Bill" would be more respectful.
Mr. Béliveau gave the image of a corporate man. He was friends with the Molson family, owners of the hockey club, and was paid handsomely during the off-season as a PR person for the brewery. When he retired, he immediately got a management job with the Canadiens, where he eventually became vice-president for social affairs.
The image of the obedient and ultra-polite gentleman is misleading, though.
Mr. Béliveau resisted the lure of the Canadiens for many years. He was an astute negotiator and a loyal player with the Aces, a semi-pro team in Quebec City. He earned $20,000 in the capital, which was more Mr. Richard and Gordie Howe made at the time.
The reluctance of the young Béliveau to leave the Aces eventually became a political story. In Québec City, a close adviser to premier Maurice Duplessis suggested Big Business in Montreal was trying to enslave the star player. It was rumored that the Montreal Forum could lose its alcohol licence if Molson "stole" Mr. Béliveau. Coach Irvin said Mr. Béliveau was "disloyal to French Canadians."
When he finally decided to join, at age 22, in 1952, Mr. Béliveau was awarded the richest contract in hockey history, and the first long-term deal: $105,000 for five years – $1-million in today's dollars.
That's small change compared with 2014 players. But even Rocket Richard had to negotiate every season, without much bargaining power, being "owned" by the club.
A gentleman he was, but after a couple of seasons where he was labeled as a "soft" player, he fought back and was the most punishing player on the team.
Jean Béliveau was determined not be the exploited and become another victim of the system. He was confident and articulate. Mr. Béliveau would often be seen reading books and speaking about the importance of education.
He was the perfect hero for a new generation that saw the coming of age of a more educated, self-assured middle class in Quebec that emerged from this Quiet Revolution.