Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Jean Béliveau, 1931-2014

With the news of the decline in health of Gordie Howe, the greatest hockey player who ever lived *, we all thought he'd be the next big sports legend to go.

As it turned out, he wasn't. His contemporary Jean Béliveau was.

(Yes, Howe was the greatest ever. Don't tell me Wayne Gretzky was. When Gretzky was 38, he retired as a man who never played defense and had lots of guys do his fighting for him. When Howe was 38, he was still the best defensive forward in the game, still one of the better attacking players, still did his own fighting, and still had 12 years of hockey left in him.)

Joseph Jean Arthur "Le Gros Bill" Béliveau was born on August 31, 1931, in Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers), Quebec, and grew up in nearby Victoriaville. By the time he was 15, he was good enough as a hockey center to have caught the attention of Frank Selke, general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.

At the time, the Canadiens -- sometimes called "Les Habitantes" or "the Habs" -- were, along with Anglophone bankers in Montreal, the Francophone bishops of the Catholic Church, and the dictatorial Premier (Governor) Maurice Duplessis, 1 of the 4 dominant forces in Canada's Province of Quebec.

Under National Hockey League rules of the time, teams had territorial rights. This allowed teams to have first choice of local players. This didn't do much for the New York Rangers, the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks, and even the Boston Bruins, playing in cold-weather New England, didn't benefit much.

But it gave the Canadiens the right of first refusal on players from hockey-rich Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, and the Toronto Maple Leafs the same on anyone from Ontario on west, allowing those 2 franchises to dominate the NHL in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, simply because even the colder parts of America weren't producing many talented hockey players.

Selke tried to get the teenaged Béliveau to sign a "C-form," the usual form by which NHL teams bound young players to them. Under the form's terms, Jean would have joined the Canadiens at a set date, and at an agreed-upon salary. However, Jean's father Arthur balked, and eventually Selke had to content himself with having Jean sign a "B-form," in which he agreed to play for Montreal should he ever decide to turn pro.

From 1949 to 1951, Béliveau played for the Quebec Citadelles of the Quebec Junior Hockey League. A teammate was Jacques Plante, who would join him on the great Canadiens team of the 1950s. Béliveau was a man among boys in that league. In the 1950-51 season, he scored 61 goals and assisted on 63 others in just 46 games.

The 1912 Colisée de Québec burned down in 1949, and the new one soon opened, mainly because Béliveau was bringing in enough fans to support it. The new Colisée de Québec, later the home of the Quebec Nordiques and now of the minor-league Quebec Ramparts, is still known as The House That Béliveau Built.

The Canadiens called him up for 2 appearances in the 1950-51 season and 3 in 1952-53, but he refused to turn pro. He was well taken-care-of with the Quebec Senior Hockey League's Quebec Aces, and he knew that NHL teams, while paying, didn't pay well. In 2 seasons with the Aces, he scored 95 goals and assisted on 77 others. There was no doubt that he had NHL-level talent, even in that time of 6 teams and just 120 players.

Finally, Selke got an idea: If the QSHL were somehow turned into a professional league, Béliveau would be a professional as well, and, under the terms of the B-form, he would have to sign with the Habs, or play for no one at all.

At Selke's suggestion, the Canadiens bought the entire league, and converted it from an amateur league to a minor pro league. Now the Habs owned the NHL rights to all of the league's players, and Béliveau now had just 2 options: Quit hockey or sign for the Canadiens.

For the next 18 seasons, he was the epitome of talent and class, in an era that placed a high value on roughness. He began in an era of 6 teams, all in the Northeast or Midwest, on black-and-white newsreels, with radio and newspapers the dominant way of following the game and television a novelty. (For whatever reason, Canada didn't start its 1st TV network until 1952, a few years after the U.S. and several years after most European countries did.) When he retired, there were 14 teams, TV broadcasts were in color, and the NHL was coast-to-coast in both the U.S. and Canada.

In between, he played in 13 All-Star Games, won 2 Hart Memorial Trophies as Most Valuable Player, an Art Ross Memorial Trophy as leading scorer, and, in 1965, the 1st-ever Conn Smythe Trophy for Most Valuable Player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (As seen in the photo above.)

He did not play enough games to receive a Stanley Cup ring for the Canadiens' 1953 title, but was an integral part of the team that won 5 straight Stanley Cups from 1956 to 1960. In 1961, when Doug Harvey left the team, he was named Captain, and remained so for 10 seasons, still a team record. Under his leadership, the Habs won the Cup in 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969 and 1971 -- 10 Cups in all, and 5 as Captain. Only his teammate Henri Richard, with 11, has won more Cups; no one has been Captain for more Cup wins. Since then, Denis Potvin and Wayne Gretzky have been Captain for 4; Yvan Cournoyer, Steve Yzerman and Scott Stevens for 3.

On March 3, 1968, he became only the 2nd player, after Gordie Howe, to tally 1,000 points in NHL play. On February 11, 1971, in his final season, he became only the 4th player to score 500 goals in NHL play. He was preceded only by his former teammate Maurice "the Rocket" Richard, Howe and Bobby Hull. He finished with 507 goals and 712 assists, for 1,219 points, in 1,125 games. Only Guy Lafleur has surpassed him as the Habs' all-time leading scorer; only Henri Richard and defenseman Larry Robinson have played in more games for the club.

In 1972, after just 1 year of retirement, he and Howe (who soon came out of retirement) had the mandatory 3-year waiting period rescinded, and were elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Canadiens retired his Number 4.

In 1998, The Hockey News selected the 100 Greatest Hockey Players. Béliveau came in at Number 7, trailing only Gretzky, Bobby Orr, Howe, Mario Lemieux, Maurice Richard and Harvey. Plante came in at 13th, Henri Richard at 30th, Dickie Moore at 32nd, and Bernie Geoffrion at 42nd. It's no accident that 3 of the top 7, 4 of the top 13, and 7 of the top 42 were members of the 5-straight-Cups Canadiens. Any of these men might have been legends anywhere, but they built each other's legends up.

In 2013, with 15 years of hindsight, issued a new 100 Greatest list, and they actually ranked Béliveau higher, at Number 6. (They dropped Hull to 7th, but their top 5 was exactly the same.) The editor wrote: "Head of the Class: Hockey's original gentle giant set the standard of class and excellence in Montreal that lasts to this day."

Béliveau became a Canadiens vice president and "ambassadeur," representing the team at official functions, as did Maurice Richard. (Currently, the lineup included Henri Richard, Cournoyer, Lafleur and Rejean Houle.) As such, they put his name on the Stanley Cup for each of their subsequent wins: 1973, 1976, 1977, 1978, 1979, 1986 and 1993. That's a total of 17 Stanley Cups, a record.

In 1953, while still playing for the Aces, he married Elise Couture, and they were married for 61 years. They had one child together, daughter Hélène, and had 2 granddaughters, Mylene and Magalie. Upon his retirement, he set up the charitable Jean Béliveau Foundation, and in 1993, he transferred the foundation to the Society for Disabled Children.

In 1994, he was offered the position of Governor General of Canada -- the in-country representative of Canada's head of state, the monarch of Great Britain. He declined, in order to spent time with his family. It wasn't a cliché, or a cover for "I did something bad, and my wife found out about it, and I have to make it up to her," either: His son-in-law, a Quebec policeman, committed suicide when the girls were small children.

He would eventually receive the highest civilian honors (or, considering how they spell it, I should type "honours") of his country and his province, the Order of Canada and the Order of Quebec. He was also honored with a postage stamp -- something America does not do for living people.

He was a featured guest at several Canadiens ceremonies: In 1985, honoring the team's 75th Anniversary and its all-time team (he was named the center, in a lineup that also included Maurice Richard, Moore, Harvey, Robinson and Plante); in 1996, at the closing of the Montreal Forum and the opening of the arena now known as the Bell Centre; and in 2009, honoring the team's 100th Anniversary.
He had heart trouble, survived cancer and 2 strokes, but was weakened by these battles. Jean Béliveau died last night, from pneumonia, at the age of 83.

With several recent deaths, and the apparent impending death of Howe, this is a difficult time for hockey -- above and beyond any jokes we could make about Gary Bettman and Sidney Crosby.

Jean Béliveau had too much class to make such jokes. He was one of hockey's grand old men.

UPDATE: He was buried at Saint Antoine de Padoue (Anthony of Padua) Cemetery in Commune-de-la-Baie-du-Febvre, Québec.

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