Remembering hockey legend Jean Béliveau

Stephen Brunt takes a look at the career and life of hockey legend Jean Béliveau.

Jean Béliveau was making the rounds on a book tour back in 1994, submitting to indignities and inconveniences that most garden-variety superstars wouldn’t put up with.

It seemed a bad fit for the great No. 4.

Béliveau could have had almost unimaginable wealth if he had possessed a huckster’s streak, but he had never been comfortable selling. He was never a pitchman. Money wasn’t enough to get him in front of a camera or to sign his name over to a business other than the one that had employed him all his adult life, the Montreal Canadiens. It wasn’t that he was a particularly private man, just an unassuming one.

Béliveau was making an exception this time out and with good reason. He had written his autobiography. It wasn’t a piece of business. It was his life story.

A time was set in the offices of Béliveau’s publisher and I arrived late for the meeting. Béliveau said not a word about it but I felt I had to offer an explanation. I told him that I had just visited my father-in-law who was terminally ill with cancer. In passing I mentioned that my father-in-law was originally from Montreal and had been a season-ticket holder at the Forum back in the ’50s and ’60s.

Béliveau asked for his phone number and dialed it. The call rang through to an answering machine. "This is Jean Béliveau," he said at the beginning of an encouraging message.

I was, of course, thoroughly dumbstruck at this point. I sputtered out a few Qs and Béliveau did all the heavy lifting with the As. The book wasn’t a vanity piece, a spinning of history, the grinding of a few old axes. His image didn’t need further buffing and he had no scores to settle. He wanted to tell his story because of his "good fortune."

Of course, Jean Béliveau, who died Tuesday after a lengthy illness, made the most of his good fortune. He wanted to do things the right way and so it was with this book. He could have taken a shortcut, submitting to interviews with a ghostwriter, dictating into a tape recorder. Instead, he wrote out the text in longhand, taking a year to complete it.

"That’s the way I approach everything in life," Béliveau said.

It would have been a line many athletes could have floated but few could have backed it up. With Béliveau it was beyond questioning.

Ten Stanley Cup championships as a player, three Hart Trophies, an Art Ross, a Conn Smythe, fixture status on all-star teams: These were measures of what he did. Ultimately, though, what separated Béliveau from other greats was how he did it.

Many who soar suffer the vertigo of stars, sometimes manifesting in conceit and hostility, sometimes in insecurity and wariness. Béliveau was, as a man, utterly at ease with himself. He made being Jean Béliveau look like the greatest job in the world. Not just when he made the Canadiens, but going right back to his youth in Victoriaville.

"I remember very clearly listening to the radio when Maurice Richard scored 50 goals in 50 games," he said. "The next morning on that little ice surface while we were playing our shinny games, we were ‘broadcasting’ the game. One player was Maurice and another one—usually me, because I always played centre—was Elmer Lach. I’ve always felt that Maurice showed us that, if you really desire something, if you work at it, it’s possible for any Quebecker to make a career in hockey."

Béliveau wanted to tell his life story so that he could give credit where he thought credit was due. It wasn’t simply Richard blazing a trail for him. Béliveau gave full credit for his wonderful life to his family. In contrast to recent generations’ involved (and over-involved) parents, the Béliveaus knew that their son would do well on his own if he stuck to basic guiding principles in his career and life.

"My parents were blue-collar," Béliveau said. "But they were wise. They knew about my gift to play hockey. They sensed that it would take me places that they never could go to. My father, a worker for Shawnigan Water and Power, drove me to the bus station in one of the company trucks the day I was going to Quebec. He told me, ‘Do your best and if you want something, be prepared to work for it.’"

These words Béliveau took to heart. He never rushed things, never acted on impulse and never expected immediate returns. "[My father] told me, ‘Be honest,’" Béliveau said to me. There might have been more gifted players and greater scorers, but it would be fair to say that there was never a more honest one than Béliveau.

The Canadiens’ GM Frank Selke desperately wanted to sign Béliveau while he was still in his teens, but on his father’s advice he played in Quebec, first for the Citadelles in the province’s junior league and then for the Aces, a minor-league pro outfit.

When he did finally don the bleu, blanc et rouge, he wasn’t exactly an overnight sensation, scoring 13 goals in 44 games as a 22-year-old rookie in the 1953–54 season. He took his game to another level in his second year with 37 goals and 73 points in 70 games.

The 1955–56 season he called his best: a league-leading 47 goals and 88 points and his first Hart Trophy. Over the next five seasons he’d be voted to the NHL’s First All-Star Team four more times and to the Second Team once. By the age of 28, he had raised the Stanley Cup five times and had become the defining player on the best team the league had ever seen.

Even in those early days, Béliveau’s habits were set for life and they were the by-product of values instilled in him by his parents. "Every day when I would go to practice I would have to wear this," he told me, holding up his tie. "Every day I would be going to work after practice. When I played I always had a second job. I started out with Côte Dairy. Later with the Canadiens I went to Molson’s [to work in the off-season]."

When I spoke to Béliveau, he had no illusions about modern-day millionaire NHLers going back to the way his game and life were in the ’50s and ’60s, with work that revolved entirely around the arena. He didn’t begrudge the players their financial windfalls but thought he was richer for experience.

"Working while I was playing gave me a sense of how to talk to people," he said. "In my day, players had to work during the season and in the summer. Now the season is so long and the players make so much money, playing is a full-time job. The players know the lives of other players but don’t have much of a connection with the community."

Béliveau became the captain of the Canadiens by a vote of his teammates in 1961, after the team’s great Stanley Cup run. He went on to become the longest-serving captain in franchise history.

When Béliveau first wore the "C," Montreal was a team in transition with its stars of the ’50s (Maurice Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Doug Harvey and Jacques Plante among others) having exited the scene or soon on the way out.

When the Canadiens won their next championship in ’65, Béliveau was one of four holdovers in the lineup from Montreal’s last previous winning trip to the final. He also won the first-ever Conn Smythe Trophy, recognizing him as the most valuable player in the league’s post-season.

It might have looked like Béliveau was deep into the third period of his career with the ’65 Stanley Cup champions—he was 33 years old, after all. It was, however, the start of another glorious run for the NHL’s most successful franchise. The Canadiens went on to win four Stanley Cups in five seasons, interrupted only by Toronto’s upset in ’67.

"We had a bunch of Hall of Famers and a lot of guys were underrated," he told me. "With Yvan Cournoyer, who was on the wing of my line, and Henri Richard, we had the two fastest skaters in the league. Two other guys, Gilles Tremblay, another of my wingers, and Bobby Rousseau were only a step behind. On defence, Jacques Laperrière, Terry Harper and Ted Harris were tougher than anybody to get by, and J.C. Tremblay handled the puck better than anybody."

Béliveau always said his favourite Stanley Cup season was his last and most unlikely: 1971, when the Canadiens upset the powerhouse defending-champion Boston Bruins in the first round and the favoured Chicago Black Hawks in the final.

It could not have been scripted for a more dramatic and fitting end to his glorious career.

Béliveau had planned to retire after the 1969–70 season, when Montreal missed the playoffs for the first time in more than two decades. Montreal management asked the 38-year-old captain to stay one more season to help during a rebuilding of the team’s roster, to mentor young players the way Butch Bouchard and Doug Harvey had mentored him back when he was breaking into the lineup.

The Canadiens struggled in the first months of the 1970–71 season and their coach, Claude Ruel, was fired.

The team rallied under Ruel’s successor, Al MacNeil, but even ardent Montreal fans were giving them almost no hope of getting by Boston in the first round that spring, especially when Montreal opted to go with Ken Dryden in goal, a rookie who had appeared in just six regular-season games. But the Canadiens, with Béliveau skating on the first line between Cournoyer and Frank Mahovlich, managed to string together upsets and comebacks, including from a two-goal deficit in game seven of the final in Chicago.

It was hard to imagine that Béliveau in retirement would be anything except a Canadien for life, but his reaction was a piece with his life and values. "The Canadiens asked me to work in the front office, [but] I told them I couldn’t go," he told me. "By then I had 18 years seniority at Molson’s."

The team ultimately was able to coax Béliveau into accepting a senior executive position and he would stay on with the club until 1993. And as a member of the front office his name would be engraved on the Stanley Cup seven more times. Through those years and even after stepping down, he was a fixture at Canadiens games, instantly recognizable in his box seats.

Not long after he packed up his office in the Forum, Béliveau had another offer to consider: Prime Minister Jean Chrétien approached him about the position of Governor General.

The Canadiens had been able to coax him into one last season, but the PM couldn’t convince him to take on the job in Ottawa. Béliveau told officials he didn’t want to take on a job "with heavy responsibilities and long hours and a five-year term."

Béliveau also felt the irresistible pull of a family in a tragic crisis: His son-in-law Serge, a Montreal police officer, had committed suicide a few years before, leaving Béliveau’s daughter Hélène as the single mother of two young daughters. Béliveau and his wife, Elise, lived nearby and spent as much time as possible with Hélène and her children. "It was the main reason [I declined]," he said.

While I interviewed Béliveau in the publisher’s office, members of the staff poked their heads in just to get a glimpse of the legend. He understood the effect he had on people when he entered a room. "I have eyes," he said. He understood exactly how much he meant to people who remembered the Canadiens of the ’50s and ’60s and recognized his character. And before he left the publisher’s office, he rang up my dying father-in-law again and this time the phone was picked up.

Béliveau never breathed an undignified breath and made the heroic look effortless because it was something he did every day, whether millions were watching or he was dialing up a stranger.