It was this week in October, 69 years ago, that Jean Béliveau signed his first contract with the Montreal Canadiens, putting pen to paper in managing director Frank Selke’s Forum office on Saturday, October 3, 1953. Later the same day, the 22-year-old Béliveau joined his new teammates on the ice as the reigning Stanley Cup champions an array of NHL all-stars in the league’s seventh annual showcase. Detroit’s Terry Sawchuk foiled the Canadiens, mostly, as he led his team to a 3-1 victory, with New York Rangers’ winger Wally Hergesheimer scoring a pair of goals on Gerry McNeil into the Canadiens goal. Maurice Richard scored Montreal’s goal, rapping in a rebound of a shot by Béliveau that the Montreal Gazette qualified as smoking.
Béliveau had worn number 9 while starring for the QMHL Quebec Aces, but that was already claimed in Montreal by the Rocket. In the five games Béliveau had played previously as a call-up, he’d tried 17 and 20 (a game each in 1950-51) and 12 (three games in 1952-53). It was in September of ’53 that he posed, above, with Canadiens trainer Hector Dubois to commemorate his switch to number 4.
There was nothing specially to it, apparently. “Big Jean,” the Gazette duly noted, “said the number he wears is immaterial to him.” Pre-Béliveau, it had been passed around: Ivan Irwin, Reg Abbott, Eddie Litzenberger, and Calum Mackay had all taken a turn with Montreal’s 4 before he made it his own. There’s an argument to made that it should have been plucked from circulation before Béliveau ever arrived on the scene: 4 was the number that the great Aurèle Joliat donned when he joined the Canadiens in 1922, and the only one he wore throughout his 16-year career in Montreal. Canadiens did eventually get around to recognizing Joliat’s tenure as number 4, adding him as a “co-retiree” in 1984, 13 years after the team honoured the number in Béliveau’s name.
(Image: La Presse)