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)

reign on the parade

Le Gros Bill: The inimitable Jean Béliveau died six years ago today, on a Tuesday of this date in 2014. He was 83. “Nobody will deny,” the novelist and Béliveau biographer Hugh Hood wrote in 1970, “that for sheer beauty of style, Jean is the greatest of them all — and not just on the ice, either.” Here he is on Wednesday, May 19, 1971, riding through happy Montreal and the crowd, said to be 500,000-strong, that rejoiced in the tenth and final Stanley Cup of his NHL career. (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94-Ed041-091)

le voilà, le gros bill

A Boost From Gros Bill: Born in 1931 in Trois-Rivières on the last day of August (it was another Monday), the incomparable Jean Béliveau. He was 38 in 1970, the year before he helped the Montreal Canadiens win another Stanley Cup, his tenth as a player. Like certain milk cartons, he was tough, strong, and durable, but after that ’71 Cup, Béliveau called quits on his 20-year NHL career.

stanley cup shivaree

Processional Hockey: Captain Canadien Jean Béliveau rides in Montreal’s happy Stanley Cup parade on May 19, 1971. Montreal police calculated the crowd to number 500,000 as the champions made their way through the downtown on the way to City Hall. The Gazette’s Hubert Bauch reported that the Cup was borne, perched high on a pedestal, on a big green float, and that, justly and poetically, it gleamed in the noonday sun. Also aboard: the entire marching band of College Secondaire St. Stanislas, who played a familiar tune as the crowd sang along: Les Canadiens, les Canadiens sont là. Béliveau came next, chauffeured in a car of his own. Bauch: “Coatless and squinting in the bright sunlight, he waved, smiled, shook hands and was totally Jean Béliveau.” (Image: Archives de la Ville de Montréal, VM94-Ed041-068)

jean béliveau, 1931—2014

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hockey players in hockey beds: unlucky jean béliveau

hpihb jb

Jean Béliveau went down injured in the fall of 1953, just seven games into his rookie season. He was 23 and (said the Canadian Press) fabulous. Montreal was in Chicago, where they won 3-2. When coach Dick Irvin phoned home to report the damage to reporters he made it sound like a Black Hawk stick had come to malevolent life, acting on its own to crack Béliveau’s ankle, though in fact it was Billy Mosienko who took the rap if not the rap (no penalty was called on the play). Irvin had to go, catch the Habs’ train home. “It was a bad crack,” he said. “We’ll put ice packs around it for the trip home and we’ll have it x-rayed as soon as we arrive.”

It was a cracked fibula. Doctors said he’d be out a month but it was December before he got back on the ice, 22 games later. Rocket Richard got a hattrick in a 5-3 Montreal win over the same rapacious Black Hawks the night he came back, though Béliveau wasn’t a big factor. His timing was off, said The Gazette, though he showed a flash of speed when he caught Chicago’s Jimmy Peters from behind on a breakaway. On a powerplay, Irvin put him out on a five-forward powerplay, on the point with Boom-Boom Geoffrion while Kenny Mosdell and Bert Olmstead patrolled with Richard upfront.

Montreal’s next game was against the New York Rangers. Again they won, 7-2, though Béliveau was injured again, his cheek this time, he fractured his rightside cheek, with the help of New York’s Johnny Bower. It was the second period and I’m sure Bower didn’t mean to hurt anybody, I mean, he was (and is) Johnny Bower. There was a jam in his goal crease, is what happened, and he tried to shove it out of the way (the jam), and Ranger defenceman Jack Evans fell, as did Béliveau, who banged his face against the goal post.

Dick Irvin didn’t think it was an accident. He had his doubts. To him it seemed like other teams were out to maim the Stanley Cup champions. What were the referees doing? Dickie Moore had been charged from behind, his shoulder broken; Fern Flaman broke Dollard St. Laurent’s nose; Elmer Lach had had his ankle slashed, just like Béliveau. Why do you think Geoffrion had to knock the Rangers’ Ron Murphy to the ice with his stick? Because the Canadiens had been under attack and the referees weren’t doing anything about it. (Geoffrion was suspended for the Canadiens’ remaining games against New York that season.)

Béliveau went to hospital. That’s him, above, after his cheek surgery. Parlons Sport called him unlucky in their caption — noting also as his convalescence got started, he at least had a chance to read a good newspaper.

The cheek kept him out four games. He was back on the ice before the year was out and though the Canadiens had a special plastic mask made for him, he wouldn’t wear it for the game in Toronto. The Leafs and Canadiens tied 2-2, with Béliveau scoring. “It was an ankle-high beauty,” Al Nickleson from The Globe and Mail decreed, “his third of the term and first since Oct. 15.”

jean béliveau: tall, handsome, digs books

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Jean Béliveau died on Tuesday in Montreal. Yesterday, the NHL announced that he’ll lie in wake at the Bell Centre, Sunday and Monday, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. His funeral will be nearby, next Wednesday at 2 p.m. at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, Rene-Levesque Blvd. where it corners with Mansfield.

In the meantime, as memories of the man continue to flood in along with tributes to his skill and leadership and grace, a few suggested readings, along with a smattering of opinions of the man collected from the last few days as well as deeper down in the archives.

1. “He’s tremendously strong, a beautiful skater, already a superb stick handler, strictly a team man with a perfect sense of playmaking. He has a wonderfully hard and accurate shot. He’d be a star on any hockey club. I wish he were on mine.”

• “The Marvels From Montreal” by Whitney Tower, Sports Illustrated, January 23, 1956. Read it here.

2. “He abhors violence, digs books, has adopted the flair-cuff, smokes a pipe — and more you didn’t know about Jean, the man.”

•  “A Day in the Life of Jean Béliveau” by Ted Blackman and “Béliveau” by Marv Moss in The Montreal Gazette, March 24, 1971. (This way.)

3. “Béliveau won out by a slim margin over Bernie Geoffrion with Dickie Moore and Tom Johnson also in the running.”

• “Béliveau Elected Captain” in The Gazette, October 14, 1961. Here.

(Montreal Gazette, June 11, 1971)

(Montreal Gazette, June 11, 1971)

4. “It was a difficult decision to reach. Hockey has been my life since the day my father gave me a pair of skates when I was five years old.”

• “A Tearful Jean Ends His Career” by Pat Curran, The Gazette, June 10, 1971.

5. “The referendum? I have no comment to make on the referendum. You don’t know what kind of trouble a question like that can cause.”

• “Should Quebec Go? 12 Prominent Québécois Say How They’ll Vote in the Sovereignty Referendum” by Bee MacGuire in The Gazette, April 12, 1980

6. “He was the great Jean Béliveau, tall, handsome, graceful and gracious, with his warm dignity and friendly smile, yet there he was. He treated everyone with such respect. He said the right things, and in the right way — in French and in English — because that is what he believed, and that’s how he was. He made every occasion better. He made everyone who attended feel that their town, their organization, their province, their country, their event mattered. That they mattered. Appealing to their best selves, he reminded them of the best that was in them.”

• “An appreciation of Jean Béliveau” by Ken Dryden, Toronto Star, December 4, 2104


jean béliveau: like meeting an old friend they hadn’t seen in a while


There seem to be three main types of Béliveau fans; perhaps the types are general. There are the ones who want to do what is expected of them; they ask for an autograph and are invariably polite. Then there are those who need physical contact; they want to shake hands or stand close to Jean for a picture. And there’s a third group who stand off from him as though stunned. They stand quite still, at a little distance, and stare. Then all of a sudden they’re apt to do or say something quite unpredictable, amusing or touching, like the lady of the golf course who played through his foursome one afternoon. She came striding along, passed this quartet of players, took a long, slow look over her shoulder as she went — a look mingled bewilderment and pleasure, very familiar to anybody who spends some time with Jean in public — and then spilled her dignity all over the place.

“I never saw you alive before,” she said. It just seemed to pop out.

Jean grinned at her. “I’m alive all right,” he said.

Perhaps the tremendous amount of television exposure has something to do with this phenomenon — the fan who is temporarily stunned by seeing the hero in the flesh. Jean says, “They act like they know me personally; it’s a wonderful feeling. Not just as if they’ve seen my picture in the papers over and over again, but more as if we’d spent a lot of time together, somewhere that they couldn’t quite remember. As if they were meeting an old friend they hadn’t seen for a long time. … They stop and stare; then they get that look of recognition, and they’re apt to say funny things very spontaneously, or start talking as if we’d been having a conversation that had been interrupted. It’s a very personal thing.”

• Hugh Hood, Strength Down Centre: The Jean Béliveau Story (1970)

(Photo: Weekend Magazine, 28 December, 1963/Louis Jaques/ Library and Archives Canada/e002505688)

beside jean béliveau

I’ve stood beside Jean Béliveau, and you know what they say about Jean Béliveau: he would have been governor-general except that he said no when the prime minister asked him, no, thank you, he probably said, if I know Jean Béliveau. I don’t, not really, not so well, we were only together for a minute or two while someone else, your proverbial third party, aimed her Polaroid at us.

A Polaroid — that’s how long ago this was. He’d just written his book and I’d gone ahead and read it, two circumstances that eventually joined into one, which was the taking of the picture, which I got to keep. I was taller, but Jean Béliveau had the whiter hair. I wore an orange shirt, a summer shirt, while the season of Jean Béliveau’s outfit — his more formally fitted blue blazer, his tie of ascending arrows, his grey flannels — was fall or winter. He had a southern tan. The woman with the Polaroid was the publicist. I’m speaking here, of course, of a marketing opportunity at a trade show for booksellers. Between us, Jean Béliveau and me, we held up a Canadiens jersey, home-white. When he autographed my Polaroid his J and his B came out looking like pretty good sketches of butterflies. Continue reading