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)

election day, 1961: béliveau for the win — on the second ballot

C+: “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.” (Image: January 21, 1967. Library and Archives Canada, TCS-00828, 2000815187)

Election Day was a Friday on this date in 1961 — for the Montreal Canadiens.

Ahead of the new NHL season, the players were choosing a new captain, and the winner, when it was all over, was no surprise, really, even if it did take two ballots for Jean Béliveau’s teammates to elect him the 16th captain in Canadiens’ history.

Fifteenth to wear the C was defenceman Doug Harvey. The year before, 1960, he was 36 when he was voted in following Maurice Richard’s retirement. Harvey’s reign lasted just the one season: in May of ’61, after Chicago ousted Montreal from the playoffs, Canadiens GM Frank Selke foisted his best defenceman on the New York Rangers. Harvey played for and coached the Blueshirts in 1962 — and, of course, won his seventh Norris Trophy.

In October of ’61, the schedule didn’t waste any time in bringing Harvey back to Montreal, as the Canadiens opened their season by welcoming the Rangers to the Forum on Saturday, October 14.

The day before was when Montreal’s players went to the polls to pick a new captain. Boom Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, and Tom Johnson were also said to be in the running. “Since so many players had started with the club about the same time,” coach Toe Blake took the trouble to explain, “we decided to let the players pick their captain, rather than appoint one as has often been the case in previous years.”

Very democratic, to be sure — although Harvey, Richard, and (back as far as 1948) Butch Bouchard had all been voted in, too, by the players.

The first round of voting in ’61 produced a tie between Geoffrion and Béliveau, both of them 30, though Geoffrion had played two more seasons for Montreal than Le Gros Bill. A second ballot gave Béliveau the captaincy, which he kept for a decade, leading the Canadiens to five Stanley Cups before he retired in 1971.

Béliveau didn’t, however, immediately make his debut as captain, missing the Rangers game (Montreal prevailed, 3-1) and many more besides. He’d injured a knee at the end of September of ’61 in a mishap in Trail, B.C. during a pre-season game that Montreal played against the WHL’s Spokane Comets. The game was only two minutes old when Béliveau, trying to get past Spokane defenceman Bill Folk, went down. “In attempting to get the loose puck,” Pat Curran of the Gazette reported, “Folk lost his balance and fell on Béliveau.”

Canadiens outshot the Comets 42-8, outscored them 5-0 on the night; Béliveau went to hospital, where he was in such pain that he had to be examined under anesthetic. He had partially severed tendons in his right knee, as it turned out, and wore a cast for weeks. He finally rejoined the team for a game against Toronto in early December, and scored his first goal as captain against Boston nine days later.




that’s where you learn to stickhandle

jean b-1

Born on this day 85 years ago, the man they’d come to call Le Gros Bill parcelled up the foundational events of his existence in a quick paragraph in My Life In Hockey, the autobiography he penned in 1994 with the aid of Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz:

Arthur was stringing electrical line in Trois Rivières when he met Laurette Dubé, the only daughter in an uncharacteristically small family of only two children. Shortly thereafter, a wedding too place, and on August 31, 1931, Arthur and Laurette’s first child, christened Jean Arthur Béliveau, arrived — just as the Great Depression reached its nadir.

I’ve searched for more detail on that initial laddertop encounter between Béliveau’s parents — in vain, alas. Hugh Hood wrote a fine Béliveau biography, Strength Down Centre (1970), but there’s nothing there. He does note that Number 4, who died in December of 2014, was trifluvien mostly by birth: before he was four, the family moved to Plessisville before settling for good in Victoriaville. Next door was the parish church of Les Saints-Martyrs Canadiens, where Béliveau served as an altar boy. Behind the house, in wintertime, Arthur flooded the yard. In compliance with the tenets of the national mythology, Béliveau spent as much of his free time there as possible. “That’s where you learn to stickhandle,” he told Hood. “We didn’t play teams, or organized rules, you see? It was like one long scrimmage with every man for himself and if you couldn’t hold onto the puck you wouldn’t get any play.”

(Image, from 1953: Gaby [Gabriel Desmarais], Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec)