4thought

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)

ivan irwin: think twice + avoid

It took defenceman Ivan Irwin a couple of tries before he stuck in the NHL. Boston and Montreal both took a look in the early 1950s, but he was deemed too awkward, not strong enough a skater. He finally caught on in New York at the age of 26, playing four seasons with the Rangers. Born in Chicago to Canadian parents on a Sunday of this date in 1927, Irwin died last month in Toronto, on February 11, at the age of 91. Contemporary articles recounting his exploits on the Ranger defence feature words like thump and bash and bop. “There’s a crudeness to his form when he’s in action,” Stan Saplin wrote in a 1955 profile for Hockey Blueline magazine, “and yet, if this makes any sense, there is a polish to Irwin’s crudeness. As he says, he’s far from an accomplished skater and often he looks like a first-timer on blades as he hurries to respond to a distress signal. There’s nothing amateurish about his defensive work.” His coach, Frank Boucher, thought that even as a newcomer to the NHL, he played like a veteran. “He gives you that little opening and then closes it,” Boucher said. “And when he hits you, you know it. I’ve noticed time and again that forwards bringing the puck in don’t drive against us as they did before Irwin joined us. They think twice and look to avoid him.”