I can’t possibly write something that won’t already have been said about the late Jean Beliveau. He was, well, almost revered, and rightfully so. But I’ll share a story that you may not have heard before, because it is a very personal memory.
Back in the fall/winter of 1976-’77, I was 23 years old and in the early stages of a fledgling (and very modest) career in the broadcast field. I was hosting a weekly sports show at a tiny radio station outside of Toronto. I contacted the Montreal Canadiens (likely the public relations office?) to try and arrange an interview with Beliveau—who had retired a few years previous but at the time was a senior advisor/executive with the Canadiens organization.
Things were simpler in those days. I was provided with a media pass to the game I was planning to attend. The interview arrangements were made and I travelled by train to Montreal with a close friend—who was a Hab supporter, by the way.
Once in Montreal, we took a cab to the arena (the old Forum) and were allowed into the building about mid-day on a game-day Saturday. Security was much lighter in those days. I simply said I was there for an interview with Mr. Beliveau, and soon I was walking around the historic building, filled with mementos and classic photos. I can’t recall all the details of how this had been set up. I don’t even remember if I had spoken with Beliveau himself in advance on the phone to confirm everything or whether it had been handled by the team’s public relations staff. But I remember this: my friend Gene and I went to the pre-arranged meeting place, which was high up in the stands behind one of the nets.
I had seen Beliveau play in person at the Detroit Olympia—though generally from the ‘nosebleed’ standing room area when I was young, while standing next to my Dad and peaking around much taller people. But like millions of Canadians, I had seen “Le Gros Bill” play countless times on television, especially at playoff time. He was, of course, a magnificent athlete. He wasn’t the fastest player on skates but he moved swiftly and had a way of getting around the ice that was so smooth, almost elegant, if you can imagine.
Beliveau had everything. He was big (probably 6 foot 3 inches, but I’d have to look it up). He likely weighed a little over 200 pounds, maybe not even that much. But he could skate, maneuver—and think. Boy could he see the ice. Talk about vision.
He had a powerful shot. Yes he could slap it, but he also had a strong and deadly wrist shot. (He closed out the then emerging Bruins with an overtime wrist shot to win Game 6 of a great playoff series against Boston in the spring of 1969. The puck was on his stick and in the net before you could blink. I still have a distinct vision of watching that goal on our old black and white television.)
He was a clean player, but could be physical, too. He had been a celebrated junior star, and wisely signed with the old Quebec Aces and future Leaf GM and coach Punch Imlach. He had been a junior star in Quebec City and became a hero there, which drove up his asking price to join the NHL. The Habs wanted him badly, and they turned over heaven and earth to sign him when he was maybe 22 years of age.
The crafty center helped the Habs win those five Cups in a row between 1956 and 1960. Then there was a lull (by their standards of the time) when the Canadiens retooled and did not win a championship again until 1965. Beliveau faced some personal issues at the time, including uncertain health, and his game was thought, in some quarters, to be slipping. But that speculation all came to a halt when he led the Habs to five Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1971. That last year was a major upset, as the Habs, despite having so much talent (Frank and Peter Mahovlich, J.C. Tremblay, Henri Richard, Cournoyer, Lemaire, Laperrierre, etc.—and an out of nowhere goalie named Ken Dryden) were the underdogs and took out both the favored Bruins of Orr and Esposito and the powerful Blackhawks of Mikita and Hull that spring.
Beliveau retired as a champion after that last Cup victory in 1971.
Seeing Beliveau walk down the stairs, shaking his hand and introducing myself, I was excited, though I had a job to do. Beliveau’s native tongue was french, of course, and my own francophone background provided me with some ability in French as well, but the interview was being done in english, thankfully. Beliveau’s english was distinctive and clear. He always spoke thoughtfully and with authority—in both languages.
We sat and talked for a few minutes, and then I turned my little tape recorder on and the formal “interview” began. We spoke for probably 45 minutes. My friend sat nearby, taking in the conversation. (As a Montreal fan, he no doubt was excited to have met one of his idols, as well.) Beliveau was gracious, candid and eloquent. I’ll always remember that he spoke with me as if I mattered, as though my questions were important. I was not with the CBC or a big American publication. I was just a young person, a kid really, working for a nondescript radio station (that doesn't even exist anymore). Yet he gave me all the time in the world.
One thing that stood out from the interview was Beliveau’s comments about the need for NHL expansion. While there were many critics who would have preferred the NHL to stick with the old “Original Six” setup, Beliveau basically told me that, for the league to be taken seriously in the broader sports world, it simply had to grow (as it was growing at the time…the league was probably up to 16 or so teams by then).
I will, of course, always remember that day at the Forum, and meeting a legend of the game.
I may have shared here before as well that, back in the mid-later 1960s, my Dad had written a letter to Beliveau. I did not know that Dad had done so, but I found out when Dad showed me the response he received from the Montreal captain. Beliveau had sent my Dad a lengthy reply on the back of a postcard (I believe there was a picture of the Montreal great on the front), signed of course by Beliveau himself in his very distinguished handwriting.
Maybe ten or so years ago, I took our youngest son to a card show near the airport in Toronto, where Beliveau was signing autographs. We waited in line and my son was excited to have this man, who he only knew about from my stories, sign a photo. I quietly thanked Beliveau, not for the “interview” years before, but for taking the time to write to my Dad so many years before. He was, as always, gracious.
I’m sure everyone who ever interacted with Beliveau has a story. He was indeed the genuine article—a gentle man and a gentleman. He was a thoughtful ambassador for a sport that will sorely miss him.
I’ll reiterate what has been said often before: Beliveau may well have been the truly classiest athlete in hockey history. Because of his sublime skill, humility and grace, he somehow became larger than life.
He was a hero that, to his dying day, never disappointed. That’s not easy when you have a high profile in a critical, invasive world—especially when you’ve lived under a spotlight as he did in Quebec. Rocket Richard was a lightning rod, a representative of Quebecers fighting for respect and to preserve their identify. Beliveau represented the people of Quebec as well. His way was simply different than the Rocket’s. Both were beloved.
Beliveau will remembered for all these things: elegance, class, leadership, and for living a sporting life, on and off the ice, with immense dignity.
We’ve lost some fine hockey people lately, including Beliveau, Gilles Tremblay, Murray Oliver and Pat Quinn. Gordie Howe is ailing. These are some of the great names of my youth who made hockey, for me at least, more than just a game. I was privileged to have worked with and become friends with Quinn, and to have met Beliveau, however briefly.
By all means share any memories you have. Beliveau was a Leaf rival to be sure, but one that you could only admire—and respect.