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Jean Beliveau: Words can’t do justice to what he has meant to hockey

I know this is primarily a "Leaf site", but I’ve been remiss in not writing enough here about one of the finest players in the history of the game—Montreal legend Jean Beliveau. 

While this is a hime for Leaf talk, it's also more than that.  It is a site about hockey, its history, its great moments and the many wonderful memories that I have and try to share here about some of the players- Leafs and "foes" alike- I have been privileged to watch play since the late 1950s.

If you've visited today hoping to read about the current Leafs, I understand.  (Some more hopeful signs in the loss to the Sabres Friday night, for sure...)  But sometimes it is nice to write about great memories not specific to the Leafs.

If you don't already know about him, Beliveau is an old-time player worth learning a bit about.

He was, without question, one of the finest all-around players I have ever seen.  (See the great old old picture at left of Beliveau in action in the early 1960s against the Bruins and goalie Bob Perreault.)  Fine skater, so balanced, with that long reach, on-ice vision and a quiet passion.  Many have written through the years about what a classy guy Beliveau was—and still is—now well into his 70s.  And that he is.  I’ve had occasion to meet with him on more than one occasion and he absolutely lived up to his billing.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard was the fire-brand, the passion behind the Montreal Canadiens legend, which he helped to cement in a career that lasted from 1942 to 1960.  He retired after the 1960 season as team Captain, with the Habs having won 5 consecutive Stanley Cups.  The Rocket was a fighter—volatile, fiery, rugged with so much desire.  He was unquestionably the best player the game has ever known from the blue line in. He set goal-scoring records, yes, but how he scored them (often with guys hanging all over him) and when he scored them (big goals, especially at playoff time and in overtime) is really what set him apart as a tremendous talent.

Richard (right), an everyday man of the people (I think he lived in the same house in the same neighbourhood most of his adult life), was considered rough around the edges—which made him an unpopular player outside of his own dressing room.  It also made his being a “ceremonial”  company-guy for the Habs after his retirement a frustrating and un-fulfilling (and short-lived) experience for him.  He ended up leaving the organization and there was a bit of a cold war between the Rocket and the organization for many years.

(I've written often about Richard in the past.  If you'd like to read a bit more, just check out the right-hand section of this site and click on his name.)

Beliveau, on the other hand, was skill, yes, but also class, on and off the ice.  Gifted for sure, he was a tall player for his era, and played with a certain elegance, though he could play tough if needed.  He could shoot, pass, and also deke goalies without equal because of his skills and  precise puck control. He earned the captaincy by player vote a year after Richard retired (he succeeded Doug Harvey), and retired himself after the 1971 season, the fifth Championship season for his team out of the previous seven seasons.

For Richard, fights were common.  He could be provoked, and opponents knew how to get under his skin.  Most hockey fans are well aware of the so-called “Richard riots”, which were precipitated after then NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended Richard (for violent on-ice behavior) not only the rest of the regular season in 1955, but for the entire playoffs as well.  Richard evoked that kind of emotion.

Beliveau, on the other hand, (see another great old Harold Barkley photo on the left) was more controlled, and rarely involved in those kind of major squirmishes.  I remember, back in the early 1960’s, when my Dad would bring home a copy of one of the French-language newspapers that would arrive by air from Montreal (where we lived, in Essex County in southern Ontario, he’d pick it up in downtown Windsor at a newsstand the next day). This one time, there was a story about Beliveau.  Beliveau had been given a 5-minute penalty for spearing Camille Henry of the Rangers.  I may be translating loosely, but the headline in the Montreal paper read, “I’ve never speared anyone in my life,” from Belieavu.  It must have been one of the only 5-minute major penalties he ever received, and it probably was, indeed, a mistake by the referee.  He wasn’t the kind of player to spear an opponent intentionally—ever.

I had my opportunity to interact with Beliveau a few years after he retired.  He was a Vice-President with the team, kind of a goodwill ambassador and still highly regarded, as he is to this day, though he has long since retired from active duty with the Montreal front office.  It was 1976, and I was hosting a weekly show at a small Mississauga radio station.

I contacted the Canadiens’ public relations department, and they put me in touch with Beliveau.  I was planning a trip to Montreal, expressly for the purpose of meeting with and interviewing him.  The team also provided me with a press pass for the game that Saturday night, and I made the trek by train with a friend (Gene) from my high school days in Windsor.

I had precious little money in those days (some things never change) so after our train trip, I have no idea if we were in a cheap hotel or sleeping at the bus depot.  In any event, we had taken a cab to the Forum, where I was to meet Beliveau.  As agreed, we met high up in the stands, behind one of the goal areas.   It was during the morning g skate. (I can't remember who the Habs were playing that night.) He was an impressive man, and he carried himself with dignity.  We chatted for about 30 minutes, and he responded patiently and thoughtfully to a wide range of questions, speaking into my little microphone.

I in particular recall asking him about the league’s expansion efforts since 1967, when the NHL initially brought in 6 new teams, then Vancouver and Buffalo in 1970, and finally Washington and Kansas City in 1974.  As many hockey fans had been turned off by the watered-down expansion era talent, I expected him to respond like a lot of “old-timers” and say that the hockey wasn’t as good anymore, that it was indeed watered-down.             

Instead, his response caught my attention.  He essentially said the league simply  had to move forward, that every other professional sports league (NBA, NFL and major league baseball) had many more teams than the NHL, and that the perception was that the NHL was ‘small-time’ with only 6 teams.  So they needed to expand, in part to develop a better business model and enhance its reputation.

He was right, and the game has grown in the United States and globally since that time.

He was generous with his time with me that day, especially considering I was hardly representing some major network.  I was just a young guy, maybe 23 years of age, who had a little tape recorder.  But he treated me with respect, and I was able to use that interview as the centerpiece of my next show.

It was a bit of a “full-circle” experience for me.  Many years before, my Dad, who was a passionate Habs fan,  had written what must have been one of the few “fan” letters he had ever written in his life.  It was to Beliveau.  He never told me he wrote that letter, but I do remember that one day, in and around the  mid-to-late 1960s, a postcard arrived, addressed to my Dad.  On the back was a personal response from Beliveau.  Years later I read that Beliveau, during his career, had always taken the time to respond personally to fan mail.  His fairly lengthy hand-written response to my Dad was proof that this was a man who “got it”, who understood the privileged position he had as a leader on the most important hockey team in the world.  He respected the public, and they have in return always regarded him as a noble man in a tough sport.

Amazingly, also in the late ‘60s, my Dad ran into the Montreal team at the old Windsor (now Via Rail) train station.  Dad was waiting to pick up my brother (who was attending school at McGill) but my brother had missed his train.  Instead, Dad met Beliveau in person, who again was as gracious as could be discussing the playoff game in Detroit scheduled for the next night. (As I recall this story now, this was probably the spring of 1966, when Montreal was playing Detroit in the Cup finals.)

Interestingly, a few years ago, I took our youngest son (who was a big ‘collector” of hockey cards at the time) to a collectibles show just outside of Toronto.  Of all people, Beliveau was there, signing autographs.  He personalized a photo for my son, and was just as gracious with my son (and the people before and after us) as he had been with me more than 20 years before.

There may have been better players (Orr, for one) but not many.  And many were/are fine people, too, but none were more a gentleman.

Few, if any athletes should be put on a pedestal.  I think Beliveau is the exception.




  1. I grew-up in Toronto in a TML Household. No one in my Family was anything but a Leaf Fan - and we all hated the Montreal Canadiens (when I was four the Leafs won their last Cup and as a kid, Montreal and Toronto were almost even in total Cup Wins).

    But Jean Beliveau was held in the highest esteem by my Father and his House.

    He was the very definition of "Captain".

  2. Aeneas the Younger...thanks for sharing that memory.

    My sense is a lot of Leaf households in those golden days felt the same way- loyal Leaf supporters, but a deep respect for what Beliveau represented as a player and as a person.

  3. Mike, Your story brought back fond memories of that trip to Montreal (we did stay in a hotel but I can't remember which one). As Beliveau was my boyhood hockey hero, I was absolutely thrilled to be able to accompany you to the interview. I do recall the Canadiens' PR staff were somewhat suspicious of me until you introduced me as your assistant - I believe you had me turn your cassette player on and off for the interview.

    Years ago (1994), my wife bought me his book My Life in Hockey and waited patiently in line for his autograph at a book signing he attended here in Windsor. A couple of years ago, I sent him my own fan letter and he kindly responded with an autographed Legends in Hockey card. So he still "gets it".

    Truly one of the classiest guys in hockey and all of professional sports as well.

    Gene M.

  4. Gene, many thanks for sharing your memory here. It was such a tremendous experience to be able to meet with and interview a true legend when you and I were still "young"!

    Your recent experience, receiving a note back from Beliveau, confirms that he is indeed one of a kind.

  5. A little bump for this article about one of the all time greats who should be in our thoughts and prayers.

    I've never seen him play outside of some grainy footage, but I marvel at the mystique of Jean Beliveau. As much as I loathe the Habs - if there's anything thing positive about this season for me, is that the Habs are doing far worse than the Leafs - I've always held Jean Beliveau in the highest regard as a player and a person. Beliveau is THE benchmark on which all hockey players should aspire to on the ice, and off the ice.

    I hope he pulls through this difficult time and continue to be Mr. Ambassador for hockey.

  6. Thanks for taking the time to comment on Beliveau, Hogie. Some people aren't what they "seem". This is one guy that I have no fear in saying: no one will ever have a bad word to say about him.

    He was and remains a true model for others, in any walk of life.