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We can all enjoy some AHL hockey now, with Nazem Kadri playing the role of Jean Beliveau...

In the absence of the NHL, we’re going to see a lot of awfully strong AHL teams this season, aren't we?  Before the old CBA expired last weekend,  NHL clubs stuffed their minor-league line-ups with their eligible NHL players.  As you all know, the Leafs have shipped everyone they could down to the Marlies except for Matt Frattin, I think it was.  (And Frattin is not included only because of injury, if I’m not mistaken.)

One of the many outstanding posters here, DP, reminded me recently that there is an opportunity now to chat about the “old days” of hockey, which I like to do anyway.  But DP suggested that I focus on the minor-leagues—especially since we will be seeing a lot some NHL-caliber players on display in the AHL this season.  (The domino effect should extend to all levels of professional hockey, and impact junior hockey as well.  The unfortunate aspect of this for some borderline players is that they will miss out on jobs at the lower professional levels because of this roll-over effect.)

DP mentioned the name Jean Beliveau as an example of someone who has a background in the "minor leagues",  and that name certainly brought back a flood of memories for me.

Now, I think Beliveau signed with the Montreal Canadiens the year that I was born, in 1953 or thereabouts (I’d have to look it up to be sure) when he was maybe 22 years of age.  But the fascinating thing about Beliveau was that while he was plenty good enough to play for the Habs much younger, after a brilliant junior career, he actually signed to play in the old American Hockey League with the Quebec Citadels or whatever they were called back then. (Actually, it was the Aces, I think…)

I’m no expert on Beliveau’s years with the AHL (having not quite been born yet!), but my dad was a huge Montreal fan in those days (his whole life, really).  He followed the hockey scene about as closely as a human being could back then—until the day he died, really, in 1985.

I remember Dad him telling me that “Le Gros Bill” as we was sometimes called (don’t ask me why) actually made more money playing minor-league hockey in Quebec City than he would have with Montreal had he just signed a contract with the Habs right out of junior.  I think he was maybe making more than $20,000 a year in Quebec City in the early 1950s, and of course endorsements and things like that  added to his income. 

I seem to recall reading, many years ago,  that Beliveau felt he owed the people of Quebec City something after his junior days there. He had been a junior hockey hero in Quebec (maybe that’s where Citadelles come from in my memory bank, I think that may have been their junior team….) and felt a kinship with the fans. (As a complete aside, I believe Beliveau was offered a contract to play in the WHA with the new Quebec City franchise in the early ‘70s, but he stuck to his retirement vow after he left the Canadiens on a high- having won the Cup in his final game as captain in the spring of 1971.)

I think Beliveau (pictured at right in a classic Harold Barkley photo from the early 1960s) played a couple of years in the AHL with Quebec City, but he did eventually sign with the NHL team that owned his rights (Montreal).  Then General Manager Frank Selke gave him a very nice contract for an NHL “rookie”, as the future NHL star had unusually strong leverage for a youngster in those pre-players union days.  There was a huge celebration—and a sigh of relief—in Montreal when Beliveau finally signed.

Though it wasn’t always smooth-sailing (Montreal fans often criticized Beliveau for not producing more…he was a bit like our Frank Mahovlich in Toronto—in that he made things look so easy people that always wanted more…) Jean went on to a legendary career with Montreal, winning those five Cups in a row in the late 1950s, and five more in the ‘60s plus that final championship in 1970-’71.

There is a rather neat Toronto connection with Beliveau- he played for Punch Imlach in Quebec City.  Imlach of course went on to fame as the General Manager and Coach of the Maple Leafs during what turned out to be their (hopefully not final) most recent glory years in the early and mid-1960s.

So we’re talking about very different circumstances, of course, but when I see that Jake Gardiner, Nazem Kadri and others will be playing (perhaps all season?) in Toronto with the Marlies, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jordan Eberle will be in Oklahoma City, this just may be an opportunity for a lot of hockey fans to in AHL cities in Canada and thew United States to enjoy seeing some great young talent at non-NHL prices.

While a lot of us would much prefer to see Kadri ply his trade with the big club, more time with the Marlies may prepare him all the better for a larger role with the Leafs when that day comes.  I've long said I wished Kadri had played all of 2010-'11 with the Marlies, and he did play with them a great deal last season.  I'd rather a player be so "cooked" and ready that when he does come up to the Leafs, he never has to go back to the minors.  Unfortunately, that's not the way the Leafs have handled Kadri so far.  But now, they have no choice.

In any event, for those seeking a hockey “fix”,  the AHL sounds like a nice opportunity right about now….


  1. I'm glad you decided to do some AHL column's.

    Here's a nice article on 5 teams to watch:

    And unlike the constant complaining, "worst in the league" comments that we often see....the inclusion and comments on the baby Leafs are quite positive:

    "The Toronto Marlies could be sellout-worthy while the Maple Leafs' season is on hold....Reloaded with former graduates Jake Gardiner (who was the highest vote-getting defenseman for the 2012 Calder Trophy), and Nazem Kadri, the Marlies' top-ranked AHL defense should draw plenty of heartbroken Maple Leafs fans to Ricoh Coliseum this season."

  2. Thanks DP- I'm guessing a lot of AHL teams will have loaded rosters this season, but it looks as though the Marlies will absolutely have a strong squad, for sure. Attendance should be solid this season....

  3. Jean Beliveau played for the Victoriaville Panthers in the QIHA at age 15 then 2 years with the Victoriaville Tigers in the QJHL. He then moved to the Quebec Citadelles QJHL) for 2 years. At age 20 he turned pro with the Quebec Aces in the QMHL and spent 2 years with them.

    Beliveau, in my estimation was one of the two best centres all time ever to play in the NHL and a complete class act to boot.

    Beliveau did not join Montreal until age 22, a fact that those who are quick to write off young players such as Kadri and Colborne should take note of. Sometimes it takes some players longer to develop and as you have noted Kadri would have been much better served with uninterrupted time with the Marlies.

    The Marlies should be exciting to watch this year. I am particularly interested to watch the progress of Joe Colborne (hopefully injury free). I think he can become that big bodied play making centerman that the Leafs so desperately need.

  4. Thanks for filling in some of the blanks on Beliveau, Pete Cam. And what a wonderful player he was, for sure. Though I hated the Habs dearly back in those days, he was indeed an elegant, graceful and supremely talented superstar. Perhaps the classiest of athletes to ever lace up skates.

    As for Kadri, I always think back to Lanny McDonald as just one example. It wasn't until his third year in the NHL (at the age of 22) when he began to feel his oats, gain confidence and consistently play the way he was capable of. He took off from there.

    I'm not suggesting Kadri will have a Hall-of-Fame career (I think he has been on the trading block for some time) but if the Leafs are patient and at some point simply "let him play", he may just deliver.

    Colborme, as you mention, should be fun to watch this season as well, now that he is healthy.

    Thanks Pete Cam.

  5. Just a further note on Jean Beliveau. At the age of 15 Frank Selke attempted to sign him to a C Form. This would have tied him to the Canadiens on a set date and at a set salary (this was the standard form most juniors signed). Beliveau's father balked at this and Jean ended up signing a B Form which tied him to the Canadiens only if and when he turned pro.

    Apparently the QMHL was a senior league and Beliveau seemed content to remain there indefinitely so Selke bought the league and turned it pro. Since Beliveau then automatically became a pro, he had to report to the Canadiens.

  6. Michael
    I see Pete Cam straightened out some Jean Beliveau history. Your comments sent me down Memory Lane and doing a little research.

    1. I left Scotiabank about the time that Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe were becoming spokesman on HNIC. It is my understanding that Gordie was good in smaller groups, while Beliveau was outstanding in all situations. I wish that I had the opportunity to meet them.

    2. Seeing the reference to the Quebec Aces, I remembered about a former member and multiple Club Champion at Whitevale Golf Club in Pickering, Herb Carnegie, who played for the Quebec Aces. I had heard stories about the fact that he should have been the Jackie Robinson (first black) to play in the NHL. My research indicates that not only did he have connections with Beliveau but Conn Smythe apparently commented that if he was white he would sign him with the Leafs.
    I discovered that this true gentleman died this year at the age of 92. You and your followers may find the following articles on Herb Carnegie enlightening.

  7. Thanks for that background, Pete Cam.

    I'd love to know if my "memory" (or stories I heard so often from my Dad!) were accurate- that Beliveau was in fact paid really good money to play for the Quebec Aces (American Hockey League?...Quebec pro league??) when he was 20 and 21?

    This is fun!

  8. The AHL is great to watch regardless of whether there's an NHL lockout... but will we actually get to watch much of it? I can't make it to the rink often and there's not very many games broadcast. Not enough for my winter fix, anyway.

    Anyone know if TSN or anyone plans to fill the broadcast void left by the lockout with AHL games?

  9. Yes, the Carnegie tie-in with Beliveau, RLMcC- of course. That's right, they played together in Quebec City.

    By all accounts he was certainly good enough to have played in the NHL, as you reference in the Conn Smythe quote. I believe there is a hockey arena named in Carnegie's honour in the Toronto area (Etobicoke?).

    To your earlier point, I think Howe was a shy guy in a lot of ways, and large groups would likely not have made him uncomfortable. Beliveau seemed to thrive in most any environment. But they remain two real gentleman of the sport (though opponents may not have thought of Gordie that way in his early playing days!), true legends.

    Thanks RLMcC- great stuff.

  10. Michael,

    You piqued my curiosity over Beliveau's "amateur" years with the Quebec Aces.

    I was able to find an article that referred to Beliveau making big money with the Aces so it looks like your memory was accurate.

  11. "Anyone know if TSN or anyone plans to fill the broadcast void left by the lockout with AHL games?"

    "So what will TSN, Sportsnet and CBC show should the season not start on time on Oct. 11? To paraphrase the football jingle, Are You Ready For Some Minor League Hockey? Sportsnet is putting agreements in place with the American Hockey League and the junior Canadian Hockey League to show their games on its five channels.

    In Sportsnet’s plan, Toronto fans might see the AHL Marlies games and OHL Brampton Battalion games on Sportsnet Ontario. Vancouver fans could see the Canucks’ Chicago Wolves affiliate and the WHL Vancouver Giants on Sportsnet Pacific. Depending on the length of the lockout, the volume of games could grow as the owners keep their star players sidelined."

  12. You're right, Anon. It's excellent hockey regardless of more "NHL'ers" being available.

    I don't get out nearly enough to see the Marlies. I wonder sometimes if I take it for granted that they are nearby. Would I go more if I was in a smaller market and it was more "special" to attend an AHL game?

  13. Thanks Pete Cam- glad to have it confirmed my Dad's "information" was correct way back when!

  14. Thanks for finding that information, DP. Good to know there will be some hockey for us!