Happy birthday to Canadiens living legend Jean Béliveau, who turned 83 on Sunday.
Back in 2005, as Red Fisher prepared for his 50th season covering the Canadiens, he wrote a feature series for The Gazette ranking the 10 best players he had watched in bleu-blanc rouge with Béliveau coming in at No. 1.
Below is the feature Fisher wrote on Béliveau:
(Gazette file photo/Pierre Obendrauf)
In a class by himself
PUBLISHED IN THE GAZETTE ON JAN. 29, 2005
As long as anyone can remember, even before he was to become everything that was good about this Montreal Canadiens franchise, Jean Béliveau has been special.
Was there ever a player blessed with more grace on and off the ice? He was a quiet leader who led by example. He walked and skated tall – and always will be remembered that way. We rejoiced in his accomplishments and were left limp with grief when he was struck with adversity – on and off the ice.
Some years ago, all of us were saddened when he announced in a brief statement that in a matter of days, he would start radiation treatment for a malignant tumour doctors had discovered in his neck. This man, loved and admired by so many, who won so many battles on the ice in his 18-season career with the Canadiens, took on his biggest one with greater resolve and courage than any game he ever played.
“I rely totally on the expertise of my doctors,” he was quoted in the statement. “I intend to follow their instructions and recommendations to the letter. I feel good and I fully intend on winning this next battle.
“During my treatments, for the next few months, I very humbly ask everyone to respect the privacy of my family and myself.”
He won it, against great odds. He handled the radiation, although for a long while he lost his sense of taste. He carried a bottle of spring water with him all day to ease the terrible discomfort of dry mouth, a condition that exists to this day. However, through all this, he was still the smiling giant of a man, available to people of all ages and languages and colours. His ability to charm others never has left him because he is, after all, Jean Béliveau.
Numbers and individual achievements don’t begin to describe what Béliveau has meant to his family, to the Canadiens organization, to people everywhere. Eighteen seasons with the Canadiens, his last 10 as captain; 10 Stanley Cups; two Hart Trophies, one Conn Smythe; 507 goals and 712 assists in 1,125 games; 176 points in 162 playoff games … only numbers. They pale in comparison alongside the love and respect other players, old and new, and the people have for him.
It wasn’t that long ago I ran into him at the Montreal General Hospital. An employee who was mopping the corridor on the sixth floor came along, stopped, his eyes widening. He said: “Ah, Monsieur Béliveau … bonjour!”
What he got in return for the next couple of minutes were smiles and words of cheer. It was always “Monsieur Béliveau,” even though he would have preferred “Jean.” That’s respect. That’s love.
“When you talk about the great players, the superstars who’ve played for the Canadiens,” Dickie Moore once told me, “he’s right up there with the very best. As an individual, he’s always been in a class by himself. As an individual, on and off the ice, nobody comes close.”
Béliveau was more than a captain: he was a father figure in many ways. If a player had a problem on the ice, Béliveau was only a stick-length away. If there were personal problems that needed attention, he was available. He didn’t inflict himself on anyone, but everyone knew he was there.
There always has been a shine to him that had a magical quality to it. Everything that is Béliveau comes from within. He cared about people, all people, when he played – and still does. Opponents played hard against him, but the respect was always there – and still is.
Wayne Gretzky has had critics among his peers. So did Mario Lemieux. Some players didn’t like Henri Richard, Phil Esposito and Bobby Clarke – but I don’t recall any player lashing out at Béliveau. Until he spanked today’s players for their stance in the lockout in early November, I can’t recall Béliveau ever going public with bad words about other players. He was almost too good to be true. Too many among the old-time players recoil at the money being made today, but Béliveau always has gone the other way. He’s glad for them.
He’d like to see the hooking and slashing and holding taken out of the game, but that’s where it ends. He is gracious about today’s stars, and when he played had a special place in his heart for Gordie Howe.
I remember asking Jean about Howe when the latter was retiring – for the first time – after 25 years with the Red Wings. Would there ever be another like him?
“If there is, I’ll be very surprised,” Béliveau said. “For another Gordie Howe, it will take a long time.”
Béliveau was awed by Howe’s strength, as well as his natural ability.
“Physical strength is a very important part of the game and always has been,” Béliveau said. “I would have to say that there are probably a lot of hockey players who are very strong physically, but they don’t have the ability to go with it. They don’t have the polish. Howe always had everything. He could do everything right and do it so beautifully.
“Some of the people, they say that Howe did not skate too fast. He knew what he was doing all the time, so he did not have to skate too fast, they said. All I can say is that up until near the end of his NHL career, the players who had to cover him should be asked how fast Howe could skate. And if you caught him, that great strength of his was too much.
“There are people like Howe in every business,” Béliveau added. “There are some who will do their job and do it well. That’s all. It was not enough for Howe.
“Twenty-five years … I do not know how anybody could play that long. With Howe, his stamina always amazed me. Lots of players can go for 40 minutes, but for the last 10 minutes they’re hanging on to somebody trying to catch their breath. Not Howe. Go … go … go all the time. But that’s what made him special, I think. With him, it was always that little extra that really counted. Will there be another Howe? If there is, he’ll have a lot to do.”
It doesn’t seem so long ago that I sat with Béliveau in his home the day before his 50th anniversary with the Canadiens as a player and executive. We talked about many things … the Stanley Cup teams he was on, the players on his line, the moments and events he remembered most.
“All those Stanley Cups, each one means so much,” Béliveau said. “You work so hard. You start in September and you don’t stop working. With Toe, (coach Blake) it was always first place. It’s all that counted, but one of my greatest thrills – and it’s always been team first with me – was when I was elected captain. I was not in line for it. I was not even an alternate captain at the time. I was in a cast at the time. Two months out,” he said with a sigh.
“So I’m in a cast when the boys are having the vote. Toe’s fedora is being passed around the room, and we’re dropping the little papers into it. You could vote for Dickie, for Boom, for Tom Johnson or for me. By then, I had been 33 days in a cast. I never thought for a second anybody would vote for me. I voted for Dickie.
“There was supposed to be two ballots,” Béliveau said, “and after the first, Toe told me two guys had tied. Me and Geoffrion. ‘You two will be the only guys on the second ballot,’ he said to me.”
Once again, the players tossed “little papers” into Blake’s fedora. Minutes later, an exercised “Boom Boom” now stormed out of the room.
“What’s the problem?” I asked him.
“Those bastards picked Béliveau,” he snapped.
“So what’s wrong with that?” Geoffrion was asked.
“Yeah, Boom was a little upset,” Béliveau said in his Longueuil home. “But ah … you know Boom. He was upset that day, but the next morning he was all right
“After the vote, I went up to see Mr. Selke: ‘I don’t deserve to be captain of this team.’ He said: ‘What would you want me to do? Go downstairs and tell those players they picked the wrong guy?’ ”
Red Fisher’s Top 10 Canadiens
Red’s Top 10 Canadiens combined to win 71 Stanley Cups. Here’s a look at the players profiled in this feature series:
No. 10: Serge Savard won eight Stanley Cups and was a member of the Big Three on defence with Guy Lapointe and Larry Robinson.
No. 9: Dickie Moore, a six-time Stanley Cup champion, won back-to-back scoring titles during the 1950s.
No. 8: Bob Gainey won five Stanley Cups and was one of the best defensive forwards in NHL history.
No. 7: Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, a member of six Stanley Cup teams, was the second NHL player to score 50 goals in a season.
No. 6: Defenceman Larry Robinson could do it all – skate, score and fight – en route to six Stanley Cups.
No. 5: Henri Richard won 11 Stanley Cups, an NHL record.
No. 4: Doug Harvey was the best defenceman of his time and played a key role on six Stanley Cup teams.
No. 3: Guy Lafleur, who won three NHL scoring titles, could electrify an audience like no other player with his speed and shot and was on five Stanley Cup teams.
No. 2: The legendary Maurice (Rocket) Richard was more than just a hockey player to Canadiens fans while winning eight Stanley Cups.
No. 1: Jean Béliveau spent 18 seasons with the Canadiens, winning 10 Stanley Cups while displaying unmatched class on and off the ice.