The changing face of Canadiens training camp

As I spoke to a number of Canadiens after practice on Tuesday, their comments to be heard in an audio post here, the same theme was replayed: NHL players arrive at training camp today in virtually game-ready shape, having trained most of the summer to arrive in peak condition.

(And they’d better be; the Habs were in camp for exactly three days last weekend before they hit the ice for five exhibition games this week, including three in three nights.)

That’s not always been the case, and it reminded me of a story I wrote about Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau nine Septembers ago. I recycle it below, and hope you enjoy the words, and especially the photo that runs with it.

jb-camp.jpg

Twenty-one-year Jean Béliveau gets a rubdown as he listens to Quebec Aces coach Punch Imlach in 1952.
Photo: Louis Jaques, Weekend Magazine

HE AIN’T HEAVY, HE’S MY CENTRE
Béliveau recalls days when players arrived at training camp to whip themselves into shape

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette
(Published Sept. 12, 1998)

Jean Béliveau won 10 Stanley Cups as a member of the Canadiens, known as much for his cool in the heat of action as for his superb skating and playmaking skills. But in 1949, when he arrived at his first National Hockey League training camp, Béliveau was a sweaty-palmed, wet-behind-the-ears rookie who was so nervous he could barely lace his skates.

“Yes, I was very nervous,” Le Gros Bill admits today of that centreman who had just turned 18. “It was quite an experience. Imagine what it was like to play alongside your heroes, men who were practically legends.”

Béliveau took part in the Canadiens camp for five consecutive years, dazzling railbirds with his impossibly long strides and butter-soft stickhandling. He even had a five-game taste of the NHL in 1950-51 and ’52-53.

But every autumn he returned to Quebec City, fiercely loyal to the people who were paying him $20,000 a year to play for the Quebec Aces of the Senior League. At last, on Oct. 3, 1953, he signed with the Canadiens to begin an 18-year career that finally would drop anchor at the doors of the Hall of Fame.

In those days, the Canadiens training camp would run 32 or 33 days, a week longer than this year’s session. Béliveau remembers usually reporting 10 to 12 pounds above his playing weight of 205 or 206 (a featherweight by today’s NHL standards), excess baggage he would easily shed from his 6-foot-3 frame once workouts began.

“There were other boys who would report heavier than that, but we were professionals and we were conscious of our responsibilities,” he says. “We had to determine what weight was best.

“And then,” he adds with a chuckle, “(coach) Toe Blake always had his charts to help us find that weight.”

Year-round conditioning was unheard of, simply because players were too busy to take care of themselves during the off-season. Even the top stars weren’t paid enough to allow them four months off, so players worked second jobs from May through September, many spending the summer delivering beer or soft drinks.

Béliveau had an office job with Molson. For four summers he moved his family to Quebec and Levis to manage product distribution, and even during the season he would report to the brewery’s Montreal headquarters, where he’d work from the end of Blake’s 10 a.m. practices until dinnertime.

Training camp was almost an afterthought in Montreal’s newspapers, and the prelude to the season was hardly the media circus it is today. A nine-paragraph Gazette wire report on the opening day of Béliveau’s first camp was displayed below a Mount Royal Country Club mixed doubles tennis event, a Quebec assistant-pro golf tournament, a rugby preview and high-school football.

“We usually had only two reporters at camp, Jacques Beauchamp and later Red Fisher,” Béliveau says. “There was no hockey on television, and there was very little radio coverage.

“Even then, radio reporters would have these huge tape recorders. The other day I had a student over to interview me – and he had a video camera.”

Fisher, the dean of Montreal sportswriters who will be among the dozens of print and electronic media covering the Canadiens camp beginning today, recalls the 1961 training camp held in Victoria, B.C. The team lived for two weeks at the elegant harbourfront Empress Hotel before taking the train back to Montreal, stopping to play exhibition games along the way.

“One day about 20 players rented a boat to cruise between Vancouver Island and the mainland,” Fisher remembers.

“It wasn’t long before Doug Harvey was waving some guys, including Beauchamp and myself, down below for a poker game.”

The gamblers staggered up on deck four hours later, back in port, cigar smoke stinging their eyes as they blinked back the sunshine that had washed over some of the country’s most magnificent scenery.

“Never saw a mountain,” Fisher says, shaking his head. “And not only that, I lost money.”


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