I was 6 years-old the only time I saw Jean Béliveau in person. He had just retired from the game in 1971 and he was sitting comfortably in that blue convertible car, waving and saluting the legion of fans on Notre-Dame Street in Victoriaville, Quebec. That’s the name of the town where the man himself developed as a hockey player at the family house backyard ice surface. It’s also the town where I lived from the time I was 3 years-old until I turned 17. My dad, a huge Bruins fan all his life, had mentioned Bobby Orr a few times but I can honesty say that Jean Béliveau is the first French-Canadian hockey player I had ever heard of by the time I started Grade 2. Actually I didn’t even know there was a NHL. The city of Victoriaville’s only arena back then was bearing the name Jean Béliveau. That was the place where I learned how to skate at 4 and play in organized leagues at 6. On the weekends many friends, my brother and I would head to the Aréna Jean Béliveau to play and watch hockey games. Any game. Gilbert Perreault was also a hometown boy so hockey was very popular there. With time, way after I left, the city acquired a QMJHL team, demolished the old arena and rebuilt the Colisée Jean Béliveau known today as the Colisée Desjardins. There is a section in the Colisée named after him which is red, white and blue. Of course he was present at the official opening of the section.
Fans attending a junior game in Victoriaville last Saturday showed their appreciation for the local legend.
I never saw Jean Béliveau play from my own eyes. Not even on TV. I was too young when he retired. I had the chance at some point to catch up with his hockey career and what he accomplished. Since he passed away on December 2 I found out or was reminded of his greatness as a hockey player and as a man. I gathered a few facts, stats, anecdotes and stories about the legendary #4 I meant to share with you:
- He did not always wear the jersey #4 with the Canadiens. He wore the #17 and #20 for the only 2 games he played during the 1950-51 season. He also wore the #12 for 3 games played in 1952-53. He wore the #17 again for the first game of the season in 1953-54. The second game against Chicago on October 8, 1953, he wore the number 4 for the first time.
- He never scored 50 goals in one single season.
- After he scored 3 goals in 44 seconds during a power play on November 5, 1955, the NHL rule was changed the next season to allow the penalized player to return to play if a goal was scored against his team during the penalty.
- Béliveau’s name appears on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times, 10 as a player and the other 7 as an executive. Only Henri Richard has won more Stanley Cup as a player with 11.
- He still holds the record for the fastest Cup-winning goal from the start of the game in League history scoring 14 seconds into game 7 vs Chicago. A game that would end 4-0.
- In 1961, he was elected captain by his peers. He wore the “C” for the next 10 years, which remains the longest tenure of any captain in club history.
- He was the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy for his performance in the 1965 Stanley Cup playoffs.
- He is the first and only captain to win the Conn Smythe and score the game-winning goal in the same night.
- After winning the Stanley Cup for a last NHL game in 1971, the Hockey Hall of Fame waived the usual 3-year waiting period and immediately inducted Béliveau in 1972.
- He was known to sign autographs for as long as it took especially after games. His signature is classic and a recognizable one for any collector of hockey cards or memorabilias. When teammates would ask him why he cared so much his answer was that it was his duty.
- When the Canadiens celebrated his 500th goal he refused a car or a cheque from the club. Instead the ”Jean Béliveau Foundation” was established and he was able to donate $155,855.00 to the start-up fund that night. The foundation is meant to help children in need. Its administration was assumed by him until a decade ago. He left clear instructions on how the funds should be used.
During the days that followed his death many stories were heard including some special and personal anecdotes from callers on radio shows:
- One man from Kapuskasing, Ont. said that as kids him and his friend were in Montreal and decided to climb the fence to see if Jean Béliveau was at his house. They located him next to his pool wearing a swim trunk. Béliveau spotted them, offered them to come over and eventually signed a picture his wife took of the boys next to her husband.
- A caller said he was shoveling snow as a boy in 1961 to bring extra money home for his family when he knocked at Jean Béliveau’s door and offered to shovel at his place for 2$. The hockey player agreed and ended up giving a 5$ bill. That same night, the man said his parents told him who was that tall man living in that house. He had not recognized the #4.
- Another caller said that he fell off his bike about 20 years ago and as he tried to get back up he saw a hand. As he looked up to see who it was he saw Jean Béliveau standing. Béliveau offered to bring him at the hospital but the man said he would be fine. He brought him home and told the injured man he would send him a puck with his autograph as requested. Weeks later, the man received a thicker package than usual with the Montreal Canadiens logo on it.
- Many people told stories about him visiting sick children unannounced during and after his career as player. He would show up at arenas to watch kids play and enter dressing rooms with the permission of coaches.
- He was extremely popular with women of all ages who started to follow hockey because of him.
- When the fans at Bell Centre started to show disrespect toward the American anthem years ago, the Canadiens had a tape played before the anthems one night. It was Jean Béliveau’s voice reminding all those attending to stand up, remove hats and caps and remain respectful throughout the singing of both anthems. That was the end of it.
- He said prior to retirement that he would never play for another team.
- Habs co-owner and CEO Geoff Molson – his two brothers Andrew and Justin are co-owners – said he was 4 when his father Eric introduced him to Jean Béliveau. Some thirty-five years later, Geoff asked Béliveau to be his special advisor when he took over the destiny of the Molson family who owns the team.
- I could go on and on…
He was the greatest ambassador of the Montreal Canadiens throughout 7 decades. Especially the ones that followed his playing career. He is the one who came up with the idea to have a room where former players could go and meet before, during and after games. Former Habs Vincent Damphousse said that whenever Béliveau would enter the room it would become silent. as if royalty was walking in. He has his chair of course. Damphousse added that those who were present when Béliveau was there had to behave as gentlemen in the room. On Monday, Guy Lafleur addressed the media and was particularly touched by the death of his idol he met when he was 10. Lafleur said that he wore number 4 from the time he started to play in organized leagues until he was drafted by the Canadiens. The ”Flower” added that he tried to be as good an ambassador and model as Béliveau was but it was a tough act to follow. Lafleur, along with Serge Savard, will probably be the next French-Canadians and former Habs to receive a somewhat similar honor one day. Ken Dryden is another one that brings a lot of great memories here in Quebec. But Jean Béliveau is from another era. One that is definitely closing in with another legend Gordie Howe who will soon pass away. About Béliveau, a newspaper headline was titled ”Pope of Hockey Died” last week. Or the ”Gentle Giant”. The man who would make you feel like you are special according to many who met them. A modest man living in a simple house on the south shore of Montreal with a great view of the city he spent his whole career and most of his life. From the day of his death to the day of his funeral, the national tribute lasted 9 days. Fans of all ages were able to walk by his casket for two days at Bell Centre. It was the first time I ever listened to a funeral on radio. Repeats of his funeral are still on TV as I write this. I admit I shed a few tears when Ken Dryden spoke at the cathedral on Wednesday. I felt proud the legendary #4 was French-Canadian like me and that he lived during my time and sad that he will no longer be around.
Au revoir et merci Monsieur Béliveau!