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Friday, 5 December 2014

Jean Beliveau

Famous people die from time to time. Sometimes it upsets us when they die young  with so much left to offer. It would be hard to think of anyone who got to enjoy his life more than Jean Beliveau in his 83 years on this planet. He was adored and respected from the time he started playing junior hockey in Quebec in the late 1940s.
Most of us never knew much about him other than his hockey playing accomplishments with The Montreal Canadiens and that he always seemed to be a gentleman. His hair never seemed out of place in the era he played in where helmets were uncommon. In all those years there was never any controversy about Beliveau other than maybe his holding off the Canadiens for a few years playing for his hometown team The Quebec Aces. When Beliveau finally did sign with the Canadiens it was for more money than any other NHL player was getting.  He signed a 5 year deal for about 20 Gs a year.
Beliveau retired as a player in 1971. That’s 42 years ago. About the youngest you could be today if you saw him play is about 50 years old. Most who remember his playing days are now in their sixties or older. Just what was it that made him so special?
Jean Beliveau was a bit of a “freak” in a nice way. When he broke into the NHL there pretty well wasn’t anybody in the NHL as tall as him. He was either 6’3” or 6’4”. The average NHL player back then was around 5’10”. Because of his size he had a distinct reach advantage. Once the puck was in his possession it was hard to get it away from him. What was unusual for a big man back then was having the capability to deftly handle the puck with his stick. He could do the dippsy doodle to keep the puck away from opponents or slide it through their legs as he went by them. Because his legs were longer than most other players it took him less strides to get up the ice.
Beliveau also had puck sense and saw the ice well like other greats Doug Harvey and Bobby Orr. Often he was more than one move ahead with a plan.
Hockey in the early 1950s was a lot different than today. Coaches back then basically threw all their players to the wolves, even up and coming stars. Beliveau was never coddled at the beginning of his career. He may have been soft spoken but he could hack and whack with the best of them. He had to in order to survive.
It is hard to compare Beliveau to later hockey greats. For starters, most of his career happened when there were only 6 teams in the NHL that only had about 120 players at the time. Travel was all by train and was easier than flying all over North America like players do today. On the other hand each team played the other team 14 times during the season back then and coaches and players knew very well everything the other team and its players were capable of.
An interesting comparison between Wayne Gretzky and Jean Beliveau is the number of penalties they took in their careers. Most years Gretzky was in the penalty box less than 30 minutes. He always had protectors who got him ice room like Dave Semenko and Marty MacSorely. Touch Gretzky and someone would beat the crap out of you or at least try to. At the peak of his career, Beliveau was sitting in the box close to 100 minutes per season. It wasn’t until later in Beliveau’s playing days that tough guy John Ferguson took over the role as his protector.
It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall back in the 50s and have heard conversations between The Rocket and Jean. There was obviously a lot of mutual respect. Beliveau, back then, seemed like an ex choir boy (which he was) who was cerebral and above the fray, and Richard would probably meet you in a back alley if you said something about his mother.
The first time I heard Beliveau’s name was around 1953 or 1954. For a few years each winter, a number of boys who lived within several houses from me on the west side of Montreal (NDG) would play hockey out on the street (Harvard Avenue) or in an alley between houses on the next street over (Oxford Avenue). Frozen dark ice chunks were usually the goal posts. The boys ranged from about 8 years old to 11 years old.
I was one of the younger boys and the teams were chosen by a couple of older boys. I was often one of the last picked. All you needed to play was some kind of wooden hockey stick. Some of those sticks only had half of the blade left or the blade was just a sliver. Even 60 years later I can still remember how competitive a lot of those boys were. Some went on to play organized football and baseball. None of them, to my knowledge, played organized  hockey.
If we stopped for a car to go by there was no such thing as grabbing a Gatorade. If we were thirsty and went to our house close by for a drink we were not likely to come back. Homework or “you are going to get your eye poked out” were some of the methods mothers used to curtail the action.
A few boys had Montreal Canadiens sweaters, the red ones. They were made of wool and the snow stuck to them. They often seemed tight too, probably because wool shrinks in the wash. Sometimes the CH crest would become unglued a bit and a mother would be asked to sew it on more permanently. There were no numbers or NHL player’s names on the sweaters. If a kid absolutely had to have a number he usually made it out of hockey tape.

Playing hockey on the street or in an alley was a scrum more than a precision game. I can still hear the sound of one stick whacking another. No wonder a lot of the stick blades looked like shards. Some of the older boys had a back-up stick stuck in a snow bank until needed. That stick might have been saved for special occasions.

Most of these kids, there may have been around 12 in all, were big sports fans and had stacks of hockey cards. I remember one guy. Jimmy, who lived across the street, in particular who was very excited about a new young player with The Montreal Canadiens, Jean Beliveau. It’s hard to believe in some ways that that was over 60 years ago.
It wasn’t uncommon for kids to do their own play by play while scuffling for the tennis ball (real pucks weren’t used). It went something like this….” Bouchard over to Harvey, he passes to Beliveau who feeds it to Richard. McNeil makes an amazing save!” Back then kids would take turns playing goalie. Nobody ever owned an actual goalie stick.

Butch Bouchard
Doug Harvey
Jean Beliveau

Maurice Richard

Scoring on your own goalie somehow made sense.
Most kids where I grew up were huge fans of The Canadiens. Personally, once I saw a coloured photo and a write up about Bobby Hull in The Weekend Magazine that was stuck inside The Montreal Star newspaper Saturday edition, I became a Blackhawk fan. Some dads where I lived liked Detroit and Gordie Howe partly because he wasn’t French it seemed. Most  hockey fans didn’t really care which player was French or English particularly kids. Anyway The Canadiens had their English speaking players like Dickie Moore, Bert Olmstead, Floyd Curry, Ken Mosdell, Doug Harvey and Gerry McNeil.
I have to say that for an 8 year old the name “Butch” Bouchard sounded pretty exotic. It seemed to me to be kind like a professional wrestler’s name. Just the name “Butch” seemed to imply toughness.
When you look over the names of the greats Beliveau played with from the beginning of his career to the end of his playing days it is pretty amazing. When Beliveau joined the Canadiens Bouchard had been with the team since the early 1940s.
Here is a list of just some of them. Elmer Lach, Doug Harvey, Maurice Richard, Dickie Moore, Bert Olmstead, Bernie Geoffrion, Tom Johnson, Henri Richard, Claud Provost, Don Marshall, Gerry McNeil, Jacques Plante, Marcel Bonin, Phil Goyette, Ralph Backstom, Bobby Rouseau, John Ferguson, Claude Larose, J.C. Tremblay, Gilles Tremblay, Jacques Laprerriere, Yvon Cournoyer, Ted Harris, Dick Duff, Terry Harper, Serge Savard, Mickey Redmond, Gump Worsley, Pete Mahovlich, Frank Mahovlich, Jacques Lemare, Marc Tardif,
and Guy Lapointe.
Almost 20 seasons, 1219 points in 1125 regular season games, played in 13 All Star games, won the scoring title once, was the NHL’s MVP twice, won The Stanley Cup 10 times as a player.
People come in different flavours and almost always nobody is liked by everyone or respected by everyone. Jean Beliveau was one of those few exceptions.
With Jean Beliveau’s passing, some of us who are of an age, are once again recognizing how short life really is.
I’m reminded of Simon and Garfunkle’s song Mrs. Robinson with the lyrics “Where have you gone Joe Dimaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” Take out Joe’s name and insert Jean’s and the sentiment is the same.
RIP Jean Beliveau.


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