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Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau dies at 83

Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau dies at 83

Posted by Juan Gavasa on December 03, 2014

Jean Beliveau, the legendary, brilliant Montreal Canadiens centreman whose grace and leadership on and off the ice transcended hockey for more than six decades, has died. He was 83.

Beliveau leaves his wife and soulmate of 61 years, Elise, the couple’s daughter, Helene, and granddaughters Mylene and Magalie.

They are joined in mourning by the hockey universe and countless people around the world whose lives have been indelibly touched and profoundly enriched by the man who affectionately was nicknamed Le Gros Bill, for his likeness to a movie actor of the 1950s.

Beliveau had been in delicate health in recent months, having fought pneumonia from August into September not long after having fractured a hip in a fall at home.

He had suffered strokes in 2010 and 2012, a decade after having waged a difficult battle with cancer in 2000. “I knocked on the door,” Beliveau philosophically said two years ago, in conversation while recovering at home from his second stroke. “But it seems they weren’t ready for me.”

The richly decorated Hall of Famer compiled athletic achievements that were the gold standard, matched only by his elegance and his lifelong charity and humanitarian work off the ice. Beliveau’s dazzling statistics installed him in the hockey shrine in 1972 alongside his great friend and rival Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings.

Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups during his 18 seasons with the Canadiens, having arrived from Quebec City in 1953 from the semi-professional senior-league Quebec Aces as a long-courted superstar-in-the-making.

He was signed on Oct. 3, 1953 to a five-year, $105,000 contract, at the time the most generous pact in the National Hockey League. “It was simple, really,” Canadiens general manager Frank Selke said that day. “All I did was open the Forum vault and say, ‘Jean, take what you think is right.’ ”

Given what the Canadiens would get in return, Beliveau was an absolute steal. The world welcomed Jean Beliveau on Aug. 31, 1931 in Trois-Rivieres, the first of eight children born to his parents, Arthur and Laurette.

The family moved to Plessisville when Beliveau was 3, then settled in Victoriaville when he was 6.

Beliveau scored 586 goals and 809 assists in 1,287 regular-season and playoff games. (Denis Brodeur collection via CBC)

The young centreman would leave home in 1949 at the age of 18 to play for the junior-league Quebec Citadels, having started in organized hockey as a 12-year-old before moving up at age 15 to the intermediate Victoriaville Panthers.

Beliveau would graduate to play for the senior Quebec Aces from 1951-53 before Canadiens GM Frank Selke finally convinced him, after much negotiation and a couple of impressive call-ups, that his place was in Montreal.

“He’s great,” Canadiens superstar Maurice (Rocket) Richard said in lavish praise of Beliveau following the latter’s second call-up. “He’s got the greatest shot I’ve ever seen in hockey and he’s a fine man. He could help this team plenty and I wish he would change his mind.”

And so Beliveau did, finally, moving to the big city down the St. Lawrence River in October 1953. He then was four months the husband of Elise Couture, a young woman from Quebec City whom he’d met at a social event in Lac Beauport two years earlier.

It’s no wonder that it took much work for the stubborn Selke to lure his gilt-edged prospect to Montreal. Earning in Quebec a wage that would have been princely in the National Hockey League, adored by the provincial capital which lay at his feet, Beliveau was also heeding the advice of his father.

“Loyalty is another form of responsibility,” Arthur Beliveau had often told his son, related in the superstar’s 1994 autobiography, My Life In Hockey.

Finally arriving with the Canadiens in 1953-54, coach Dick Irvin put Beliveau under the wing of Hall of Fame-bound Elmer Lach for mentoring in faceoffs and passing, elements of the game that would become Beliveau hallmarks.

He would win the Hart Trophy in 1956 and again in 1964 as the NHL’s most valuable player. In 1956, he captured the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s top points-getter, and in 1965 he was awarded the inaugural Conn Smythe Trophy, presented to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

His offence: 586 goals and 809 assists in 1,287 regular-season and playoff games, every one for the Canadiens, most played during the NHL’s undiluted pre-expansion era.

The six-foot-three, 205-pound centreman missed the playoffs just once in his 18 seasons, his second-last year in the NHL, and appeared in 13 All-Star Games. His name appears on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times, having won seven championships during 22 post-playing years as the Canadiens’ senior vice-president of corporate affairs.

During the 1962-63 season, Canadiens captain Jean B liveau battles Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Tim Horton and goaler Johnny Bower in Montreal Forum. (Harold Barkley Collection/Courtesy of Mike Leonetti)

Beliveau stepped down from his Habs family for a second time on Aug. 31, 1993, leaving the front office on his 62nd birthday.

He’d been as graceful in management as he’d been on the ice. And anyone who ever saw this man play hockey never forgot his magic.

Jean Beliveau captained the Canadiens from 1961 until his retirement in 1971, making him the longest-serving captain in franchise history. Henri Richard, the younger brother of the Rocket, followed Beliveau as captain, yielding the C upon retirement in 1975 to Yvan Cournoyer.

“I had a chance to room a lot on the road with Jean,” said Cournoyer, who like Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups, one fewer than the record 11 of Henri Richard. “I learned a lot from him on and off the ice. Jean was a guy who was glad when I arrived (in the mid-1960s) because I had young legs. He was a little bit later in his career.

 “He always said, ‘Come from behind, Yvan, come from behind.’ Sometimes after warm-up I’d tell him, ‘Jean, I think tonight to come from behind, I’m going to need a parachute. I feel very good, I have my tailwind tonight,’ ” Cournoyer added, laughing. “I just had to put my stick on the ice and the puck arrived right on it from Jean. It was very easy for me.”

The magnificent Gordie Howe, now in his own battle with dementia at age 86, was in Montreal in 2007 for a Bell Centre fundraiser in Beliveau’s honour, a black-tie evening that raised more than $1 million for children’s hospitals and charities in Quebec.

“I admire John not just because of his great, great ability as a hockey player, but for his demeanour in public,” said Howe, who first met Beliveau during a 1950 exhibition game at Le Colisee between Howe’s Red Wings and Beliveau’s Quebec Aces.

“The respect I have for this man is unreal, and it started the first time I ever saw him up in Quebec City. If you think he’s a good hockey player, as a gentleman he’s even better.”

Leadership, said Dickie Moore, was a perfectly natural thing for Beliveau.

“Jean led our team with his presence. That’s all he needed,” said Moore, a Hall of Famer and one of Beliveau’s closest friends both during their years as teammates and until the very end.

Moore was crushed by his friend’s cancer and then his two strokes. He is devastated by Beliveau’s passing.

“And I’m heartbroken for Elise,” he said. “She’s such a great lady. They were together in every way.

“Jean was a great, great leader.”

Jean Beliveau in a team photograph taken during the 1959-60 season. (DAVID BIER STUDIOS)

Beliveau’s qualities of leadership and diplomacy extended well beyond the arena. He was asked in 1994 by then prime minister Jean Chretien to consider putting his name in candidacy to become Canada’s Governor-General, a job that assuredly would have been his.

But Beliveau graciously declined, citing a need to finally, a year after his retirement from the Canadiens front office, spend some time at home and to be a strong presence for the two young girls of his widowed daughter, Helene.

(In 2010, after his first stroke, Mylene and Magalie took turns sleeping overnight at their grandfather’s hospital bedside.)

In the early 1990s, Beliveau twice declined PM Brian Mulroney’s offer of a Senate post, believing that a representative of Canadians should be elected.

Over the years, he has been presented with the Order of Canada — fiercely proud of his country, he wore the Order’s pin on his lapel every day — and the National Order of Quebec.

Beliveau also has been decorated with honorary doctorates by several universities, including McGill, been added to Canada’s Walk of Fame, and been honoured by civic and charitable groups at every turn.

When people speak of Jean Beliveau, his glorious statistics and on-ice achievements often are discussed almost parenthetically. “Rarely has the career of an athlete been so exemplary,” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said on the occasion of Jean Beliveau Night at the Forum on March 24, 1971, the Canadiens paying on-ice pre-game tribute to their captain a few months before his retirement.

“By his courage, his sense of discipline and honour, his lively intelligence and finesse, his magnificent team spirit, Beliveau has given new prestige to hockey.”

Beliveau accepted an oversized cheque that night for $155,855, giving birth to his foundation that in the decades ahead would distribute nearly $2 million to organizations helping sick, underprivileged and physically challenged children.

His No. 4 jersey was retired on Oct. 9, 1971, his banner raised to the rafters of the Forum, four months to the day that he had announced his retirement.

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