One of the finest men to ever play the game has died. The one and only Jean Béliveau has passed away at the age of 83, leaving behind a remarkable legacy and a raft of accolades that are impossible to explore in a single sitting.
Béliveau earned 10 Stanley Cups over the course of a nearly 20-year career, leading the Montreal Canadiens to the finest prize in professional sports an unprecedented five straight times in the 1950s and 1960s.
But when he began his NHL career, he initially turned down several offers from the Habs and general manager Frank Selke. Béliveau was more interested in suiting up for the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. The Canadiens were having none of it and they actually bought the QSHL in 1953 to acquire the services of Béliveau. They turned the QSHL pro in the process.
With the man known as Le Gros Bill, the Habs had a fixture. He spent 18 full seasons with the Canadiens between 1953 and 1971. Over the course of 1,125 games, Béliveau had 1,219 points. He was the league’s MVP twice (1956, 1964) and won the Art Ross in 1956. He was the inaugural Conn Smythe winner in 1965.
After retiring from the game in 1971, Béliveau began his role as an executive and was part of seven more Cup-winning Montreal teams. He has his name on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times.
For all the impressive statistics and record-breaking moments, Béliveau was renowned as a gentleman. He carried himself with a dignity seldom seen. He had an aura that he took with him everywhere, especially on the ice.
“He was 6-feet-3 or 6-feet-4 and always not a hair out of place, a three-piece suit with his head up and almost like he was looking over top of everyone else,” recalls Bobby Hull. “That’s the way he played, with that big long stride a lot like Frank Mahovlich, a big, long strider. And those kinds of guys look beautiful on the move, and Jean was that type.”
The oldest of eight siblings, Béliveau honed his craft in a backyard rink in Trois-Rivieres. But it was baseball that first had his eye with a 15-year-old Béliveau offered a minor league contract by a scout who was wowed by his pitching ability. Mom nixed the deal and steered him to hockey. Thank goodness.
Béliveau’s accolades on and off the ice are numerous. He was named a Knight of the National Order of Quebec. He was added to Canada’s Walk of Fame. He was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. And he turned down the position of Governor General of Canada to spend time with his family, a true indication of the man he was.
But perhaps Wayne Gretzky said it best in 2012: “I don’t know if there’s ever been a more gracious player both on the ice and off the ice as Jean Béliveau ever was.”