Canadian hockey player Jean Béliveau (1931–2014) is ranked among the ten greatest all-time players in his sport, winning ten Stanley Cups as a player and seven as an executive, more than any other individual. His reputation transcended his sport, and he became a renowned public figure in Canada.
“With a naturally long stride and deceptive speed, the stickhandling finesse of a wizard and the solidity and strength to fend off checks, [Jean] Béliveau was on anyone's list of the greatest centers to play in the National Hockey League,” wrote Bruce Weber in the New York Times. Playing for the National Hockey League (NHL)'s Montreal Canadiens when the league had only six teams, Béliveau became one of the dominant players of his generation in Canada's national sport. After retirement, he became an ambassador for hockey, preferring to remain an athlete rather than accept the honored positions in Canada's government that were offered to him.
Béliveau was born on August 31, 1931, in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and he grew up in the town of Victoria-ville. He was the oldest of eight children born to Arthur Béliveau, a power company lineman, and wife Laurette. His parents bought him a pair of skates when he was around three or four years old, and at age six, he started playing hockey on a pond in his backyard. Béliveau's childhood “was a typical French Canadian Catholic upbringing, one focused on family values, strict religious observance, hard work, conservatism and self-discipline,” as he recalled in his 1994 autobiography, My Life in Hockey.
At age 12, Béliveau joined an organized hockey team for the first time. His unusually large size and athleticism were clear from the start: he was a fast skater, highly skilled at handling the puck and firing wrist shots. He was approached by a scout for the National Hockey League's Montreal Canadiens and offered a contract when he was 15 years old.
Even as a teenager in junior hockey, Béliveau was a star. He drew enormous crowds to his games in Quebec City, first for the junior-league Citadelles, and then for the senior-league Quebec Aces. He acquired the nickname “Le Gros Bill”(Big Bill), after a folk song, “Le Voilà, le gros Bill”(Here Comes Big Bill) and the title character in the French-language film Le gros Bill. Béliveau tried out with the Canadiens twice, earning impressive reviews, but remained with the Aces, happy with the generous salary the team was paying to keep him. “He's got the greatest shot I've ever seen in hockey and he's a fine man,” announced Canadiens captain and star Maurice “Rocket” Richard, after watching Béliveau's second tryout (according to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette). “He could help this team plenty and I wish he would change his mind.”
The Canadiens continued to pursue Béliveau, finally buying the Aces and the entire league he played in as leverage. He signed with the Canadiens in October 1953, at age 22. His contract terms were unheard of at the time: $105,000 for five seasons, the first multi-year contract the team had ever offered a rookie. “It was simple, really,” recalled Canadiens general manager Frank Selke (as quoted by Stubbs in the Montreal Gazette). “All I did was open the Forum vault and say, ‘Jean, take what you think is right.”’ Béliveau began playing for the team that night.
Sports Illustrated put Béliveau on its cover in 1956, a first for hockey. Frayne, writing in Maclean's, reported that hockey executives considered him potentially the best hockey player ever. “Béliveau is the greatest thing that could have happened to the modern game,” Toronto Maple Leafs president Conn Smythe told Frayne in an interview. “When has there ever been a better stickhandler? Who has ever shown more savvy? Who ever got a shot away faster?” Hap Day, the Maple Leafs’ general manager, put it more simply. Asked if there was anything that could be done to stop Béliveau, Day told Frayne: “Of course there is. But it isn't legal.”
By now Béliveau and his wife of three years, Élise, had moved into a modest six-room house in the Montreal suburb of Longueuil, and he had begun what would prove to be a long relationship with Molson, the Canadian brewery. “He travels all over Quebec for the firm during the summer, umpiring ball games, making presentations, or attending banquets for the brewery, a tall, reserved, slowstriding figure,” Frayne commented in Maclean's. The journalist also credited Béliveau's success with paying off the Canadiens’ debt on its multimillion-dollar hockey rink. True to his reputation for being humble, Béliveau deflected much of this attention onto his teammates. “I think the fans overdo it too much,” he told Frayne. “It helps so much to be on a good team.”
The 1956 Stanley Cup victory was the first of five consecutive championships for the Canadiens, led by Béliveau and the team's aging captain, “Rocket” Richard. Béliveau totaled 395 points (goals plus assists) in those five seasons. In 1960, after Richard retired, Béliveau replaced him as captain. The younger player was elected over Bernard “Boom-Boom” Geoffrion, a more senior player who was upset that he had been passed by. Béliveau, concerned about offending Geoffrion, went to general manager Frank Selke to decline the position, but Selke would not let him. “He said, ‘What do you want me to do? Go downstairs and tell them they picked the wrong guy?,’” Béliveau later recalled to Sean Gordon of the Toronto Globe & Mail newspaper.
After a slight drought, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup again, with Béliveau serving as captain, in 1965, 1966, 1968, and 1969. In 1970–71, his final season playing for the Canadiens, the 39-year-old Béliveau scored an average of a point a game. In anticipation of his retirement, the Canadiens held Jean Béliveau Night at the Montreal Forum on March 24, 1971, with Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in attendance. “By his courage, his sense of discipline and honor, his lively intelligence and finesse, his magnificent team spirit, Béliveau has given new prestige to hockey,” Trudeau declared, as quoted by Weber in the New York Times.
In the 1971 playoffs, Béliveau scored six goals and had 16 assists in 20 games, leading the Canadiens to the tenth Stanley Cup of his career. Like Richard had, he decided to retire while still at the top of his game. “It is hard, but I will play no more,” he announced on April 9, 1971, according to Stubbs in the Montreal Gazette. “I only hope I have made a contribution to a great game.”
Béliveau retired holding several team records for scoring. He had won two Hart Trophies as the league's MVP player and the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. The Canadiens retired his jersey, No. 4, that October. The Hockey Hall of Fame honored his extraordinary career by inducting him in 1972, waiving the standard three-year waiting period, along with his contemporary, Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings.
For decades afterward, Béliveau served in the Montreal Canadiens organization in a variety of executive positions. He also served on dozens of corporate boards in Canada, including the board of Molson Breweries. His Jean Béliveau Foundation spent nearly $2 million to help sick and disabled children and young people in underprivileged communities across the country during the 1970s and 1980s.
Béliveau retired from the Canadiens front office on August 31, 1993, his 62th birthday, and transferred his foundation to the Quebec Society for Disabled Children. He remained close to the team, however: From the 1970s into the 2010s, he often attended home games with his wife, seated directly behind the Canadiens’ bench. He was known for answering every piece of fan mail he received.
In the 1990s, Béliveau turned down two invitations from then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney to accept a nomination to the Canadian senate. In 1994, Mulroney's successor, Jean Chrétien, offered to nominate Béliveau to be the nation's governor general, Queen Elizabeth II's representative in Canada. Again, Béliveau declined modestly, suggesting that he preferred to spend time with his family, which was coping with his son-in-law's recent death. In 1998, he was named Companion of the Order of Canada, his nation's greatest civilian honor.
On December 2, 2014, Béliveau died at age 83 in Montreal. Thousands of people came to the Bell Center, the Canadiens’ home rink, where his body lay in state for two days. Current Prime Minister Stephen Harper as well as predecessors Mulroney and Chrétien attended his state funeral, which was televised across Canada. “It's not easy to be a good sport in every aspect of your life,” wrote Cohen in the Atlantic. “Yet he seemed to do it effortlessly—just like he skated, just like he scored.”
Globe & Mail, December 2, 2014.
Montreal Gazette, December 3, 2014.
New York Times, December 3, 2014.
Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/ (September 12, 2016), Andrew Cohen, “Jean Béliveau's Astonishing Grace.”
Maclean's online, http://www.macleans.ca/ (January 11, 2017), Trent Frayne, “A Question from the Great Trent Frayne Back in 1956.”❑