Jean Beliveau died last night. He was 83 years old.
I was only seven when Beliveau retired in the spring of 1971. I never saw him play live, but the 1971 Stanley Cup Final is the first one I really remember, so I know that I at least saw him play on television. I met him once, 22 years later, in 1993, when I was working at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was every bit the classy gentleman that everybody always said he was! We only spoke for a few minutes, but he made it very warm and personal. I’ve met other players of his era before and since, but this was honestly something special.
Other people who knew him better, and saw him at his best, will (and already have) written about him in ways that I never could. Still, I thought I’d share some of this story I recently came across, written about him on April 10, 1956. For some context, Beliveau was already a star from his junior hockey days in Quebec City, and probably the most-hyped hockey prospect in history in the early 1950s. In 1955-56, he’d just completed his second full season in the NHL, leading the league with 47 goals and 88 points. On April 8, 1956, he scored two goals in Montreal’s 3-0 win over Detroit to take a three-games-to-one lead in the Stanley Cup Finals. This article appeared in Dink Carroll’s column in the Montreal Gazette:
Jean Beliveau played such a magnificent game that the Detroit fans cheered him when it was over.
Murph Chamberlain, who is the toast of Chatham because of the job he had done with the Maroons, saw the Sunday game. He was asked how he rated Beliveau.
“I think he’s the best I ever saw,” said Murphy. “There isn’t anything he can’t do, and he does it all a little better than anybody else. I won’t say he’s a better finisher than the Rocket. You’d have to wait until he’s been in the league as long as the Rocket has, and he may not last that long.”
Wilfie Cude, the old netminder, was also a spectator. Wilfie is now a scout for the Red Wings. He listened in on the discussion about Beliveau.
“He’s a sweetheart,” Wilfie said. “Give him another three years in the league and I think we’ll be saying he’s the greatest of them all.
“I’m not saying he’s the best stickhandler I ever saw. I can’t forget what a great stickhandler Aurel Joliat was, but Aurel was small and that was a disadvantage. Beliveau is big, strong, and has such a long reach that it’s hard for opposing players to get at the puck.
“He makes great plays, he’s always a step ahead, he’s got hockey sense, he does a lot of forechecking, and he can score. He makes it all look easy, too.”
“How would you compare him with Syl Apps,” one of the reporters in the group asked.
“Apps wouldn’t come up to his ankles,” was the reply. “But Apps resembled him in that he was a gentleman, on or off the ice, and if you love hockey like I do that’s important.”
“A gentleman,” somebody kidded. “Beliveau had over 140 minutes in the penalty box this season. How about that?”
“I don’t care if he spent six years in the penalty box. He’s still a gentleman.”