‘Is Jean Béliveau the best ever?’

A question from the great Trent Frayne back in 1956

Montreal Canadiens

From the Maclean’s Archives, the great Trent Frayne writes on Jean Béliveau in 1956: ‘Is Jean Béliveau the best ever?’

“Is there a way to stop him?” they asked Hap Day.

“Sure,” he quipped, “but it isn’t legal.” Even bitter rivals agree the golden boy of the Montreal Canadiens is hockey’s most gifted player.

Jean Béliveau, a bland and bashful centre for the Montreal Canadiens, is a unique figure in the history of hockey. He has glided serenely through a career in which cities, hockey magnates and even politicians have engaged in push-and-pull struggles for his services, and he has been virtually a one-man industry paying off the mortgage on a multi-million-dollar rink. Now only 24 years old and one of the highest-paid hockey players in history, Béliveau has emerged from this seething cauldron to a cool pedestal completely devoid of controversy: Modern hockey authorities, who agree on almost nothing, believe he is the most gifted player of all time, and potentially the greatest.

A few savants, such as Lynn Patrick, the general manager of the Boston Bruins, are convinced already. “No question about it,” Patrick says flatly, “he’s the finest player I’ve ever seen.”

Older and possibly more meditative heads await the test of time, and toss in occasional riders based on the fact that Béliveau has not yet completed three seasons in the National Hockey League and, therefore, cannot be compared with, say, Eddie Shore, Howie Morenz or Béliveau’s teammate Maurice Richard. Art Ross, who built hockey in Boston starting in 1924 and who retired last year as vice-president of the Bruins, calls Béliveau the greatest young player he ever saw, and it was Ross who took young Eddie Shore to Boston. Conn Smythe, the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, says that if Béliveau goes along at his present clip for another seven or eight years, he’ll be the greatest player ever.

In fact, Smythe, a Toronto loyalist who rarely tosses garlands of love beyond his native city’s borders, employs Montreal’s Béliveau as his end-all illustration in a running war he’s conducted in recent years with people who feel modern hockey has deteriorated.

“Béliveau is the greatest thing that could have happened to the modern game,” cries Smythe, in the manner of a man who has just found his missing laundry ticket. “They say there’s no room left for stick-handling and brains and technique. When has there ever been a better stick-handler? Who has ever shown more savvy? Who ever got a shot away faster?”

“And where did this kid come from?” he shouts triumphantly. “He came from the helter-skelter modern game! Helter-skelter, my eye!”

This notable lack of argument in a controversial business is one of the most remarkable aspects of Béliveau’s position in hockey today, but he wasn’t always clear of controversy. Hot battles swirled around him before he reached the NHL: In fact, two prominent hockey executives fought so strenuously to gain his services as a junior that they have few kind words for one another to this day. The are Frank Selke, the managing director of the Canadiens, and Frank Byrne, who was the owner of the Quebec Citadels of the now-defunct Quebec Junior Hockey League.

To keep him in Quebec City when he graduated from junior ranks, men close to Premier [Maurice] Duplessis became involved, and it was widely believed in Quebec that the licence to operate a tavern in the Montreal Forum­–a big money-maker for the Canadian Arena Co., which operates the Forum and the NHL Canadiens–would be revoked if Béliveau were enticed to Montreal by the Canadiens. He stayed in Quebec City for two seasons, where record crowds flocked to worship him and spend money that helped pay for the lavish new Coliseum, a bowl devoid of posts that seats 10,338 people, and frequently bettered that total with standees during Béliveau’s stay.

In Béliveau’s first year with the Quebec Aces, of the Quebec Senior Hockey League, the team drew 281,000 fans in a city of 225,000 people. In his second year, which was the 1952-53 season, they drew a whopping 386,334 fans for 30 scheduled and six playoff games, one of the crowds totalling 13,791 paid. In the three years since Béliveau departed, the Aces drew 255,000 two years ago, and only 103,000 last season. According to coach and general manager George Imlach, they won’t reach 100,000 by the end of the current season.

“As long as we had Béliveau, the people knew they were watching the best in the world,” says Imlach. “They refuse to settle for less now.”

Béliveau has always delivered on the ice. He has led the scorers in every league in which he’s ever played except the NHL, and it seems likely that he’ll do that this year. Last season, he was two points behind the leader, teammate Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion and, this season, he was the league’s leading scorer every week through mid-season. One night against Boston, he scored four goals, and Terry Sawchuk, the Boston goaler, reluctantly admitted he was beaten cleanly on all of them, a rare confession by any goalkeeper.

Hockey men in all camps strive to find new ways of applauding Béliveau. George (Punch) Imlach, who coached Béliveau for two years with the Quebec Aces where Jean was the world’s highest-paid pseudo-amateur at $20,000 a season, came up with this remarkable appraisal: “He’ll never reach his potential ability, because the National Hockey League isn’t good enough to bring it out.”

Hap Day, the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was asked recently if there were any known way of stopping Béliveau. He said crisply: “Of course, there is. But it isn’t legal.”

Béliveau is truly an arresting figure. He stands six foot three and, by dieting carefully, can keep his weight at 205 lb. He has handsome, sharply defined features, with crisp, light-brown hair and a warm smile. He views the furore that has centred on him for the last seven years in a detached, occasionally self-conscious manner, explaining that in Quebec City, the people made a fuss over all the hockey players, and that in Montreal–well, in Montreal, everybody feels a great deal of pride in the Canadiens, don’t they? In Quebec City, merchants gave him suits and dinners and even an automobile and, in Montreal, he earns a basic salary of $20,000 a year on a five-year contract. This, with a year-round public relations job with Molson’s Brewery at $10,000 a year, and the bonuses he can earn in hockey, give him an income of close to $40,000 a year. It is doubtful if hockey fame has ever brought any other player as much. Selke has said that, because of the eminence of Maurice (Rocket) Richard, no player on the Canadians would ever receive a higher salary, but it’s unlikely that Richard makes as much as Béliveau.

With all of this, Béliveau is a remarkably unaffected and, actually, modest young man. “I think the fans overdo it too much,” he says solemnly in deep-throated, accented English. “It helps so much to be on a good team.”

This statement falls into the department of which came first, the egg or the hen. It is true that the Canadiens were a good team before Béliveau joined them, but they have become a great team since. The Béliveau magic seems to rub off on those who play beside him. Last season, his linemates, Bernie Geoffrion and Bert Olmstead, who had been better than average players before hooking up with Jean, blossomed spectacularly; Geoffrion’s 38 goals tied the output of Richard at the top of the goals list, and Olmstead led the league by a wide margin in assists with 48. Even as a junior with the Quebec Citadels, Béliveau left his mark. His right-wing partner, Rainor Makila, was the second-highest scorer on the club (second, naturally, to Béliveau) six years ago. But the following season, when Béliveau moved up to the senior Aces, Makila didn’t even make the Citadel team. Another time, a left-winger named Claude Larochelle filled in beside Béliveau for two games when the regular left-wing was injured. Larochelle scored only six goals all season, but he got four of them in two games beside Béliveau.

Curiously, the average spectator has to watch Béliveau play several games before he begins to appreciate what makes him so good. “That’s because Jean makes the game look easy,” explains Dick Irvin, the coach of the Chicago Black Hawks, who served in the same capacity with the Canadiens during Béliveau’s first two seasons in the NHL. “You’ve got to look closely to appreciate his finesse.”

Over a couple of performances, though, it begins to sink in. At first, because of his size, he does not appear to be a fast skater. He has a long, fluid, powerful stride that is misleading, and he gets a shot away with a smoothness of motion that fools the layman. One night in Toronto, he let one go right after cruising across the blueline. No player obstructed goaler Harry Lumley’s view, so the customers were surprised to see the puck bulge the back of the net. A few of them booed Lumley.

“He has the hardest shot in the league,” said Lumley afterward, with defiance. “In fact, he shot one after that goal that was even harder. It missed the net, but I heard it whack the backboards while I was still moving for it.”

Toronto’s star right-winger of the 1930s, Charlie Conacher, is generally conceded to have owned the hardest shot in hockey, but Conacher himself figures Béliveau’s is its equal. “Le Gros Bill,” says Conacher, grinning at his French, “gets his shot away a little faster, too.” The nickname Le Gros Bill was hung on Béliveau six years ago by Quebec newspaperman Roland Sabourin. It’s the title of an old French-Canadian folk song, Le voilà, le Gros Bill (Here Comes Big Bill).

The speed of Béliveau’s shot, and his skating stride, were developed in a unique manner by the coach of the Quebec Aces, Punch Imlach. Imlach noticed that Béliveau was missing scoring chances because he was about a half-stride slow in getting into position. In practice, Imlach placed a player in the centre of the face-off circle at one end of the ice, and lined Béliveau behind him on the circumference of the circle. Then Imlach dropped the puck on the player’s stick in the centre of the circle, and Béliveau’s job was to try to overtake him as he sped up the ice.

“At first, he couldn’t catch his man,” Imlach recalls, “but, after a couple of weeks, he could.” So the Aces coach ingeniously assigned a different player to the circle each time he dropped the puck, forcing Béliveau to pursue a fresh man each trip. “Soon,” says Imlach, “he was overtaking the 15th man almost as quickly as the first.”

For shooting drills, it wasn’t unusual for Béliveau to line up 20 pucks on the blueline after practice and bang away at them for an hour, perfecting a slap-shot. A slap-shot, as the name implies, is one in which the shooter does not control the puck, or cradle it on his stick, before shooting it; rather, he skates quickly toward a moving or an immobile puck and times the swing of the stick to meet it with a hard, whacking stroke. The advantage of such a shot is that the goalkeeper has little or no opportunity to gauge its speed or direction. Actually, in most cases, neither has the shooter, who trusts mainly to luck. No so Le Gros Bill, as Andy O’Brien, sports editor of Weekend magazine, discovered on a trip to Quebec three years ago. O’Brien was helping a photographer line up pictures of Béliveau. He scoffed when Imlach told him the player could control his slap-shot, much as a golfer controls his drive.

“Okay,” said Imlach, dumping a pail of pucks on the ice, “where do you want him to put one?”

O’Brien indicated a spot just under the crossbar of the goal. Béliveau skated toward a puck, brought back his stick and followed through on a spanking slap-shot. The puck ticked the crossbar where O’Brien had pointed and ricocheted into the net.

“He doesn’t really slap it,” says Imlach. “He cocks his wrist like a pro golfer and strokes it.”

Even Béliveau’s teammates worship at the shrine, and Doug Harvey and Dollard St. Laurent, a Canadiens defence pair, occasionally stand at the blueline during a game and shout unbelievingly to one another when they see some new facet of Béliveau’s technique. “There ought to be two leagues,” St. Laurent told Vince Lunny, sports editor of the Montreal Herald, one night after a game, “one for the pros and one for Béliveau.”

No one is quite sure how Le Gros Bill got so good. He inherited neither his size nor his dedication to hockey from his family. His father, Arthur Béliveau, is of average size and has no athletic background; his mother, the former Laurette Dubé, had no interest in sports as a girl, and then was too busy raising her family of eight to acquire one after her marriage. Jean, born Aug. 31, 1931, in Three Rivers, is the eldest of five sons and two daughters. Ten years ago, a third daughter, who was then five, was struck by a car and died in hospital.

When Jean was 16, he began attracting outside attention, and two groups, the Quebec Citadels and the Montreal Canadiens’ organization, tried to sign him. The family had moved from Three Rivers to Victoriaville, in Quebec’s eastern townships about a hundred miles from Montreal, where Arthur Béliveau got a job with the Shawinigan Water and Power Company (he’s still there, now a foreman). There was no junior hockey in Victoriaville, but Jean hung around the rink every day after school and played with any team that needed an extra man.

One evening, Frank Byrne, the owner of the Quebec Citadels’ juniors, got a telephone call from Lucien Duchene, a former Citadel goaler who was then playing for the Victoriaville seniors.

“I want you to come right down,” Duchene told Byrne. “There’s a kid here, about 16, who practised with us today and he damn near knocked my head off with a shot. He’s big and he’s all bone.”

About the same time, Frank Selke, managing director of the Canadiens, had become interested in Béliveau when the coach of the Victoriaville team, Rollie Hebert, recommended him. Selke made a trip to Victoriaville in an attempt to sign Béliveau. He discovered no one in the family spoke English, so, on a succeeding trip, he took Montreal defenceman Butch Bouchard with him as an interpreter. They were informed by Béliveau’s father, according to Selke, that “hockey players are bums.” This sentiment apparently was based on the fact that Arthur Béliveau believed his son was spending too much time around the Victoriaville rink, which, he felt, was populated by ne’er-do-wells.

Frank Byrne helped dispel this blanket indictment of hockey players in a meeting with the senior Béliveau, pointing out that he would see that Jean roomed with a family in Quebec just like his own, that he would be paid a good salary for playing hockey (there are reports, which Byrne declines to confirm, that the Citadels paid Beliveau $7,500 to play for Quebec) and that he could either work or go to school. Byrne’s offer was accepted and, in the fall of 1949, Beliveau moved to Quebec City.

Selke, meanwhile, put Béliveau’s name on a Canadien negotiation list, thereby preventing other NHL teams from grabbing him.

“I could have outbid Quebec and got him as a junior,” says Selke, “but I refused to pay all junior players what I’d have had to pay him, and I don’t think it would have been fair to the other players.”

The Canadiens again moved to acquire Béliveau after he’d played two years of junior hockey with the Citadels, but powerful provincial political forces in Quebec wanted him to remain in the old city to play with the Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League. Numerous hockey fans in Quebec City today claim that the Montreal Forum management was informed that if the Canadiens outbid the Aces for Béliveau, the Forum tavern licence would be cancelled. The Forum’s Selke answers this indirectly.

“I have no criticism of the peculiar methods adopted by the Quebec people to keep Béliveau down there,” he says. “I don’t play politics. I’m in the peculiar position of admiring Louis St. Laurent, and everything I know about Maurice Duplessis is nice. If there is anything phony going on, you can’t pin it on him. He told me to do what I thought was best for sport in Quebec, and not to worry about political pressure.”

Selke must have decided that the best thing for sport in Quebec was to leave Béliveau at the capital, because the young man collected $20,000 a year helping to pay off the mortgage on the new Coliseum for the next two seasons. Actually, he earned more than the $1,000 a week he received for 20 weeks of the hockey season. He got $2,500 as a public relations representative of the Laval Dairy.

Le Gros Bill might have been in Quebec yet, had he not signed a B Form with the Canadiens on Oct. 12, 1951. The B Form secures a player for an NHL club if and when he turns professional, although, in 1951, that seemed unimportant to Béliveau, because he got this wire from Frank Selke:

“If, as you have frequently said, you plan to play with Montreal Canadiens, should you ever decide to become professional, you should sign Form Bs now in mail giving us option to your professional services. We in turn will transfer you to Quebec Aces, with whom you can play hockey as long as you wish without hindrance from this end. Our relations have been most pleasant to date, so let’s keep it that way. Regards.”

Two years later, with only the Quebec Aces dissenting, the pseudo-amateur Quebec league’s representatives voted to become a recognized professional league. The instant that happened, Béliveau became the professional property of the Canadiens, because of the B Form he’d signed.

A few months earlier, the Canadiens had escaped from political pressure, when an agreement was made between the NHL and the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, under whose aegis the Quebec league fell. Under this agreement, NHL clubs were permitted to draft players from teams in CAHA-governed leagues for cash. Thus, if the Canadiens didn’t take up Béliveau after the 1952-53 season, there was nothing to prevent other NHL teams from doing so. Obviously, Quebec politics could not reach down to New York, say, to keep the Rangers from drafting Béliveau. So it was clear to all that, if Béliveau was to be kept in the province, the Canadiens would have to take him. Thus, in the summer of 1953, Montreal signed him to a five-year contract calling for $100,000. And the doors of the tavern stayed open.

When Béliveau’s father learned the denominations of the bills his hockey-playing son could command, he was quickly able to convince himself that not all hockey players were bums. In lining up outside jobs, Béliveau was helped by a widely known Quebec City sportsman, Émile Couture, who had watched and admired the young player’s ability at Victoriaville. When Béliveau became dissatisfied with a job at Angle Canadian Pulp and Paper Mills, and talked of returning to Victoriaville, Couture scouted around and lined him up a job at $2,500 a year with the Laval Dairy as a public relations representative. It was Couture, too, who convinced the Molson’s people that Béliveau’s name would be a valuable addition to the firm.

“He was so shy,” Couture recalls, “he didn’t like to say anything for himself.”

Even today, he has retained that reserve, sitting quietly in a hotel lobby when the Canadiens are on the road and solemnly signing autograph books if youngsters recognize him, or reading a magazine or a pocketbook. On trains, when the players congregate in the smoking room at the end of their sleeper to play hearts, he is the quietest player in the room. The English-speaking players on the club call him John; the French-speaking players give his name the soft-accented Jean. For years, he has been called Jean Marc Béliveau in the newspapers, but he has, in fact, no middle name, and has no idea where the Marc originated.

Jean mixes his French and English among the players, but speaks only French to his pretty blond wife of three years, the former Élise Couture (no relation to sportsman Émile Couture) of Quebec City. She speaks English fluently. Their exchanges in French are a carryover from the days of their courtship in Quebec City where, as Béliveau puts it, “nobody speaks English.” The Béliveaus have no children. They recently moved into a six-room house in Longueuil, a Montreal suburb, where they spend most of their evenings quietly, watching television when Béliveau isn’t making a rather self-conscious speech or presenting a trophy on behalf of Moldon’s. 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, slow-striding figure. He samples the product only occasionally during the summer and rarely during the winter.

And yet he has no long-range business plans. “I am only 24,” he says. “Rocket Richard he is maybe 10 years older, and what a great hockey player. I would like to go on for some years and I will, if there are no injuries.” He frowns when he speaks of injuries, as though they preoccupied him. “The injuries,” he says, “you never know about them.” He has invested his money liberally in Canada savings bonds.

And he steadily has been becoming a better hockey player. “It’s something new every game,” says linemate Bert Olmstead. “He has such remarkable reflexes, can so quickly take a pass in front of that net, hard for the defencemen to knock down.”

He’s getting tougher in a tough game, too. Through the first two seasons, he took knocks and digs without retaliation, feeling they were part of hockey, but this year, he has been striking back, and drawing more penalties for it. In 70 games last season, he had 58 minutes in the penalty box. This year, after just 40 games, he had already been penalized 100 minutes.

“I used to wonder why Rocket Richard would blow up when other players chopped at him,” he remarked recently, “but I am beginning to understand.”

His new attitude pleases his employers, who feel that it has given him a greater respect by lesser players who used to take advantage of him.

Kenny Reardon, assistant managing director of the Canadiens, was asked recently if there were anything about Béliveau that bothered him.

“Just one thing,” he replied. “How’d you like to have the job of signing him when his five-year contract runs out?”

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