The following is a profile on Jean Beliveau from the 2008 book Habs Heroes by THN senior writer/columnist Ken Campbell. Beliveau was ranked No. 2 all-time among Canadiens players behind Maurice (The Rocket) Richard.
Had Jean Beliveau not been a man of such unwavering principle, he just might have been remembered as the greatest Montreal Canadiens player of all-time.
One thing is certain: Beliveau’s bank account would have been much, much larger, almost as imposing as the mystique that surrounds the man who embodies the class and dignity of the Canadiens like no other.
“The two greatest figures of the Canadiens in the past 60 years are The Rocket and Jean Beliveau,” former Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden once observed. “One of them evokes love, the other evokes admiration.”
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Beliveau was difficult for the Canadiens to ignore. That he possessed a rare combination of power and grace and a wonderful, swooping stride made the Canadiens covet him all the more from the time Beliveau turned 18. But instead of joining the Canadiens, Beliveau played junior for the Quebec Citadelles for two years. Then, feeling a sense of obligation to the people of Quebec City who supported him as a junior player, he spent two years with the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League.
Eighteen seasons after joining the Canadiens, Beliveau left the game for good following Montreal’s unlikely Stanley Cup win in 1971. He recorded 76 points that year, one of the highest totals for a player in his final NHL season.
“I actually wanted to retire from the Canadiens the year before,” Beliveau said. “But (GM) Sam Pollock and (owner) David Molson asked me to stay another year. We had a lot of young players and Sam Pollock told me, ‘Jean, I’ll feel much better if I know you’re in the room.’ So I said, ‘All right, Sam, I’ll play another year, but it will be my last.”
And this is where Beliveau’s legacy comes into the picture. As it stands, Beliveau is third on the Canadiens all-time list for goals with 507, 37 behind Maurice Richard. He’s second in points with 1,219, 27 behind Guy Lafleur and fourth in games played with 1,125, 131 behind Henri Richard.
Had Beliveau played the four years prior to joining the Canadiens and a couple more instead of retiring, there’s no question he would have broken all three marks and easily be at the top of each category. Even if he had joined the Canadiens as a 20-year-old, he would have been around for their Stanley Cup win in 1952-53 and had he played longer, he would have been there for their Cup victory in 1973. That would have given Beliveau 12 Stanley Cups as a player, one more than all-time leader Henri Richard.
“Numbers to me are very secondary,” Beliveau said, “compared to when people are honest with me. I have a very hard time to split with somebody who has been good to me.”
Numbers in his financial portfolio were apparently secondary to Beliveau as well. Once he retired from the Canadiens, Beliveau turned down a four-year contract with the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association that would have paid him a reported $1 million. The Nordiques even told him that if he wanted to retire on year into the deal, he could fulfill the rest of the deal by working in the team’s front office.
But Beliveau’s loyalty to the Canadiens and his need to be true to himself prompted him to turn the Nordiques down. In fact, he claims it wasn’t even that difficult a decision.
“The only thing I can say is that the offer of that four years was more than the 18 years I played in the NHL,” Beliveau said. “I said, ‘Whatever amount of money you offer me, the answer is no.’ There is a quality type of game I enjoy playing and I told the Nordiques, ‘I wouldn’t be honest toward you, toward the fans, toward the game.
“I wouldn’t be honest to myself. At 41, you cannot perform the way I would like to perform. Some people like (Chris) Chelios can do it, but he’s the exception.”
No player in the history of the franchise has carried himself with more class and dignity than Beliveau. When Canadien fans were booing the U.S. national anthem to protest the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Beliveau made a public plea for respect and the booing was replaced by people singing along to the anthem.
As the most decorated captain in the history of the Canadiens, Beliveau guided phenom Guy Lafleur as he struggled through his first three seasons and helped him become a superstar. When veteran Henri Richard railed against coach Al MacNeil during the playoffs in 1971, Beliveau managed to get Richard to stop by simply squeezing his arm.
Beliveau’s resolve and integrity are stitched into Canadiens history; he never wavered, always following his own moral compass. The only time he felt the burden of expectation was when he entered the league in 1953-54. The lengths to which the Canadiens went to get Beliveau created enormous anticipation and instead of dominating, Beliveau struggled with injuries for much of his rookie season and scored just 13 goals and 34 points in 44 games.
“It was most difficult at the beginning,” Beliveau said. “It was a long time the Canadiens were trying to sign me, so there was a lot of publicity surrounding the negotiations between the Canadiens and me. And there is nothing worse for an athlete than to be preceded by all this publicity. It put more pressure and tension on my shoulders.”
Pressure also often brings out the best in some players and those shoulders were obviously big enough to handle the obstacles that were ahead. He improved to 73 points in his second year, a league-leading 88 in his third. And even though Beliveau left the game with probably more to give, he refused to let the world watch as his speed and skill diminished.
“I just told you how I think,” Beliveau said. “I could not do that.”