Who's the greatest hockey player Canada has ever produced? Many argue it's Wayne Gretzky. But Gretzky himself might support a different candidate - a personal hero whom he once described as "the first guy who was able to play the game elegantly without having to be rough, without having to fight. In a lot of ways, my play was more like his than anyone." He might say Jean Béliveau.
Known the world over as "Gentleman Jean," and respected as much for his tremendous strength of character as for his athletic prowess, Béliveau was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, on August 31, 1931. By age 15, he was already nearing his full height of 6-foot-3, and had earned the nickname "Le Gros Bill." Later, a National Hockey League colleague would liken hitting him to "running into the side of a big oak tree."
While attending College de Victoriaville and playing hockey for the school team, Béliveau nearly took a professional detour. As talented on the baseball field as he was on the ice, the teen caught the interest of local baseball scouts and was offered a semi-pro contract. Instead, he opted for a summer in the mining town of Val-d'Or, pitching in the Abitibi Senior League.
Returning to Trois-Rivières, QC and to hockey, Béliveau, just weeks after his 16th birthday, was approached by the coach of the city's junior A team, the Reds, who doubled as a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Convinced that Béliveau was ready to make the leap to junior A, he offered a contract that the strapping young centre was eager to accept. But Béliveau's father insisted he finish high school instead.
The next year, Béliveau joined the Victoriaville Panthers for two seasons in the Quebec Junior Hockey League, followed by two more seasons with the QJHL's Quebec Citadelle, a move that linked him contractually to the Montreal Canadiens. Before the junior draft was established, NHL teams usually held the rights to junior prospects in their jurisdiction. When the Canadiens decided to exercise their option in the early 1950s, team management had no idea it was about to become embroiled in one of the most bizarre episodes in NHL history.
Béliveau, who was then earning a handsome $20,000 a season - despite his official "amateur" status - wanted to stay in Quebec City. Provincial legislators entered the fray, and threatened to suspend the Montreal Forum's liquor licence if the Canadiens forced the 18-year-old to sign. The Habs were left with only one option: buy the entire senior league and turn it professional just to acquire Béliveau. And so they did.
Béliveau began his first full season with the Canadiens in the fall of 1953 and remained with the Habs for his entire professional career. What a spectacular 18 years they were.
Skating alongside such legends as Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Dickie Moore, and Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, Béliveau played in 1,287 NHL games, including 162 playoff games; scored 586 goals and 809 assists; racked up three four-goal games, 18 three-goal games, and 80 game-winning goals; served as team captain for 10 seasons; was named to the NHL all-star team 10 times; scored 25 or more goals in a season 12 times; appeared in the playoffs for a record-setting 16 consecutive years; and helped lead the Canadiens to 10 Stanley Cup victories.
In 1956, Béliveau was awarded both the Art Ross Trophy as the league's scoring champ and the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player. The Hart Trophy was his again in 1964. The following year, he became the first recipient of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs.
When Béliveau opted for retirement in 1971, years of off-season work as a public relations representative for Molson Breweries - which then owned the Canadiens - had helped shape him into an astute businessman. He immediately accepted an executive position with the Canadiens' organization, and subsequently served in senior capacities with eight other major corporations.
Rumours surfaced in the 1980s that Béliveau would be offered an appointment as a federal senator, but he adamantly denied any political aspirations. Later, he was touted as an ideal choice for Governor General.
In 2000, it was revealed that the living legend was suffering from cancer and was scheduled to undergo radiation therapy for a malignant tumour in his neck. Asking the press and public to respect his family's privacy during his ordeal, he announced: "I feel good and I fully intend on winning the next battle."
One of the NHL's most remarkable heroes, Béliveau remains that rarest of hockey greats - an ambassador who personifies orderly conduct at all times. As Wayne Gretzky so eloquently put it: "Elegant on the ice, distinguished off it."