The dynasty era Montreal Canadiens played with unmatched style and panache. “The Flying Frenchmen” reigned supreme during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s. At the heart of it all was graceful center Jean Beliveau.
He was an idol to all of Quebec, adored by teammates and respected by opponents. Beliveau set the standard for all aspiring hockey players to emulate through his example of competitiveness, elegance, dignity and humility.
Undoubtedly one of hockey’s greatest ambassadors, Beliveau passed away on Tuesday at the age of 83. He captained the Canadiens for 10 of 20 seasons, was a 14-time All-Star, two-time Hart Trophy winner and captured the Art Ross trophy in 1955-56. Beliveau was the first player to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.
“Le Gros Bill” lifted the Stanley Cup ten times as a player. He would go on to have his name etched on Lord Stanley seven additional times as a senior executive. Over 1,278 regular season and playoff games, Beliveau scored 586 goals and collected 809 assists for 1,395 points. His 1.084 regular season points per game ranks 29th in NHL history, just above Mark Messier. Beliveau’s 1.086 playoff points per game is 16th-best, edging Bobby Hull.
At 6-foot-3 and over 200 pounds, Beliveau was a much larger player that the majority of his contemporaries. The gentle giant glided past opponents with his long, graceful stride and controlled the puck with mastery. Taking the puck off Beliveau’s stick or getting under his skin was nearly impossible.
“The Rocket” Maurice Richard played with burning desire, viciousness and an intimidating gaze. His blazing speed and nastiness made him a force of nature on the ice. Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion is often credited for having invented the slapshot. Geoffrion played the game with a rough-and-tumble style, resulting in six broken noses and over 400 stitches.
In contrast to the fiery nature of Richard and Geoffrion, Beliveau made the game look easy and effortless.
Such was Beliveau’s prowess that the league had to adopt a new rule change after Beliveau only needed 44 seconds to score a hat trick on a single power play on November 5, 1955. An amendment to the NHL rulebook was passed in 1956 to allow players serving minor penalties to return to play after a single power play goal.
Tributes from star players came pouring in once the news of Beliveau’s passing broke on Tuesday night.
During Wednesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild, the Canadiens wore no. 4 stickers on their helmets in honor of Beliveau. The Wild paid tribute to “Le Gros Bill” ahead of Wednesday’s game at Xcel Energy Center.
The tributes will continue on road stops in Chicago and Dallas, before the Habs make an emotional return home to Bell Centre to play the Vancouver Canucks next Tuesday.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman spoke of Beliveau’s impact through an e-mailed statement:
“No record book can capture, no image can depict, no statue can convey the grandeur of the remarkable Jean Béliveau, whose elegance and skill on the ice earned the admiration of the hockey world while his humility and humanity away from the rink earned the love of fans everywhere.
“Mr. Béliveau was a formidable presence and his departure leaves an immeasurable void. As we grieve that he has left us, we cherish what he gave us: A sport elevated forever by his character, his dignity and his class.
“For all the accomplishments he achieved and all the accolades he received, Jean Béliveau was always the epitome of the boy whose only dream was to play for the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey is better because that dream was realized. The National Hockey League sends heartfelt condolences to Mr. Béliveau’s wife, Élise, and Mr. Béliveau’s family, to his countless friends around the hockey world, and to his beloved Canadiens, who he always represented with such distinction and grace.”
Geoff Molson, President of the Canadiens released the following statement:
“The Montreal Canadiens organization is extremely moved by Mr. Béliveau’s passing away. Like millions of hockey fans who followed the life and the career of Jean Béliveau, the Canadiens today mourn the passing of a man whose contribution to the development of our sport and our society was unmeasurable. Jean Béliveau was a great leader, a gentleman and arguably the greatest ambassador our game has ever known.
“Jean Béliveau was part of the Canadiens family for over six decades. The Canadiens organization will bring all the needed support to the members of Jean Béliveau’s family, and will work closely with them to organize the ceremonies that will take place in the coming days. On behalf of the Molson family, and all members of the Canadiens organization, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to his beloved wife Élise, his daughter Hélène and granddaughters Magalie and Mylène.”
The Canadiens have famously stirred the emotions of hockey lovers with their torch passing ceremonies. Their famous motto was taken from John McCrae’s wartime poem “In Flanders Fields.”
To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.
Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau, à vous toujours de le porter bien haut.
If there is a heaven, Beliveau will have strolled gracefully through the pearly gates to be greeted by all the deceased icons of hockey past. Each legendary great will have raised a torch in honor of Montreal’s great no. 4.