A tribute to the best of men: Jean Marc Beliveau 1931-2014

by Larry Leblanc

We were all 14-years-old. We were all fanatic hockey fans whether it be ice pond, the lake or the flashy ice of the NHL. We were a group of four (ironic now when we think of who we are writing this piece for and about) and we were always together playing a sport (any sport of some sort). Looking back now, we probably didn’t realize that any other world existed—except, of course, that our parents shipped us off to school each day.

We lived in North Bay and in the late summer, early fall in the mid-1950s ‘magic’ came to our local arena. The famed Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League (AHL) set up their training camp in our stomping grounds and we could hardly have been more excited. Bob, Andy, Raymond and myself would trek off to Memorial Gardens whenever the Barons were on the ice. Under the direction of Mr. Jim Hendy, they were the most famous non-NHL team in the world. They were an independent (not affiliated with an NHL team) entry and the owner had deep pockets.

Because of this, the Barons could literally ‘buy’ the best non-NHL players available and thus were the class act of all the minor hockey leagues. Each fall they would prove this by playing exhibition games against NHL teams. For a number of years, this brought the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens to the little Northern Ontario city of North Bay.

This is how we met “Le Gros Bill.” Jean Beliveau was a giant of a man in the 1950s NHL hockey where being 6 feet tall was big. By comparison, Beliveau was literally huge. At 6’3” he was the proverbial giant among men. However, he was not a bruiser. Indeed, he was a cruiser, all grace and elegance on the ice. He was the gravy to Boom Boom’s slapper and the Rocket’s red glare. He stood out because he was a painter on ice, a man seemingly a little too classy for the rough sport of the 1950s. And when he stepped off the ice he was even more classy, if such a thing were possible.

On the night of Friday, October 5, 1956 he and the firewagon Canadiens came to the Bay’s then spanking new Memorial Gardens. The Cleveland Barons were no pushovers. In a game against the Leafs a week earlier, they held Horton, Bauer, Armstrong, Duff, Sloan and company to a single goal 3-2 victory.

A program cover featured Jean Beliveau as one of the star players who came to North Bay and thrilled a young Larry Leblanc.
A program cover featured Jean Beliveau as one of the star players who came to North Bay and thrilled a young Larry Leblanc.

This October night, a record North Bay crowd of 4,552 turned out to see the Stanley Cup champions pitted against the AHL Barons. Going into the third period, Montreal held only a 4 to 3 lead over the hard working Barons. It wasn’t till the last 10 minutes that the Habs figured it was time to put away these pretenders and unleashed a four-goal attack in less than nine minutes.

Two players, Bert Olmstead and ‘Jentleman Jean’ were the architects as they combined for two goals in less than one minute. Beliveau’s goal was an illustration of his size, strength and class. Though being inhibited completely, his left armed pinned by the Barons’ Steve Kraftcheck, he shifted the puck to the back of his stick which he now held in his right hand only and with a flick of his massive wrist from 40 feet away, drilled the puck one-handed over the shoulder of goalie and future New York Ranger Marcel Paille for the Canadiens’ seventh goal in an 8-3 victory. Remember, Beliveau was a left-hand shot; this goal came only from his right hand—and on the back-hand side at that—while being restrained by former Ranger Kraftcheck. He had at least 4,500 others (besides myself) who burst into applause.

I describe the play mostly because, though it was an exhibition goal, it illustrated so much about the player and the man. The execution of the goal was all Beliveau and so it was on his bowed head that all 4,500 fans heaped the praise because of how he had scored this counter. Jean quietly went back to centre ice as if it were a routine goal and humbly ignored the raucous cheering. That one play illustrated the character and personality of the men who had the year before won the league scoring title and was the first All-Star Centre and recipient of the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player. None of these accolades ever changed this “jewel of a human being.”

Our little group of four had come to the arena with reams of paper to collect autographs after the game as we had when the Leafs came to camp earlier in the Barons’ training season. It was not to be on that October night, however, as Montreal management whisked the Habs out of the arena and onto a bus all at once in one short burst of ferocious activity. Needless to say, our band of four was devastated. We must have been visibly upset as someone volunteered the information that the team was on its way to the local Merlin (named after owner and infamous North Bay mayor at the time, Merle Dickerson) Hotel for a post-game meal.

As the Merlin Hotel was but a mile-and-a-half down from Memorial Gardens, we decided to chance on ‘crashing’ the party. In truth, we were very timid crashers.

Some 20 to 30 minutes later, we were pacing back and forth in front of the Merlin discussing what to do since that same bus was, indeed, in the parking lot. We decided to send one of our braver (not me!) cohorts into the hotel lobby. He was promptly and unceremoniously booted to the curb despite his plans. We paced some more and changed our strategy. All four of us, after seeing the hotel clerk momentarily disappear, did do a little crashing and made it to the door of the dining room before once again being accosted by the hotel’s S.S. Stormtrooper who came towards us yelling wildly. His loud incantations, however, only served to draw the attention of the Montreal players who now noticed these four impoverished, shivering, very intent star-seekers. A number of the Habs shouted to the ‘police’ to leave us alone and let us in. Among the first to greet us was Mr. Beliveau (we would never have called him or the Rocket, or any of them for that matter, anything but Mister).

An ad in a 1956 edition of the North Bay Nugget announced a young hockey fan dream come true.
An ad in a 1956 edition of the North Bay Nugget announced a young hockey fan dream come true.

All of them were welcoming and gracious but clearly Mr. Beliveau was most accommodating, taking time to address each of us personally. We obviously were in awe of them all. Each and every one signed our crude autograph ‘books’…Big Jean, the Rocket, Boom Boom, the Pocket Rocket, Doug Harvey, Dickie Moore, Jacques Plante and the rest. Never again would we be in a room with so many Hall of Famers and yet in terms of sheer ‘presence,’ Mister Beliveau stood out!

If one were able to describe a man based on one night of hockey and one face to face encounter, this would do it for me and my buddies. Anyone I’ve ever met who saw him aspired to be just like him on, and even more so off the ice.

The man who many years later turned down the offer of the Governor Generalship of Canada when offered it by then Prime Minister of Canada Jean Chretien was just that: thoughtful and humble.

How truly impressive was this man? The Montreal Canadiens purchased the entire Quebec Senior A hockey League (this was well before the NHL draft) in order to secure the rights to a young Beliveau. Jean was then playing for the Quebec Aces Senior A club and tearing up the league as a youngster. His popularity was so high that the city built a new arena, the Colisee, in order to accommodate the surging number of fans who wished to see him play. The arena came to be well-known as the rink that Beliveau built.

A year or two later, the Habs convinced Jean to sign a three-game tryout contract (which was the norm in the day when teams couldn’t get a player to sign a long-term contract).

Beliveau then promptly scored five goals in the three games he played before returning to Quebec where he was such a folk hero and, in fact, was being paid more than Montreal offered him to come to the NHL. Beliveau indicated that he would prefer to stay where he was. Montreal then bought the entire league to secure his rights but they still were unable to get his signature on a contract. They had prevented the other Original Six teams from tampering with him but they still needed his John Hancock and Jean was perfectly happy in Quebec City.

The Canadiens then turned the entire Quebec Senior A league into a minor-pro circuit, thus obtaining the NHL rights to all players in the entire league, yet they still could not get Jean to sign the NHL contract. The five goals and three games had just whetted the Montreal appetite even more and they more than redoubled their efforts. Eventually, with an undisclosed contract offer and much urging by all French Canadian fans (including those in Quebec City who wanted him to prove that he could play at the highest level of hockey), Mr. Beliveau relented and arrived in the NHL to loud fanfare. Asked how he was able to get his signature, Montreal manager Frank Selke Sr. simply said: “All I did was to open the vault and say, ‘Help yourself, Jean’.” A very mature Beliveau then entered the NHL in 1953 at the age of 22 and ready to start his Hall of Fame career.

No hockey card in the collection for Jean Belview, but the ever-resourceful young Larry Leblanc snipped a poster in an old school cut and paste job to create this  venue for his Jean Beliveau autograph.
No hockey card in the collection for Jean Belview, but the ever-resourceful young Larry Leblanc snipped a poster in an old school cut and paste job to create this
venue for his Jean Beliveau autograph.

Before he left for Montreal, Jean’s dad, Arthur, gave him this advice (as quoted in Roy McGregor’s book ‘The Home Team: Fathers, Sons and Hockey,’ page 231): “Loyalty is another form of responsibility. If you feel that you owe something to someone no matter what the debt, it behooves you to pay it. Sometimes these very people will do or say something to indicate that they are discharging the debt, but only you will know what the best policy will be. Your good name is your greatest asset.”

I was going to write much more on Mr. Beliveau but I believe the final sentence of Arthur Beliveau sums up his son Jean’s entire life. No one could say it better. With the social media access to information 51 years after Mr. Beliveau’s NHL debut, one can find many thousands of tributes to Number 4 by simply searching the Internet. Just Google ‘classy Beliveau’ and you will find everything you ever need to know.

Jean, himself, lived his father’s words: “your good name is your greatest asset,” and he is appropriately referred to as “The Lion Regal” in the history of the Montreal Canadiens, ‘The Lions in Winter’ by Allen Turowetz and Chrys Goyens.

Rest in peace, Mr. Jean Marc Beliveau.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Leblanc of Mindemoya is a lifelong Habs fan. He was also the Page 7 sports columnist for The Expositor for many years with his column Ice Chips (now Ice Chips and Canoe Quips and penned by his son Andre). Larry Leblanc has coached hockey for over 40 years. He met the late Jean Beliveau when he was 14. In the mid-2000s, he brought Junior A hockey to Manitoulin: the Manitoulin Wild of the NOJHA. He has written several scholarly books on Manitoulin First Nations issues and is a retired educator. His encounter with the Montreal Canadiens Stanley Cup winning team during an exhibition game series in North Bay in 1956 cemented his view that the team is the best in the world and he maintains this loyalty today.