MONTREAL (AP) — It is hard to imagine a classier hockey player, on and off the ice, than Jean Beliveau.
A supremely skilled center who spent 20 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens during his Hall of Fame career, Beliveau died Tuesday at 83. The team confirmed his death.
One of the most beloved players in Canadiens history, Beliveau also was a popular ambassador for the sport. He scored 507 goals, won 10 Stanley Cup championships and was captain for 10 seasons before his retirement in 1971. After that, he moved seamlessly into an executive position with the club.
Beliveau was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972. He won two NHL MVP awards and has his name engraved on the Cup a record 17 times, counting the seven titles Montreal won while he was in the front office.
“Meeting him is not like meeting other stars from the old days,” said Beliveau’s former linemate, Gilles Tremblay, who died last week at age 75. “When people see Bobby Hull, they say: ‘Hi Bobby.’ When they meet Big Jean, it’s always: ‘Hi, Mr. Beliveau.’ He commands respect.”
Canadiens fans who revered Beliveau were given a scare in 2000 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer, but after losing 30 pounds during treatment and enduring “the worst period of my life,” he recovered. Soon, he was back in his familiar spot attending nearly every home game with his wife Elise in the seats among the fans.
He also survived a stroke in 2012.
When the Canadiens opened Centennial Plaza at the Bell Centre as part of the team’s 100th anniversary, their four greatest players were honored with statues: Maurice Richard, Howie Morenz, Guy Lafleur and Beliveau.
“Like millions of hockey fans who followed the life and the career of Jean Beliveau, the Canadiens today mourn the passing of a man whose contribution to the development of our sport and our society was unmeasurable,” team owner Geoff Molson said in a statement. “Jean Beliveau was a great leader, a gentleman and arguably the greatest ambassador our game has ever known.”
Molson said the club will work closely with Beliveau’s family “to organize the ceremonies that will take place in the coming days.”
Montreal’s next home game is Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks.
Beliveau embodied all the attributes of the Montreal dynasty teams of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: talent, flair, intelligence and success.
“A great person, a great hockey player and a real gentleman off the ice,” said Boston Bruins Hall of Famer John Bucyk. “He was very well-respected around the league. … He was always the top centerman in the National Hockey League for many years.”
Such was his spotless image that Beliveau turned down an offer from Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the 1980s to sit in the Senate. Beliveau also refused an offer extended by Prime Minister Jean Chretien in 1994 to become Canada’s governor general.
Even the crafty handling of his first professional contract in the early 1950s, when he landed a comparatively enormous salary that averaged more than $20,000 as an unproven rookie, didn’t tarnish his public appeal.
A resigned general manager Frank Selke Sr., when asked what it took to sign Beliveau, simply said: “All I did was open up the Forum vault and say: ‘Help yourself, Jean.'”
The signing had been ordered by the Canadiens owners, who had bought the entire Quebec Senior Hockey League to secure the rights to the quiet center for the Quebec Aces.
Until shortly before his death, Beliveau would spend time before and after every home game signing autographs and talking to anyone who approached. For those he knew, there was always a smile and a handshake.
“An unbelievable man. When you talk about class, it has Jean Beliveau written all over it,” said Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, who coached the Canadiens for three seasons. “I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to get to know him.”
Beliveau, the eldest of seven children, was born on Aug. 31, 1931, in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, but moved to Victoriaville when he was 3. He learned to control the puck on a crowded backyard rink and by the time he was a teenager, the Beliveau legend was growing.
When Victoriaville’s junior team folded, he moved to Quebec City and began filling rinks around the province. When he moved up to the senior Aces, he was said to be earning $20,000 in salary and endorsements on what officially was an amateur team.
The Canadiens signed Beliveau, nicknamed “Le Gros Bill,” to a $110,000, five-year contract, including a large signing bonus, to lure him from Quebec, a city he loved and that adored him in return.
Beliveau had short stints with the Canadiens for two consecutive years before joining the club for good in 1953-54. He carried tremendous pressure into the NHL, both for his amateur scoring feats and his salary, which was topped only by the high-scoring Richard.
Beliveau became a fixture in the middle of the great Montreal teams, winning a record five straight championships from 1956-60.
“A true legend has passed away,” Canadiens forward Brandon Prust tweeted Tuesday night. “Honored to say I wore the same colors as the man.”
At 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Beliveau combined strength, a long reach, a soft touch on the puck and remarkable vision on the ice.
Donnie Marshall, a checking forward for the Canadiens in the 1950s and ’60s, said even Beliveau’s teammates were in awe of his skill.
“It was such a pleasure to watch him play and handle the puck,” Marshall said. “He was so graceful on the ice.”
Beliveau took over the captaincy in 1961 on a team rebuilding for another run of Cups under coach Hector (Toe) Blake. Beliveau won his second Hart Trophy in 1964, when a new Canadiens dynasty arose to take four Cups in a five-year span.
After the 1969-70 season, in which an aging Beliveau had only 19 goals, general manager Sam Pollack talked his captain into playing one more season. Beliveau scored 25 goals — including his milestone 500th — and added 22 points in 20 playoff games as the Canadiens won another Stanley Cup, allowing their big center to retire, at 40, a winner.
In his career, Beliveau had 1,219 points in 1,125 games, plus 79 goals and 97 assists in 162 playoff matches. He was voted to the NHL’s first All-Star team six times, and the second team four times.
In 2005, Beliveau made headlines when he sold off many of his hockey mementos, including his Stanley Cup ring from 1958-59; a replica of the Conn Smythe Trophy he won in 1965, the inaugural year for the playoff MVP award; his Hockey Hall of Fame induction ring; and the pucks he used to score his first and last NHL regular-season goals. The auction raised about $1 million.
Beliveau also ran a charitable foundation and sat on the board of directors of several companies.
He and Elise had one daughter, Helene, and granddaughters Mylene and Magalie.
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