How badly did the Canadiens want Jean Béliveau? After an unsuccessful attempt to woo him away from Quebec City, they bought the entire Quebec Senior League just to obtain the rights to the sniper from Trois-Rivières. The 22-year-old rookie was finally signed prior to the 1953-54 season, leaving the QSHL’s Aces to become the first newcomer in Canadiens history to ink a multi-year contract.
For the next 18 seasons, Béliveau epitomized all that could be expected of a team player, becoming one of the greatest captains in league history and an immortal of the game.
He arrived in the NHL with all the tools he needed to succeed in the big leagues. A deceptively fast skater, masterful stickhandler and outstanding playmaker, he could set up a play, feed his linemates or find the twine himself. His accurate wrist shot and powerful backhand made him the bane of goaltenders everywhere and an instant fan favorite at the Forum.
A high-profile newcomer, Béliveau was put to the test by tough guys around the league, but preferred to remain within the rules rather than reply in kind. That would change in 1955-56.
Tired of the endless underhanded tactics used against him, Béliveau chose to retaliate, picking up a team record 143 penalty minutes. Despite sitting out the equivalent of almost two and a half games, his offensive numbers didn’t suffer. Béliveau scored 47 times on the way to an 88-point regular season, earning him both the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer and the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league MVP.
“Le Gros Bill” led the scoring parade in the postseason with a dozen goals and the Habs triumphed over the Red Wings in the spring of 1956. That championship marked the first of five consecutive Stanley Cups for the Canadiens and one of 10 that Béliveau would capture over the course of his playing career.
With Béliveau at his best when it mattered the most and opponents less inclined to take cheap shots at him, his career flourished. Perennially among the league’s top scorers, he racked up 395 points in the five straight years that culminated with a Stanley Cup parade along its usual route down St. Catherine Street in Montreal.
In 1961, Béliveau was elected captain by his peers, in his mind the greatest hockey honor he has ever received. He proudly wore the “C” for the next 10 years, which remains the longest tenure of any captain in club history.
Selfless and self-effacing, Béliveau was more than up to the task. He led by example on the ice and off, a mentor to newcomers and valued advisor to veterans. A few words of quiet encouragement invariably lifted players out of funks and the team out of slumps.
The team added five more Stanley Cups to their trophy case under Béliveau’s leadership, with the captain singled out for distinction in 1963-64 when he earned his second Hart Trophy. In 1964-65, the NHL introduced a new trophy to be awarded to the top playoff performer. Moments after receiving the Stanley Cup from League President Clarence Campbell, Béliveau was named the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The 1970-71 campaign was Béliveau’s final season. Playing with the energy of a kid a decade younger, the 39-year-old broke the 20-goal barrier for the 13th time and led the team in regular season scoring. He added 22 postseason points, ending his playing days in the most fitting manner possible, sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup for a 10th time.
The Hockey Hall of Fame waived the usual three-year waiting period and immediately inducted Béliveau in 1972. When he hung up his skates, Béliveau was the Canadiens’ all-time leader in virtually every offensive category. Decades later, his name still tops many of them.
The most respected man in the hockey world, and the game’s greatest role model, Béliveau has devoted most of his energies in recent years towards helping the less fortunate. He has made thousands of public appearances to help promote charitable causes and visited countless individuals in need.
When Jean Béliveau enters a room, conversations pause briefly as people silently recognize that they are in the presence of greatness. His efforts on the ice made better players of his teammates, and his exemplary life away from the rink makes better human beings of most people fortunate enough to cross his path.
On October 4, 1971, Béliveau’s trademark No. 4 was retired and raised to the rafters of the Montreal Forum.