Few men in sporting history share the same pedestal as Montreal Canadiens’ great Jean Beliveau. Not only was Beliveau a supremely gifted hockey player, leading the Habs to 10 Stanley Cups during his 18-year career, but his character off the ice cemented his legacy as the consummate gentleman and ambassador of the game.
Beliveau spoke to the Trail Daily Times Thursday reminiscing about his brief stint in the Silver City – an exhibition game against a Spokane team played at the Cominco Arena 50 years ago.
The Canadiens had just completed a two-week training camp in Victoria and stopped in Trail for an exhibition game to commemorate the 1961 Smoke Eaters recent world championship, Beliveau recalls.
“The day of the game I had the flu and I was sick like a dog, my legs we’re very soft like rubber and Toe Blake came to see me at 5 o’clock, and said, ‘Jean can you dress?’” said Beliveau from his home in Montreal.
“The arena was full and I said, ‘I’ll try,’ but just the same I had no business being on the ice but the arena was packed and the Trail Smoke Eaters represented us so well for many years at the world championship, what could I do?”
Beliveau dressed and in the first period as he tried to beat Spokane Comet defenceman Bill Folk, both fell to the ice and the Canadiens’ forward suffered a torn ligament.
He missed 30 games that year, the most due to injury in his career. But shortly after Beliveau’s injury, he’d also receive the highest personal compliment from his teammates.
“I was in a cast, Toe Blake phoned me and said, ‘Jean you know we need a new captain before the opening season.’ The players voted, it was a shock honestly, I went and I never thought I’d be walking out of the Montreal Forum as the captain,” he said.
“Les Gros Bill” as he was affectionately dubbed, regards the respect paid to him by his teammates as the highlight of his career.
“On a personal basis when the boys elected me captain I thought it was a great honour . . . having your name on 10 Stanley Cups is great, but it’s nice to be the captain and win the cup too.”
Beliveau would hoist five cups as captain, winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 1963-64 and was named the inaugural winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1965.
The 1970-71 campaign was Beliveau’s final season. 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 storybook fashion, sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup for a 10th time.
Beliveau says he still takes in the odd Habs game at the Forum in Montreal but at 80, his public appearances have been limited due to health issues.
But being a legend doesn’t stop Beliveau from taking time to communicate with fans and answer requests from his home phone.
It’s his recognition of the small, singular moments, and his extraordinary willingness to talk about them with humility and charm that adds to his legacy and generously allows others to share in it.
Even though his time in Trail was brief and painful, he’d have us all believe that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
“It’s a great pleasure for me because I remember Trail well, because of its fans and its people,” said Beliveau. “You can see they were great hockey fans.”