Jean Béliveau was that rare athlete whose personal reputation transcended his fame for his sports achievements. As gracious off-ice as he was graceful upon it, he retired as a player at the end of the 1970–71 season having won almost every individual and team award for which he was eligible. More than four decades later, he was still revered wherever he went — a tribute to his strong character and generosity of spirit as much as his gifts as a player. Alongside Maurice “Rocket” Richard, he is one of the two most iconic players to ever wear the uniform of professional hockey’s most storied team, the Montréal Canadiens.
Early Life and Career
Jean Béliveau, the eldest of eight siblings, began playing shinny at age six in the backyard of his home in Victoriaville, Québec, but did not play organized hockey until age 12. His formidable athletic abilities drew early attention. He was 15 when the Montreal Canadiens first tried to sign him to a contract binding him to the organization (as was permitted then). At 16, he was offered a minor-league baseball contract, which his mother refused on his behalf. Béliveau was both exceptionally large for his era — 6’3” and 205 pounds as an adult — and adroit. A centre, he was a deceptively fast skater with exceptional stickhandling abilities and wrist shot.
Béliveau began playing junior hockey in Québec City and almost immediately became a sensation. He attracted so much attention that when the Colisée de Québec was constructed it became known as "The House that Béliveau built" because of the huge crowds he drew. At the same time, he became known as “Le Gros Bill,” after a popular Québec song. He played a total of four years for Québec’s junior league Citadelles and senior league Aces, while the Canadiens grew increasingly desperate to sign him — so much so that they finally bought the entire league in which he played so as to consolidate their bargaining position.
Jean Béliveau signed with the Canadiens just before the 1953–54 season for five seasons and a total of $105,000. That was a huge sum for the time, and the contract marked the first multi-year deal given to a newcomer by the Canadiens. Over the next 18 seasons — including 10 as captain — he scored 507 goals and 1219 points during regular season play and was the team’s leading scorer as well as the National Hockey League’s all-time leading playoff scorer by the time he retired. His name is engraved on the Stanley Cup 17 times — 10 as a player and seven as a vice-president (1971–93). Among his many honours, he won the NHL scoring championship, the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player, the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs; he was named to 10 all-star teams.
Grace and Humility
Jean Béliveau was such a skilled and remarkable player on-ice — and so gracious on and off it — that even opposing players were in awe of him. The Chicago Black Hawks superstar Bobby Hull recalled that when he played against Béliveau, “it was almost, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Béliveau, I’m going to try to take the puck from you’.” Hull added: “We as players against him had so much respect for the way he carried himself.”
Upon Béliveau’s retirement, the Canadiens retired his No. 4, and the Hockey Hall of Fame waived its three-year waiting period to vote him in immediately. He joined the Canadiens’ front office as a vice-president, and remained there until his retirement from that position in 1993. He became known for accommodating every appearance request he could fit into his schedule — especially those involving young people. When the team held a tribute night for him, he insisted that proceeds be given to charity. He established the Jean Béliveau Foundation in 1971 and transferred it to the Québec Society for Disabled Children when he retired from the Canadiens’ front office in 1993. Despite his fame, he was always approachable and never refused requests for autographs. Former player and executive Bob Gainey described Béliveau as someone who “is that strange balance or contradiction of royalty, but accessible.”
Jean Béliveau’s collection of awards and honours continued to grow after his retirement. In 1994, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien offered him the post of governor general; he turned it down for family reasons. Among his many honours, he was named Grand Officer of the National Order of Québec (2010), Companion of the Order of Canada (1998), was added to Canada’s Walk of Fame in 2001 and has appeared on a postage stamp (2001). The Canadiens award the Jean Béliveau Trophy annually to the current player who best demonstrates community engagement. The National Hockey League gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.
Death and Legacy
After Jean Béliveau’s death on 2 December 2014, at age 83, his body laid in state for two days at Montréal’s Bell Centre, home rink of the Canadiens; thousands lined up to pay tribute. His wife of 61 years, Élise Béliveau (née Couture), stayed throughout, meeting each of the mourners personally. Béliveau’s state funeral was televised nationally and attended by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and two of his predecessors, Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney. Other attendees included Québec Premier Philippe Couillard, former premiers Jean Charest, Bernard Landry and Lucien Bouchard, the mayor of Montréal, Denis Coderre, as well as Thomas Mulcair and Justin Trudeau. The pews were packed with current and former notables from across the hockey world and beyond, including former teammates Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Phil Goyette, Serge Savard, Bobby Rousseau and Jean-Guy Talbot, who served as pallbearers. They were followed by Élise, her daughter Hélène, and her two granddaughters. Despite the deep-rooted rivalry between the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, former Toronto goalie Johnny Bower was welcomed amid a group of attending Montréal player alumni.
The Canadiens wore the number four on their team sweaters for the remainder of the 2014–15 season in tribute. On 9 December, during the Canadiens’ game against the Vancouver Canucks, the team draped a Canadiens sweater with the number four over his usual seat 1, Row EE, Section 102 and lit the empty seat with a spotlight during the game. For the first time in years, they did not report a sellout crowd: instead, they listed it as one person less than full capacity — an appropriately understated yet eloquent tribute to the departed legend.