As a diehard Leafs fans in the late 50’s and all through the 60’s, I don’t feel qualified to say much about the magnificent Jean Béliveau, who gave up the game Tuesday night, after a long skirmish in the corner with numerous afflictions. As always, it took more than one of them to finally lodge big Jean off the puck.
I hated the Habs in those days. There was no greater joy for this kid in Newmarket than when the Leafs would rise up to smite the mighty Montreal Canadiens, particularly their Stanley Cup win out of nowhere by Punch Imlach’s aging warriors in 1967. Such Leaf victories didn’t happen often. Most of the time, I would sit there glumly in front of our small, black and white TV set, watching the Habs pour it on, while my father chortled with every Montreal goal.
Yet no matter how many times he killed the Leafs with a late power play goal or a perfect set-up, I could never bring myself to hate Jean Béliveau. Deep down, I knew I was watching someone who played hockey on a different level than almost everyone else, a master of the craft, as someone put it. So, instead of hate, my prevailing emotion whenever Beliveau had the puck in the Leafs’ zone was fear. You expected him to score on every play. My memories are not the goals he scored or the plays he made, but the constant anxiety he caused in my tense, blue-and-white, Maple Leaf heart.
Then there was the other stuff. Not only was he incomparably skilled on the ice, Bèliveau was absurdly handsome with perfect teeth, well-spoken and the personification of class. How could a guy who played the same game as Eddie Shack and Moose Vasko have these attributes, as well. It didn’t seem fair. Whenever he was interviewed between periods by Frank Selke Jr. (“Well, Junior…”), he never seemed to shed a drop of sweat, no hair was out of place, his voice as mellow and unruffled as if he’d just stepped out of a boardroom. Smooth, elegant, seemingly effortless, cruising the ice like a big, sleek Cadillac. That was Jean Béliveau.
For heartfelt reviews of a great great hockey player, I first offer this fine obituary by Gare Joyce. The last paragraph says it all.
And closer to home, a lovely piece by Tom Hawthorn on what happened when Le Gros Bill came to Victoria in 2005.
Finally, an excellent tribute by Stephen Brunt, with great video.
First published on Micklebog