Sunday, December 7, 2014

Adieu mon Capitaine

I was deeply saddened when I learned of the passing of Jean Béliveau this week. During my youth, he was the great centerman and captain of the Montreal Canadiens, the hockey team that broke my heart every year. The worst year of all was 1971 when my beloved Black Hawks finally made it into the Stanley Cup finals AND brought that series to the brink, a game seven which was played in the old Chicago Stadium. Those were the days before TV, well at least as far as watching hockey played in your own city was concerned. Despite the game's being  broadcast nationally in prime time on CBS, it was blacked out in Chicago because of Arthur Wirtz, the owner of the team. Old man Wirtz, the father of legendary tightwad William "Dollar" Bill Wirtz, and the grandfather of the team's current owner, Rocky, banned TV broadcasts of Black Hawks' home games for fear of losing paying fans in the stands, incredibly, even the Stanley Cup final game. So my father and I hunkered down around the radio just as they did back in the thirties, to listen to the inimitable voice of Lloyd Pettit describing the game, play-by-play.

Late in the first period, hopes were high for the first Chicago championship in my own memory as Dennis Hull pounced on a rebound off a shot by his brother Bobby, and flicked a wrist shot into the net over the prone Montreal goalie Ken Dryden. I was ecstatic in the middle of the second period when off a brilliant centering pass from Pit Martin, Danny O'Shea blasted another goal from the point making it Hawks 2, Habs 0.

NHL President Clarence Campbell presenting the Stanley Cup to Jean Béliveau
Chicago Stadium, May 18, 1971 (AP Photo)
Now I had known disappointment before, having rooted for the star-crossed Cubs in '69, but nothing in that heartbreaking season could have prepared me for what was to come. On a power play, skating past center ice in the middle of the second period, Canadien centerman Jacques Lemaire wound up and took a what-the-heck slapshot from about 75 feet away toward Black Hawk goalie Tony Esposito. Tony-O who up to that point made several brilliant saves, somehow couldn't get a good bead on the puck which sailed past him for the first Montreal tally. The momentum as they say, shifted; it was as if all the air was let out of the Stadium after that fluky goal. Later in the period, Lemaire forced a turnover deep in the Hawk zone and fed the puck to Henri (the Pocket Rocket) Richard, who scored the equalizer. Then with a little over two minutes to play in regulation time, Richard hustled past ailing Hawks defenseman Keith Magnuson, and scored what would prove to be the championship goal.

Thanks to YouTube, you and I can now watch what no one in Chicago, save for the 20,000 or so folks who filled the old barn on west Madison Street up to the rafters, saw that evening, May 18, 1971, forty three years ago:

I was brokenhearted, however deep down I had tremendous respect for the Montreal Canadiens. When I was a kid, they won the Stanley Cup just about every year, sometimes even twice a year, or so it seemed. To this day the legendary names, Maurice and  Henri Richard, Jacques Lemaire, Guy La Fleur, Jacques Laperriere, Yvan Cournoyer, Rejean Houle, Serge Sevard, Guy Lapointe, J.C. Tremblay, and Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, still send shivers down my spine; the mere mention of them evokes nothing short of perfection.

But the name that stands above them all is Jean Béliveau. Béliveau was not a human highlight reel like his linemate, Yvan (the Roadrunner) Cournoyer, or Guy Lafleur who broke in with the Habs the year Béliveau retired. In contrast, with his movie star good looks and  6'3" frame, tall for a hockey player especially in those days, Béliveau, was all style and elegance, He made everything he did look effortless.

Jean Béliveau added substance to the style as one of the most respected players in NHL history. He was by all accounts, a tremendously generous player, who put his team first above his personal stats. His calm and positive demeanor and his quiet leadership skills made him a natural choice for the team's captain in 1961.

Off the ice he was a beloved figure, a truly genuine man. Finding something negative written about him would be a difficult task. This week the internet has been filled with tales about his kindness, generosity, and humility, things that seem to be lacking from most of today's sports stars. In Keith Oberman's tribute which you'll find below, he compares Béliveau to Joe Dimaggio, only with modesty and a sense of humor.

In 1970, the Canadiens found themselves out of the post-season, which is really saying something in hockey where just about everybody makes the playoffs. It was time he felt to hang up the skates, but his General Manager, Sam Pollock would have none of it. He talked Béliveau into hanging on for another year, convinced that new talent, including Lafleur, plus the return of their great captain, would help turn things around.

Béliveau took heed of that advice and returned for the 1970-71 season. On February 11, 1971, in a game against the Minnesota North Stars and goalie Gilles Gilbert, Béliveau scored a hat trick, the 18th and last of his career. The last of the three goals he scored that night was his 500th NHL goal, making him only the fourth player in history to reach that mark. As you can see in the video above, he brought his team yet another Stanley Cup championship. That's him in the clip, hoisting the Cup in front of 20,000 disappointed, but awe-inspired Chicago fans. That turned out to be the last game of his marvelous career.

Here are the stats:

507 goals
712 assists
1,219 points
Named team captain in 1961
1 Art Ross Trophy (NHL scoring leader)
2 Hart Memorial Trophies (Most valuable player)
1 Conn Smythe Trophy (Playoff MVP)
13 time all star
17 Stanley Cup titles (ten as a player, seven as an executive with the team)
Elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972 where they waived the standard waiting period
Awarded the Order of Canada in 1998

Last Friday night in Chicago, across the street from the site of his last game, there was another contest between the Canadiens and the Blackhawks (note the change of spelling). These days, the fortunes of the two teams are reversed, the Hawks are now one of the elite teams in the NHL, and the Habs are a good team on the outside looking in. Before the puck was dropped, PA announcer Gene Honda paid tribute to the great Béliveau. A spontaneous cheer went up among the partisan Blackhawk fans in a hostile arena who know and respect the history of the game. You could hear a pin drop when Honda asked for a moment of silence. Topping it off, John (Mr. National Anthem) Cornelison, sang "Oh Canada", in French.

M. Béliveau, a revered figure in Canada, especially in Quebec, will lie in respose for two days in the Bell Center, the current home of the Canadiens, which replaced the revered Montreal Forum years ago.

Fittingly, he will receive a national funeral on Wednesday at Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal.

Here's Keith Oberman's tribute:


Thinking back on my childhood, Jean Béliveau was most likely my third greatest sports idol, just behind the two local heroes, Ernie Banks and Stan Mikita. He was the personification of cool, of grace under pressure, a gentleman and a sportsman in the truest sense of the words.

I was never much of a hockey player, but I tried my hardest to emulate Jean Béliveau both on and off the ice.

Not a bad role model, he was the real deal.

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