On the ice, six-foot-three Jean Beliveau had an imposing presence, a gifted scorer’s touch, and a competitive spirit. Off the ice, “Le Gros Bill” (nicknamed after a French folk hero), an ardent Catholic, inspired generations of hockey players with his countless handwritten letters to play honourably.
Beliveau died at age 83 Dec. 2 in Montreal. During his 18 full seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, he won 10 Stanley Cups, and was team captain for 10 years.
“I had the God-given talent and immense good fortune to become a star on a team of stars,” he wrote in his book, My Life in Hockey.
The star, who played centre, recalled his “staunchly Catholic” family as he grew up in the 1930s. His mother Laurette and father Arthur raised eight children, but one sister was killed at the age of two after being hit by a car.
Jean grew up in Victoriaville, Que., in a house “right next to the Church of Les Saint-Martyrs Canadiens.” Arthur rejected numerous offers for Jean to play hockey or baseball. He told his son to put aside “ridiculously easy” offers of money and gifts, since the athlete must “remember that nothing comes free in this life, and that hard work and discipline will make you who and what you are.”
Before signing with the bleu-blanc-rouge in 1953, Beliveau spent time playing for the Quebec City Aces in the now-defunct Quebec Senior Hockey League. The talented centre, at $20,000 a year, made far more money, in a lower league, than National Hockey League stars Gordie Howe and Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
Also in 1950 Beliveau met the love of his life, Elise, whom he married in 1953 in St. Patrick’s Church in Quebec City.
In 1971, his final season, Beliveau scored the 500th goal of his career in a hat-trick performance against the Minnesota North Stars. Later, when Canadiens owners wanted to honour the star’s career with a special night, Beliveau famously said he wouldn’t accept any money and that if any money was raised it should go to charity.
Near the end of that season, Beliveau was stunned when he received a cheque at centre ice for $155,855, and the Jean Beliveau Foundation was born.
In August 1971, newly retired, he went to Europe and met Pope Paul VI in a private audience at Castel Gandolfo. “I know that you didn’t accept gifts, that you created a foundation to help others,” the pope said.
The pope acknowledged he had visited Montreal in his younger years, and he thanked the Habs star for bringing his parents to Italy. Later, in Vatican City, a Swiss Guard hockey fan stopped Beliveau for a chat. In 1993, when he retired from the Canadiens’s front office, the Jean Beliveau foundation’s remaining assets, $900,000, were given to the Quebec Society for Disabled Children.
Beliveau once said, “To this day, I thank God every night for giving me the talent to play professional sport.”
Montreal Archbishop Christian Lepine celebrated a funeral mass for Beliveau Dec. 10. An estimated 50,000 people were expected to gather to celebrate his life.
The prelate called the Habs star a gentleman who loved disabled children. “His humanism was rooted in a profound faith in Jesus Christ.”