Thursday, October 3, 2013

Le Gros Bill celebrates 60 Years With Montreal (Story in today's Montreal Gazette)

MONTREAL — The smiles of three men light up the wood-panelled Montreal Forum office.
On the left is Canadiens general manager Frank Selke, a canary having been a meal for this satisfied cat.
On the right is head coach Dick Irvin, flashing the sign of victory that soon would come for the club on a great many nights.
And seated at Selke’s desk in the early Saturday afternoon of Oct. 3, 1953, beaming, about to put pen to the contract in front of him, backdropped by a large wall calendar, the Canadiens’ 1945-46 team photo and a glossy picture of a leggy figure skater, is Jean Béliveau.
Ending was a team’s lengthy courtship of the brilliant, hard-to-get centreman, this 22-year-old cornerstone of the senior league’s Quebec Aces finally lured to Montreal.
Beginning was an illustrious Hall of Fame-bound Canadiens career that would see Béliveau win 10 Stanley Cups as a player — five consecutively from 1956-60, five more from 1965 to his retirement in 1971 — and then another seven as a Habs vice-president.
Sixty years ago Wednesday, with three signatures, Béliveau was embraced by a hockey family, forming a bond that’s just 102 days younger than his marriage to Élise, his soulmate.
“It was always my dream to play for Canadiens, even for the two or three years I didn’t want to sign,” Béliveau said Tuesday. “Now it’s been 60 years?”
And he laughed.
“Maybe I wasn’t looking that far ahead that day.”
This diamond anniversary is yet another reminder of how Le Gros Bill is synonymous with elegance and grace and leadership both in hockey and beyond the game, living every step of his life in the public eye and never putting so much as one toe out of place.
If he’s among us a little less now, not in his Bell Centre seat for every home game and not attending the endless functions to which he’s still invited, it’s because he’s finally putting himself first, taking his days a little easier since cancer and two strokes have slowed his gait.
“I ran around for 60 years,” Béliveau joked. “And more.
“I liked all of it, but I had to slow down. I’m not 60 any more. I’m 82. It’s about time.”
Of course, Béliveau’s gentle retreat from the spotlight has done nothing to diminish his place in the Canadiens family, his heart in many ways still the pulse and the conscience of the franchise.
Few are Canadiens fans of a certain age who don’t have their own special Béliveau story — of meeting him at a banquet, in an airport, a mall, on the street. Each tale is shared with stars in the storyteller’s eyes.
In this world of “too good to be true,” Béliveau is as good as advertised, and better than that. He has this gift: if you speak to him for a half a minute in a packed room, he makes you feel that the two of you are alone for that 30 seconds.
The Canadiens’ 1950s pursuit of Béliveau was a soap opera of the highest order. He had Quebec City in his palm, as well paid as NHL stars Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe, and he felt a profound loyalty to the Aces and the generous community that treated him as royalty, showering him with affection and gifts.
Béliveau’s NHL negotiation rights belonged to the Canadiens, for whom he knew in his heart he would one day play. While he spurned their offers several times, remaining with the Aces, he attended Habs training camp every fall in the early 1950s and had a few tryouts, tantalizing management and fans with his powerful stride, smooth stickhandling and rugged presence.
His NHL debut, on Dec. 16, 1950 at the Forum against the New York Rangers, saw Béliveau named the first star for his nine shots on goal. He scored in his second game a year later, then dazzled in a three-game call-up in December 1952, scoring five times before returning to coach Punch Imlach’s Aces.
The mating dance was growing comical. Béliveau recalled in his 1994 autobiography, My Life In Hockey, that the Toronto Star even ran a “Wanted” poster:
“Jean Béliveau. Age 20. 6’2”. 195 lbs. Wanted by Canadiens to play NHL hockey. Reward $15,000 a season … and he turns it down.”
A French newspaper ran a similar poster-type notice a few months later, but Béliveau recalls he had grown to 6-foot-3, 205 pounds for the francophone market.
His signing in Montreal was inevitable when the Quebec Senior league, an amateur circuit, was turned pro. Finally, on Oct. 3, 1953, Béliveau put his name on three copies of a contract that would pay him salary and bonuses of $105,000 for five years, the richest NHL pact to that time.
His long relationship with Molson Breweries had been in the works for some time, broadcaster/columnist/brewery executive Zotique Lespérance having paid regular visits to Quebec.
“Mr. Lespérance would drop by the Colisée and tell me, ‘If you ever come to Canadiens, come see us at the brewery,’ ” Béliveau said.
He would meet with Senator Hartland Molson, four years later the Canadiens president, in the summer of 1953, “and the Senator and I shook hands. That was my contract with Molson’s,” Béliveau said.
He would work with the brewery’s sales promotion department for the next 18 years, eventually named a vice-president and board member.
It was six weeks after Béliveau joined Molson’s that he signed with the Canadiens, the team’s dogged pursuit finally landing their prize.
The Gazette of Monday, Oct. 5, reported Béliveau’s signing on the third page of its Sports section, behind two pages of World Series coverage, 12 paragraphs accompanied by a photo of Selke over his new star’s shoulder.
It began:
“Jean Béliveau, sensational hockey rookie, Saturday signed a five-year contract with Montreal Canadiens, a contract termed by Managing Director Frank Selke ‘the highest contract ever given any player — highest by a city block.’ ”
The story went on to say that a “long conference” a day earlier had failed to produce a deal:
“No reason for the youngster’s hesitancy was given but the presence at Saturday’s conference of a financial adviser, on Béliveau’s behalf, and an expert on income tax regulations indicated Béliveau was figuring closely on how much he would have left after the government got through with him. …
“Saturday’s conference dragged on and for a time it was reported there was only a 50-50 chance of Béliveau signing and becoming eligible to play for Canadiens against the NHL all-stars (that night).
“Finally at 1:05 p.m., Selke walked from his office and told newspapermen and photographers: ‘Well, you haven’t waited in vain.’ All rushed into the office, and Béliveau, smiling, picked up a pen and signed three sets of the contract.
“Selke described the signing as ‘the biggest moment of my career in hockey,’ ” the story continued, “and said he was pleased that the ‘highest contract’ to any player had been given ‘a French-Canadian boy from Victoriaville.’
“He also said that in the five years he had known Béliveau and during the many conferences at which he tried to get the youngster to sign, ‘Neither of us has ever made a crack about the other and Béliveau has always been courteous and considerate.’ ”
Béliveau joined his new team hours after signing, playing that night in the NHL’s seventh All-Star Game that pitted the Canadiens, the defending Stanley Cup champions, against a team of NHL stars. Béliveau assisted on Maurice Richard’s power-play goal in the Canadiens’ 3-1 loss, the Rocket poking the rebound of a Béliveau blast behind goaler Terry Sawchuk.
Dirk Irvin Jr., the celebrated broadcaster and author, remembers his Canadiens coaching father “going easy” on the young rookie when he finally signed, the centreman having arrived three months after his marriage to Élise Couture.
“Jean reported (to the team) fat,” Irvin recalled. “But before long, Dad gave it to him. Jean wore a rubber shirt so he’d sweat off the extra weight. But what impressed my dad was that Jean never complained. He ever said a word.”
“I didn’t wear that shirt every day,” Béliveau clarified, chuckling. “It makes you weak.”
Which wasn’t an adjective often used to describe him. Béliveau would score 507 goals and add 712 assists in his 1,125 NHL games, all with the Canadiens, scoring 79 and assisting on 97 more in his 162 playoff games.
He won the NHL’s 1955-56 Art Ross and Hart trophies as the league’s top points-getter and most valuable player, respectively; the inaugural Conn Smythe in 1964 as MVP of the playoffs; and twice had the NHL’s top goal and assist totals.
On Thursday, 60 years to the day that he joined the Canadiens family, Jean Béliveau says his only plan is to sit in his South Shore condominium, put his feet up and look out at Montreal far below.
How fitting that this city will be at Le Gros Bill’s feet, precisely where it’s been for the past six decades.

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