For 13 seasons, Johnny Bucyk played against Jean Beliveau. The results usually did not go in favor of Bucyk’s Bruins.
Between 1958 and 1971, the Bruins played Beliveau’s Montreal Canadiens 171 times. They lost 96 of those games. Beliveau was a major reason the Bruins went 49-96-26 against their most hated rivals in that stretch.
“He was a great player,” said Bucyk, a Hockey Hall of Famer, of his longtime foe. “He was a real gentleman on the ice. He was a gentleman off the ice. He had a lot of skills. A lot of talent. He was so big and so hard to play against. He was a great competitor. He was one of a kind.”
Beliveau, who died Tuesday at 83, made life miserable for Bucyk and the Bruins while breaking the hearts of Black-and-Gold fans. Beliveau won the Stanley Cup 10 times, including five straight from 1956-60. He served as Montreal’s captain from 1961-71, the longest stretch of any player in the legendary organization. He scored 507 goals and collected 712 assists for 1,219 points, second-most in Canadiens history after Guy Lafleur (1,353).
Yet for all the heartache Beliveau delivered to the Bruins, he did so with a measure of elegance that made his opponents admire, not dislike, the way he often left them with zero-point results.
“We had a lot of respect for each other,” Bucyk said. “I respected him. He was a good, clean player, not a cheap-shot artist.”
Beliveau was born in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. He broke into the NHL for good in 1953-54. As a rookie, Beliveau had 13 goals and 21 assists in 44 games.
That season gave the Canadiens a good idea that he could replace Hall of Fame center Elmer Lach. It also gave them reason to believe Beliveau could become the next embodiment of the franchise. Given that Maurice Richard was its previous version, it was a nearly impossible task.
But where Richard was the straight-line, fire-breathing whirlwind who led the Canadiens with his ferocious and driven play, Beliveau played a quieter and more reserved game. It was no less efficient than the Rocket’s approach.
Few of Beliveau’s generation could have competed physically with today’s NHLers. But Beliveau was a specimen of his day. He was a 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound left-shot center, one who could have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with modern pivots such as Joe Thornton and Evgeni Malkin.
Because of his size, Beliveau bulled his way into the middle of the offensive zone. From there, Beliveau shot pucks or looked for his linemates. His size, however, was not what made him dangerous. It was the combination of his bulk and skill — exquisite hands, panoramic vision, off-the-charts hockey sense — that made him an uncontainable force.
“When he was put out there, he was setting up his teammates or scoring a big goal because he never gave up,” Bucyk said. “He kept working and plugging away. You couldn’t stop him. He was so strong, so tall. He parked his butt right in front of the net. He always found a way to get the puck and score a goal.”
The Canadiens won those five straight Cups from 1956-60 with Beliveau in the middle and Toe Blake behind the bench. Richard retired after the fifth Cup in 1959-60. Doug Harvey replaced Richard as captain in 1960-61. But after the Canadiens traded Harvey to the Rangers, Beliveau became the captain to start 1961-62.
The “C” did not come off Beliveau’s sweater until he hung it up in 1971 following his 10th and final Cup.
That season was a surprise for the Canadiens, as they had failed to make the playoffs the year before. Beliveau had only 19 goals and 30 assists in 63 games.
But Beliveau mashed on the gas for his final lap. He led the Canadiens with a 25-51—76 line in 1970-71. Not only did Beliveau lead Montreal to the Cup, he introduced the next generation of Canadiens greats: Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, Pete Mahovlich, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire, and Serge Savard.
In 1972, the Hockey Hall of Fame did away with its traditional three-year waiting period to welcome Beliveau among the game’s elite.
Beliveau remained with the Canadiens upon his retirement, winning seven more rings as senior vice president of corporate affairs. Of all the organization’s legendary alums, Beliveau filled the role as the personification of bleu, blanc, et rouge because of his grace, elegance, and résumé.
“He was the top-notch ambassador in that organization for years,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien, who got to know Beliveau when he was behind the Canadiens bench. “I still recall at one point being in Montreal when all that stuff happened in Iraq. They started booing the American national anthem. He came on the JumboTron the next game and pleaded for people to support and not to disrespect the American flag and the anthem.
“They listened to him. Probably the only guy that could have done that.”
Beliveau will lie in state at the Bell Centre Sunday and Monday. His funeral will be Wednesday at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.