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Jean Béliveau, beloved Canadiens hockey legend, dead at 83

12/02/2014 11:38 EST | Updated 02/01/2015 05:59 EST
Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Béliveau passed away at the age of 83 on Tuesday night, the team announced.

He earned the nickname Le Gros Bill​.

But both on and off the ice, Béliveau was better known for his skill, sportsmanship and a gentlemanly air that very nearly made him Canada's Governor General in 1994.

At the time, his recurring heart problems and concern for his recently widowed daughter and her small children kept him from accepting the offer.

"The Montreal Canadiens organization is extremely moved by Mr. Béliveau's passing away. Like millions of hockey fans who followed the life and the career of Jean Béliveau, the Canadiens today mourn the passing of a man whose contribution to the development of our sport and our society was unmeasurable. Jean Béliveau was a great leader, a gentleman and arguably the greatest ambassador our game has ever known", Canadiens resident Geoff Molson said in a statement.

"Jean Béliveau was part of the Canadiens family for over six decades. The Canadiens organization will bring all the needed support to the members of Jean Béliveau's family, and will work closely with them to organize the ceremonies that will take place in the coming days. On behalf of the Molson family, and all members of the Canadiens organization, I would like to extend my deepest condolences to his beloved wife Élise, his daughter Hélène and granddaughters Magalie and Mylène."

One of the finest centres who ever played, Béliveau helped lead the Montreal Canadiens to an unprecedented five straight Stanley Cups during the 1950s and 1960s - 10 in all over a nearly 20-year career.

When he retired in 1971, he joined the Canadiens' front office as an executive and goodwill ambassador. As a result, his name appears on the Stanley Cup a record 17 times, a feat unlikely to be duplicated.

Since the 1990s, Béliveau has been in and out of hospital on several occasions and suffered from a variety of health problems.

He had a cancerous tumour removed from his neck in 2000 and had a stroke in January 2010 and again in February 2012. Prior to that it was mostly his heart that was the concern.

He once said he had a “Volkswagen heart in a Cadillac body”, something that mystified his doctors throughout his playing career.

But for those who saw him in his prime, holding off a defender (or two) with one arm while stickhandling and firing the puck into the net with the other, it was hard to believe that anything other than a Mac truck could slow him down.

The 'House' that Jean built

Béliveau was born on Aug. 31, 1931, in Victoriaville, Que., the eldest of eight children in a family that could trace its Canadian lineage back to the 1640s.

Like many kids of his generation he grew up playing hockey on a backyard rink and has often credited his father for his strong sense of determination and loyalty.

At 6 foot 3, with a slapshot clocking over 150 km/h, Béliveau cut an imposing figure on the ice and the Canadiens signed him to a contract when he was in his mid-teens.

But the contract would only take effect when he turned pro and Béliveau didn't seem to be in any hurry to do that, partly because he was being better paid than most pros as an "amateur" with the Quebec Aces in the old Quebec Senior Hockey League.

Béliveau turned the Canadiens down for three straight seasons while with the Aces, because, he said, he felt a loyalty to Quebec fans who were filling the newly refurbished Quebec Colisée, "the House that Jean built," every time the team played.

He may also not have wanted to share the limelight with Maurice "the Rocket" Richard, the undisputed team leader of the Canadiens at the time.

The Canadiens called Béliveau up on a couple of occasions for brief stints, beginning in the 1950-51 season.

But to get around his reluctance to join the team permanently, Canadiens GM Frank Selke convinced the owners to buy the entire QSHL and turn it pro, thus triggering the team's long-standing contract with Béliveau and forcing him to join the Canadiens for good, at 22, for the 1953-54 season.

That first five-year contract was the largest in NHL history "by a city block," Selke said.

But Béliveau lived up to the hype, excelling alongside some of hockey's greatest players including the Dickie Moore, "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Jacques Plante and, of course, Richard, who continued as captain until he retired in 1960 and Béliveau took over for the next 10 seasons.

When he retired at the end of the 1970-71 season he was the Canadien's all-time leader in points, second in goals, and the NHL's leading playoff scorer.

While he was ultimately known as a durable player over his career, it didn't start out that way. In his first seven NHL seasons he suffered a cracked ankle, fractured cheekbone and, most seriously, a back and spine injury when checked into the board in a 1959 playoff game with Chicago.

Greatest moments

Béliveau cited his first Stanley Cup in 1956 as one of the greatest moments of his career. That was also the year he won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading scorer and the Hart Trophy for being the league MVP.

He also cited the night he scored his 500th goal with a hat-trick against the Minnesota North Stars on Feb. 11, 1971 as one of the best nights of his career. 

In June 1953, Béliveau married Elise Couture in Quebec City and they had a daughter named Hélène. 

In 1989, her husband, a Quebec police officer, committed suicide, a trauma that scarred the family, and Béliveau promised then to play a larger role in the life of his two young granddaughters.

That promise was what caused Béliveau to turn down then prime minister Jean Chretien's offer of become Canada's Governor General in 1994, something Béliveau called the hardest decision of his life.

He had just retired, in August 1993, from his job as the senior VP of corporate affairs for the Montreal Canadiens. His autobiography Jean Béliveau: My Life in Hockey was published in 1994 by McClelland & Stewart Inc.

Despite his illustrious career in hockey, he never had the chance to represent Canada on the international stage. He retired the year before the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviets and professional hockey players were not allowed to compete in international games until 1977.

In June 2009, Béliveau was named honourary Team Canada member and captain of Canada's 2010 men's Olympic hockey team, one of many honours, including his image on a postage stamp and doctorates from universities, that he accumulated over the years.

He was a member of both the Order of Canada and the National Order of Quebec and in 2008 the Canadian Pacific Railway named a train station after him.

His jersey, number 4, was retired in October 1971.

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