From the archive: Béliveau not only the best centre, but the best Habs player
(First published Jan. 19, 2009)
Canadiens centreman Jean Béliveau holds up four pucks to mark his four-goal night in his team's 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins at the Montreal Forum on Nov. 5, 1955. At left is linemate and fellow future Hall of Famer Bert Olmstead. This was the second of Béliveau's 18 career hat tricks. Three of Béliveau's goals on this night came in a span of 44 seconds on the same power play.
Photograph by: DAVID BIER, GAZETTE FILES
The Canadiens have been blessed with the very best talent during their century-long history. Forty-four players, starting with Howie Morenz and Georges Vézina, Aurèle Joliet and Newsy Lalonde, Joe Malone and Sprague Cleghorn have been enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Big names. Players revered to this day.
One day, I asked general manager Frank Selke about the great stars who had played for him. His prompt reply:
"I've been fortunate to have some of the greatest players in NHL history but, game in, game out, Henri Richard may have been the most valuable player I've ever had."
Think about it: what he was saying was that Henri, a member of a record 11 Stanley Cup teams, "may have been" more valuable than Maurice Richard, more valuable than Jean Béliveau ... more valuable to the team than Doug Harvey, Dickie Moore, Elmer Lach, Bernie Geoffrion and Jacques Plante. The list goes on and on.
Nobody - not Selke, not coach Toe Blake, not any of the elite players contributing to the Canadiens dynasty of the 1950s had any idea what they were getting when Henri was invited to training camp before the start of the 1955-56 season. The game plan wasn't to keep him with the team, if only because in those years hardly anybody ever went directly from junior hockey to the NHL. He was too young, too small (5-foot-7, 160 pounds.) The idea of carrying the Richard name would be too heavy a cross to be bear for the
19-year-old. So, invite him to training camp, let him play with the big boys for a little while - and then ship him out.
A funny thing happened during training camp, however.
"Sometimes, he'd infuriate me," Blake once told me. "He'd be out on the ice controlling the puck. His linemates would come off the ice and I knew exactly where to look for Henri. On the ice!
"Some people accused Henri of not being able to make a play. I wouldn't start comparing him with somebody like Béliveau, but I know this: when Richard was on the ice, nobody else had the puck. At the start of training camp, we had no idea what we had. At the end, we couldn't send him back. The only thing we had to find out was how this little guy would react to the rough stuff. We didn't want a situation where Maurice would have to ride shotgun for him."
Henri, the rookie, was tested early and often, as Canadiens management had feared. What they discovered was that Richard didn't want, nor did he need, help from his older brother. He was fearless. He was a Richard.
Bench clearings were the rule rather than the exception in the 1950s and into the '60s. Teams met 14 times during the regular season, often on back-to-back nights. The benches cleared in Boston one night, and there was young Richard in the middle of it, taking on four Bruins one after the other. He won the first three fights, including what appeared to be a mismatch with Jack Bionda, who towered over him. An exhausted Richard fought to a draw in a fourth against Fern Flaman, who was among the NHL's best and most feared fighters.
Years later, Flaman would tell me: "In all the years I played in the league, there was only one player I hated. Henri Richard!"
Richard shrugged when he was told about it the next day.
"In all the years I played in the league, I was never afraid of Flaman!" he said.
I have always had a special feeling for Henri, if only because I started covering the Canadiens at the start of the 1955-56 season, the year he joined the team. It was also the year the Canadiens were to win the first of five consecutive Stanley Cups, due in no small measure to Richard, who scored 19 goals at a time when a 20-goal season by an NHLer truly meant something. He still is a favourite of mine. We enjoy a hearty laugh whenever we meet, particularly when almost always the first thing he says:
"You promised me you'd retire the year I retire, and you're still working!" (He retired following the 1974-75 season, after four seasons as the Canadiens captain.)
"So I lied," I tell Richard.
Henri was a special player on the ice and a special human being off it - and still is - but I don't foresee an argument from anyone when my choice for the best centreman I've seen with the Canadiens has to be Béliveau. He was more than that: he's the best Canadiens player I've seen.
Béliveau: grace, class, dignity. The best of the Canadiens' best on the ice as well as off it. The NHL will never see another like him as a player or as a captain, a post he held for a decade.
Numbers and individual achievements don't begin to describe what Béliveau has meant to his family, to the Canadiens organization, to people everywhere. Eighteen seasons (brief tryouts in two others) with the Canadiens; 10 Stanley Cups; two Hart trophies, one Conn Smythe; 507 goals and 712 assists in 1,125 games; 176 points in 162 playoff games.
Great numbers, but they're only part of the story. Just as important is the respect other players, old and new, and the people had for him - and always shall.
One of them is Frank Mahovlich, who was talking about Béliveau after the latter's retirement following the Canadiens' stunning Stanley Cup triumph in 1971.
"He's alert to what's going on," Mahovlich said. "He's aware and he knows what to do about it. It's why he's such a great captain. It's not easy. You take Army (Toronto captain George Armstrong) or Alex Delvecchio in Detroit. They're captains. Good ones, too. But they're not like Béliveau. Once in a while, Alex would take a day off from practice, but Jean wouldn't do it unless he was injured or unless management ordered him to take it.
"You can talk to him. I've talked to him. A guy has a problem ... maybe he's in a slump. Things aren't going right. He talks to you and pretty soon your problem isn't as big as you thought. How do you describe it? Class? I suppose so. Leadership? I guess so, too. He makes you feel comfortable.
"Like I said, he's alert to everything. Even when it comes to his own game, he's alert. If he has a weakness, he's aware of it. He works at it and takes care of it."
RED'S BEST OF THE BEST
General manager: Sam Pollock
Coach: Toe Blake
Goalie: Jacques Plante
Defenceman: Doug Harvey
Centre: Jean Béliveau
Tomorrow: Best right-winger
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