August 31 on this site is the annual day I pay tribute to two men born this very same day - the great Jean Beliveau and my father Gerry - equally great in ways too numerous to mention. Both turn 77 today!
Through my father's love of the Canadiens, via the amazing feats of players like Beliveau, I became a fan of the team as well. Each year on this day, I feel it's only right that I ackowledge that. What follows is a story that is likely shared by many my age or older.
I was all of eight years old, when I got who, and what, Jean Beliveau was, and meant, to hockey and the Montreal Canadiens.
I was watching a Canadiens game on a winter day in 1971 with my father as I always had, everytime the Canadiens were on TV. Although I was young, a ritual between my Dad and I was fastly forming. If the Habs were on the tube - we were together in front of it watching.
Back in the day, it was usually a Wednesday night game and Hockey Night In Canada on Saturdays. Dick Irvin and Danny Gallivan. Not all games were televised back then. There was no TSN or RDS then, nor any Méchant Mardi games. I would be laying down with a pillow at my elbows on the carpeted floor in front of the TV set, and Dad laid out on the coach after a hard day's work, ready to jump skyward at the closest of scoring chances.
It was almost 40 years ago, and yet it was yesterday!
My earliest recollections of Jean Beliveau, and many great Canadiens players, are tied to my father. He was of the analytical sort and still is. He was all about understanding why things worked as they did. His father, my grandfather, was an inventor in the early 1930's. There is a thread that I see that passes through our three generations. I guess we were similar in that way.
Watching the game of hockey unfold before my young innocent eyes, my father enabled hockey to captivate me in great and minute detail, through his analysis and joyfull story telling.
My father didn't just profess about the exploits of Beliveau, Plante, the Rocket, and Doug Harvey, he went way beyond. His thinking affected mine more than he knows when he would throw out names such as Ken Mosdell, Floyd Curry, Jim Roberts, and Claude's Provost and Larose, and go into great detail as to why these types of players were important to the team concept.
Somehow, my father told me everything I would ever need to know about Bob Gainey before he ever played an NHL game.
I still don't know how he did it, and at 77, he sure doesn't recall how he knew it, back then.
My old man and I were watching a game - Habs against Minnesota North Stars - in that 1971 winter. Here in eastern Ontario, winter storms had piled snow almost as high as the rooftops would allow. That winter of '71 was just crazy.
In the game, Beliveau scored career goal number 498 early. I vividly recall my father jumping straight up from his lying down position on the couch the next time Beliveau grabbed the puck and headed up ice on a rush.
It was my father's sudden alertness that explained to me that something special was about to happen that night - and it did!
After Beliveau scored goal #499, my eight year old eyes, and my father's 39 year old eyes were fixated on the television, waiting for history to unfold.
In the third period, Phil Roberto, subbing for an injured Yvan Cournoyer, played give and go with left winger Frank Mahovlich. After a neutralized rush, the puck ends up on Beliveau's stick. Le Gros Bill was deep in North Stars territory, and as he approched goalie Gilles Gilbert's crease, Big Jean then threw the most subtle of headfake dekes, and backhanded number 500 past the Minnesota stopper inro a gaping wide net.
I still remember the number 500, drawn primitively in white asterisk-like stars, flashing on the screen.
That, and my Dad unleashing a flurry of cheers, fist pumps, slapping his knee, in celebration of this one of a kind feat. I'd never seen him so animated before. It was fun just being a great part of his joy.
In those days, I was just becoming a hockey fan. I was playing alot of street hockey that winter, and everyone was Bobby Orr in their dreams. I was as much a fan of Orr's as I was of the Canadiens then, and I remember no one gave the Habs a snowball's chance in hell of winning the Stanley Cup in 1971.
When the playoffs began, and Montreal were faced with the dooming task of slaying the Goliath Bruins, my Dad cautioned not to write off the Canadiens so quickly. He reasoned that the recent acquisition of Mahovlich, combined with the arrival on scene of Ken Dryden, made the Habs a much stronger foe than their point total would make them out to be. He also mentioned the fact that it was Beliveau's final season, and that alone would motivate the players. All they needed to do was steal a game against the Bruins.
I still marvel at how right he was. Sensing Dad was onto something, and watching those playoffs unfold as they did, made 1971 the most magical of all hockey seasons I have seen. Many things from that season are still etched in my mind.
Looking back, it was really cool to have seen Beliveau at peak form that year.
Even cooler, is having had those special times with my Dad, in front of the set. I guess the best way to explain how much it means to me is to say that this entire site is basically a seed he planted a long time ago, inside an impressionable youngster's mind.
I was never much of a hockey player myself. I peaked, if you will, as a 29 year old in 1991, playing on a local indrustrial beer league team for Canadian Marconi. In 28 games that year, I had 29 goals and 32 assists - sounds alot better than it really is. I never played organized hockey as a kid and my Dad had never seen me play hockey once until that year.
I had asked him time and again to come and watch me, but there was always work in the way and our games were often scheduled real late or very early in the day. One time, I told him of a Saturday afternoon game, and he said he might be able to make it. That day, the game began, and he was nowhere to be seen. On my third shift of the game, I got the puck, did a rare splitting of the defense, and went in on the goalie and scored. The deke I put on the goalie was also a deke I couldn't do too well, and as I lifted the puck over his glove, I lost my balance and slid right into the corner, headfirst against the boards.
A team mate came over to congratulate me on the goal, and as I was dusting myself off, he asks me if I know who the person is up in the stands, clapping!
I look up, and there's Dad, the only fan in an empty rink, front row, giving me a little standing O and having himself a good laugh!
It was pretty special that he was there and it gave me a real big lift. Marconi won that game 6-3, and I added three more goals and assisted on the other two. I was like a completely different player, and person, that day. My team mates all wondered alound just what the hell had gotten into me that game.
I played that game for my father. I owed him that!
Jean Beliveau is without a doubt the man who best personifies everything the Montreal Canadiens are about. The man not only epitomizes on and off class, but he was the complete package when it came to hockey players. I won't even attempt to add any more to that notion. So much has been written about him as a hockey icon, his legacy doesn't deserve my additional weak summations. I'll leave it to others to speak about Jean.
In tribute to Gros Bill, here's a great Dave Stubbs piece on him from two years ago. It is followed by a pair of You Tube clips. The first is his Legends Of Hockey bio, and the second is the start of Game 7 of the 1965 Cup finals. Check out the move he puts on the Red Wings goalie at the start of the first clip!
The final link at the bottom, is for Dad, who once raced motorcycles to the same winning ways as the man he shares a birthday with.
Happy 77th, Dad! Enjoy the bikes!