Jean Béliveau: My Life in Hockey

Jean Béliveau: My Life in Hockey

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by Jean Beliveau

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Few professional athletes have been as loved and respected as Jean Béliveau, captain of the fabled Montreal Canadiens during the team’s glory years in the 1950s and 1960s. His career on ice was followed by an equally successful career in the Canadiens' front office. First published in 1994, this classic biography has been fully updated to reflect the…  See more details below


Few professional athletes have been as loved and respected as Jean Béliveau, captain of the fabled Montreal Canadiens during the team’s glory years in the 1950s and 1960s. His career on ice was followed by an equally successful career in the Canadiens' front office. First published in 1994, this classic biography has been fully updated to reflect the events of the past decade, from his battle with cancer to his frank assessment of the game today, including the consequences of expansion and the fallout from a cancelled season.

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Believeau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens during their 1950s and 1960s heyday, here updates his 1994 portrait of himself and the game to include his battle with cancer and hockey today. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.

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Adieu, Rocket.

On this last day in May of 2000, the world has gathered to share in Maurice Richard’s greatness for one last time. A collection of former teammates, six of them members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, as the Rocket was, have the best seats in the house — as usual.

We had enjoyed a privileged view from the team bench while the Rocket torched opposition net minders for 544 regular season and eighty-two playoff scores during an eighteen-year career in the National Hockey League. We were young and proud then, draped in the bleu-blanc-rouge of the fabled Montreal Canadiens, hockey’s winningest team. Every two minutes, over the boards we’d go to wage war against the rest of the NHL.

The Canadiens’ team benches at the Forum were the only seats in the house that could not be bought. Howie Morenz and Aurel Joliat sat here. Battleship Leduc, Joe Malone, the Mantha brothers, Johnny Black Cat Gagnon, Georges Vezina, George Hainsworth, Newsy Lalonde and the Cleghorns all mounted their Stanley Cup campaigns from this very spot. And it was here that my teammates and I got to watch l’héros d’un peuple — the hero of a people — elevate hockey to high drama on centre stage.

Half a century later, Maurice Richard still commands centre stage, but we aren’t hopping over the boards to spell him and his linemates. Some forty years and a month after his last game for the Sainte-Flanelle, the Holy Cloth, the Rocket still has the feu sacré to bring an entire province to its feet. We are in Notre-Dame Cathedral instead of the Forum, but once again we’re all there to honor him. Outside, a million Montrealers have lined the streets of his hometown for a final farewell.

Instead of the tricolore of the Montreal Canadiens, we wear black mourning suits, sharp contrast to the white hair that identifies us as another generation. The always combative and supremely talented Dickie Moore sits to my left; beside him, the veteran defensive pair of Ken Reardon and Emile Butch Bouchard. All-purpose winger Kenny Mosdell comes next, then goalie Gerry McNeil and Elmer Lach, the Rocket’s first center and partner on the famed Punch Line, along with Toe Blake. The Rocket’s younger brother, Henri, part of our delegation of pall bearers, sits across the aisle with the rest of the Richard family. Behind us in the stands sits Gordie How, and a large contingent of hockey stars from several decades.

As a young player coming up in the Montreal organization, I had seen pictures on the Forum walls of the famous funeral for Howie Morenz in 1937. Like most players in my age, I had trouble conceiving of such an outpouring of sentiment by Montreal sports fans during the Great Depression. How did they pack the Forum with 15,000 people when the seating capacity back then was barely 9,000?

It took the Rocket to teach me what that emotional connection was all about, sixty-three years later. I saw the heartfelt sense of loss in the faces of the hundreds of thousands of people all along the processional route from the Molson Centre to Notre-Dame....

Maurice Richard’s funeral was especially sobering for me since just a week or so earlier I had received some unwelcome news.

I had detected a growth on the left side of my neck in March, and when I returned from a boat cruise in late April, I went to see Dr. Kinnear, the Canadiens’ team doctor. He took one look and picked up the telephone. Moments later, I was on the other side of the Montreal General Hospital in the office of Dr. R. J. Tabah, an oncologist. I knew his father, Eddie, well; we had lunch occasionally at The Texan restaurant across the street from the Forum. Dr. Tabah examined my neck, turning my head this way and that, and looking down my throat for long minutes, while I enquired about his Dad’s health.

“We’re not going to wait,” he said, “we’re taking a biopsy right away.” Less than ten days before Maurice’s funeral, I was given the results: “It’s malignant, Jean.”

In the 1950s and 1960s, cancer — the Big C — was a death sentence. It felled even the famous; superstar actors like John Wayne and Steve McQueen had succumbed to it. Those victims who could afford the expense chased hope to specialized clinics all over the world, institutions that promised relief like those in Mexico that offered a medicine derived from peach pits. Few such remedies proved successful.

Two decades later, research had discovered many treatments for cancer, and happily one’s neighbors and co-workers were diagnosed, treated and returned to normal life. It wasn’t as frightening as before, but it was still cancer and scary enough. That small phrase — “it’s maloignant” — still had the power to knock someone to his or her knees.

Ēlise and I had spoken before my appointment with Dr. Tabah and we had reaffirmed our vows: we would be fully committed to fighting this disease and do everything that was expected of us. We had read that a positive mental outlook was crucial in the treattmenttttt of any life-threatening affliction, especially cancer. So positive we would be in embracing the team approach that had served me so well through fifty years in hockey. My new linemates included Dr. Kinnear and Dr Tabah, along with a radiation oncologist, Dr. V. E. Vuong. They and their colleagues at Montreal General, Drs. Mulder and Brown, were known as the all-stars of their field and as famous among Montrealers as Lafleur, Shutt and Gainey.

Optimism and positive thoughts are helpful, but don’t think for a minute that I was approaching this challenge naively. Over the next months, there was enough pain to go around for the both Elise and me.

On the Victoria Day weekend, I had visited Maurice at Hôtel-Dieu hospital. We found him restless, a little out of sorts, fidgety and probably frustrated. He was unable to speak, so most of the conversation flowed between Ēlise and me on one side, and his companion, Sonia, and one of his sons, on the other. I remember noticing that his eyes still held that laser-beam intensity that could burn right through you.

The nurses had barely tucked the Rocket into his chair when one of them gave him a shot of what I guessed was morphine. The fidgeting stopped and he became more peaceful. We sat quietly with him and his family for about a half hour on that holiday Monday; he passed away on the following Saturday. In between, I had been given my own diagnosis.

On the day of the funeral, I was one of the team celebrities who arrived at Notre-Dame well ahead of the rest. My position as an honorary pallbearer meant I would have to wait on the church steps for quite a while as the cortège wound its way through the streets of the city. The team had issued a press release about my condition several days before Maurice’s funeral, and there was a tacit agreement with the media that I would be available for interviews and sound bites in the interim. That chore was done with when the cortège pulled into the square in front of the church and I was ready to assume my duties as pallbearer.

Twenty-four hours later, on June 1, I had my first radiation therapy. I’m a morning person, so I asked Dr. Vuong if I could be among the first patients of the day at 8 o’clock. The plan was for thirty-six treatments, five a week with weekends off. That first week Ēlise and I left home at 6:30 in the morning to beat the traffic and find a place to park. We would stop in at the cafeteria on the 6th floor for a muffin and coffee before the treatments. But by week two, food and drink were out of the question.

Each treatment lasted only fifteen or twenty seconds, but over time radiation therapy takes a toll. I lost twenty-eight pounds during the course of the thirty-six sessions and it seemed that Ēlise had the blender going day and night. My last appointment was on the 26th of July, 2000. By then the tumor was gone and as of this writing, it has not returned.

What bothered me the most then and now is that I can no longer produce saliva. Those on various kinds of special medication for diseases like diabetes will tell you stories about the discomfort of dry mouth. The first year, my taste buds disappeared too, and if you don’t taste food,
you don’t eat as much, accelerating weight loss. The taste buds returned eventually, but my saliva production is still off more than two years later. And I take pills for my thyroid — synthyroid — every day to combat one of the side effects of the radiation treatment.

The medical team dispatched me to Sherbrooke one afternoon because the university hospital there has a PET scanner. There was only one scanner in Montreal at the time at the Montreal Neurological Institution, but it was calibrated for brain scans. During my first briefing with the doctors, they had warned me the cancer could be anywhere, even though it appeared to be confined to my neck. (Ironically, when the Canadiens’ Saku Koivu contracted and defeated cancer a couple of years later, he established a charitable foundation that led to the purchase of a PET Scanner for the Montreal General. He too had had to make the trip to Sherbrooke.)

After the first twenty-five treatments, which covered both sides of my neck, Dr. Vuong told me that all the scans showed that the tumor was localized on the left side of the neck. But, she said, “we’re going for full prevention,” so they scanned the throat, the top of the stomach and elsewhere. The last ten treatments focused on the tumor itself, and I developed a deep burn at the site on my neck. It took three weeks to clear it up with a special first aid cream.

When you undergo facial radiation therapy, you must wear a form-fitting mask, not unlike a goalie mask, for the treatment. At that point, about halfway through the schedule, I had lost some twenty pounds. They had to mold another mask because my face had become so thin in the process. To prevent flinching or movement in the shoulders while undergoing radiation, my wrists were tied down and I was instructed to push my shoulders into the table to minimize any nervous ticks. The mask itself was attached to the table on which I lay and once it was tied on, it was impossible to move my head or neck. This would be agony for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. I once asked the technician, “What do you do when somebody can’t keep that mask on?” The answer was a weak smile and a shrug.

What I found most difficult had nothing to do with personal physical discomfort. It was my family’s distress that I felt most acutely. I watched my wife, my daughter and my two granddaughters trying their best to be upbeat and positive, but they were suffering nonetheless. I’m not blind and I know them too well. Many times I reminded them that we had to hope for the best; I probably uttered variations of that homily countless times, attempting to raise their spirits and my own. As the doctors had predicted, there were a few dark days during those weeks of radiation treatment.

We were all comforted by the success stories of many young athletes who were similarly combating cancer and who went into remission following their treatments. Both Lance Armstrong, then the best cyclist in the world, and Mario Lemieux, arguably the best hockey player in the world, vanquished cancers. Later on, two athletes with Montreal connections, Saku Koivu and Andres Galarraga of the Montreal Expos survived cancer as well.

When my illness became known, I began receiving letters from people who had seriously ill spouses or family members and who were reaching for a lifeline. Could I help with an encouraging telephone call, a word of advice? As it turned out, these calls were as therapeutic for my health and state of mind as they may have been helpful to those on the other end of the line. I heard from a few former teammates too, but I derived the greatest benefits from total strangers, probably as many as fifty. When the wives called, their stories were almost identical: a husband sitting at home, too depressed to battle back. I’d chat with these men and we’d commiserate with each other, then we’d encourage each other; finally, we’d pledge together to fight for our lives.

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Meet the Author

Chrys Goyens is a journalist, public relations consultant, and the author of more than a dozen books on hockey, among them biographies of Scotty Bowman, Larry Robinson, Maurice Richard, Darryl Sittler and Mario Lemieux. He is co-author with Allan Turowetz of the bestselling history of the Montreal Canadiens, The Lions in Winter. He lives in Montreal.

Allan Turowetz is a senior executive with Algail Enterprises Inc., a management consulting firm based in Toronto. He has co-authored several books on hockey subjects with Chrys Goyens and was team sociologist to the Buffalo Sabres, the Hartford Whalers, and Canadian Men's Basketball team.

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