Jean Béliveau: Le Gros Bill
Posted by Dean Holden at December 13th, 2014
by Jack Blatherwick, 11 December 2014
The antithesis of hockey development today
Jean Béliveau, or “Le Gros Bill” in Quebec, played on 10 Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens teams, and as if that wasn’t enough, he joined management to win seven more. Because so many in Canada are memorializing him as a person and player after his recent death, I’ll write for a different purpose.
First, I’ll try to describe (briefly and inadequately) his style of play for those who missed it in the 1950s and 60s before his retirement and induction into the Hall of Fame. It was a combination of beauty, grace and artistry in a sport that doesn’t use words like that very often. He was the model centerman that brilliant playmakers of that era tried to emulate at all levels of hockey.
Béliveau was smooth, effortlessly fast, deceptive, and most of all, a catalyst for his teammates. That was his goal. He never led the league in hits, fights and trash talking after the whistle. No, the Canadiens were a team of speed, head-man passing as the puck rocketed toward the offensive blue line, brilliant attack, and of course, goals and wins.
Le Gros Bill was their playmaking leader for two decades. His aggressiveness was more mental than physical. He out-thought his opponents. In today’s game, he’d be an outlier, because he didn’t fly around the rink at full speed with his creative brain disengaged. He picked his spots, choosing the appropriate time to draw the defense toward him – then dish it off to his wings. The Jean Béliveau game doesn’t exist today; yet, if he could return, he might be the best player on the planet.
In a recent interview with Rick Salutin of TheStar.com, Béliveau described ‘making the play,’ given all the variables of the moment: “You calculate it all instantaneously, then make the play. It’s instinct.” Then after pausing he said, “No, you do think about it, but very quickly.”
That implies playmaking is a learned skill, but it is not taught today at any level. Perhaps it was never taught – just learned on the pond. The playmakers just do it – sometimes in spite of coaches who insist they get the puck deep as soon as they cross the red line. When a college player was asked about the system his team uses, he said, “We give the puck to the other team as fast as we can; then skate like heck to get it back.”
Giving up the puck, skating like heck with no purpose other than to satisfy a ‘system;’ these are concepts that would have been foreign to Béliveau. Not that there isn’t a place for dumping the puck when the defense is in perfect position, and you’ve practiced ways to retrieve it before the defense does. But one would have a hard time convincing Béliveau this is a good plan.
Why is it that we don’t encourage players to think like him? As coaches, do we fear creativity, because we like to feel in control? Are we afraid to lose PeeWee and Bantam games while players experiment and make mistakes? At higher levels do we just blame youth coaches for not sending us enough finished products, so we just dump-and-chase?
Do we have too many players on youth teams, so the game becomes nothing but hustle? Do we have too many tournaments, where the plan is to avoid mistakes? Do the scoreboards intimidate players from trying creative plays?
Do coaches have to decide for whom they coach? Will we ever see another Jean Béliveau?