Jean Béliveau, a former captain of the Montreal Canadiens whose combination of size, grace and skill made him one of the dominant offensive ice hockey players in the 1950s and 1960s and a revered public figure in Canada, died Dec. 2 in Longueuil, a Montreal suburb. He was 83.
The team announced the death. Mr. Béliveau had many health setbacks in recent years, including strokes, but an immediate cause of death was not disclosed.
Starting in 1953, Mr. Béliveau spent 40 years with the National Hockey League’s Montreal Canadiens, the first 18 as a player and the last 22 as the team’s vice president of public relations and goodwill ambassador.
He won 10 Stanley Cup championships as a player, and the Canadiens won seven more while Mr. Béliveau worked in the front office. His name is etched on the Stanley Cup 17 times, more than any other person in NHL history.
“Jean Béliveau in Quebec,” the New York-based sports journalist Leonard Shecter once wrote, “is like Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio in the United States. When Jean Béliveau walks down the street in Quebec, the women smile, the men shake his hand, and the little boys follow him.”
Standing 6-foot-3, Mr. Béliveau towered over many players of his day, although he possessed startling coordination and soft hands for a man of his size. He earned the nickname “Le Gros Bill” (Big Bill) after a French-Canadian folk hero who shared Mr. Béliveau’s large stature and gentle demeanor.
Mr. Béliveau played center, a position that requires not only deft passing and goal-scoring ability but also demanding defensive responsibilities. He joined a budding Canadiens dynasty and a star-studded roster that included future Hockey Hall of Famers Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, Bert Olmstead, Dickie Moore and Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion.
On a team blessed with nearly unstoppable offensive firepower, Mr. Béliveau rose to the front of the pack. He was deceptively fast, with long, fluid strides that allowed him to cover large portions of the rink quickly, even if it looked at first glance as though he was moving in slow motion.
At the same time, Mr. Béliveau was equally capable of delivering a thunderous body check or outmuscling opponents to maintain possession of the puck.
“Some players, like me, could skate,” Hall of Famer Frank Mahovlich, a teammate during Mr. Béliveau’s final season, told the Montreal Gazette in 2003. “But I couldn’t skate like Béliveau. I went in spurts. He was moving all the time. And strong? I tried to knock him down, but he had great balance even after he let the shot go. That’s what the big superstars are all about.”
Mr. Béliveau’s breakout season came in 1955-56 when he led the team in scoring — a feat he would accomplish five more times. His 88 points on the season earned him the Art Ross Trophy, given to the league’s top point scorer. Also in 1956, the Canadiens captured the first Stanley Cup championship of Mr. Béliveau’s career, the team’s first of five straight.
A perennial all-star, Mr. Béliveau won the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in 1956 and 1964. Over his career, he scored 507 regular-season goals along with 712 assists, and he retired in 1971 with 1,219 points, at the time the most in franchise history.
Mr. Béliveau led the Canadiens in almost every offensive category when he retired. Decades later, many of his records still stand. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1972.
Jean Arthur Béliveau was born Aug. 31, 1931, in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, and grew up in nearby Victoriaville as the oldest of eight siblings. There, like many players of his generation, he learned to play of hockey on a backyard rink.
“My childhood was in no ways remarkable,” Mr. Béliveau wrote in his 1994 memoir, “Jean Béliveau: My Life in Hockey.” “It was a typical French-Canadian Catholic upbringing, one hinged on family values, strict religious observance, hard-work, conservatism, and self-discipline.”
In his late teens, Mr. Béliveau played junior hockey for the Quebec City Citadelles, where his play drew the attention of the Canadiens’ general manager, Frank Selke.
“He has a flair for giving you his hockey as a master showman,” Selke said of Mr. Béliveau in a 1956 Sports Illustrated article. “He is a perfect coach’s hockey player because he’s moving and planning all the time, thinking out the play required for each situation.”
Mr. Selke doggedly pursued Mr. Béliveau, finally signing him to a contract in 1950 that assured once he turned pro, he would play for the Canadiens.
Mr. Béliveau delayed his entrance into the NHL for two years after agreeing to the deal with Selke. The hockey player cited his loyalty to the Quebec Senior Hockey League, in which he was already earning twice the average NHL salary. The Canadiens finally added Mr. Béliveau to their roster, paying him a then-unprecedented $100,000 over five years.
The same day he signed his first contract with the Canadiens, Mr. Béliveau also became a spokesman for Molson, Canada’s largest brewery. His association with the company lasted nearly a halfcentury.
In 1961, Mr. Béliveau’s teammates elected him captain. His decade in the position was the most of any captain in Canadiens history at the time, a tenure that was eventually equaled by Saku Koivu (1999-2009).
The Canadiens’ championship in 1965 kick-started another run of titles — five in seven years — all of them with Mr. Béliveau as captain. He retired from playing after the 1971 season, hoisting the Stanley Cup in his final game as the Canadiens upset the favored Chicago Black Hawks.
While working in the Canadiens’ front office, Mr. Béliveau raised millions of dollars for the Jean Béliveau Foundation, which assisted families of children with physical and mental disabilities. He folded the foundation into the Quebec Society for Disabled Children in 1993.
In 1953, he married Elise Couture. Besides his wife, survivors include a daughter, Helene; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Béliveau’s athletic skill made him a star, but his humility and sportsmanship, as displayed in a 1967 game, were equally remembered.
Down 2-1 to the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, Mr. Béliveau scored a late-tying goal after a series of crucial passes by teammate John Ferguson.
“What’s wrong with the official scorer?” Mr. Béliveau is quoted as asking in Stan and Shirley Fischler’s book “Who’s Who in Hockey.” “Fergy made the big play on our goal and they refuse to give him an assist. If not for Fergy, we would have lost the game. All I had to do was put the puck in.”
Former staff writer James Buck contributed to this report.