Nfld. & Labrador

How Jean Béliveau helped launch my career

A nervous young McGill graduate found far more than he expected when he placed a call to the Montreal Forum, in the hope of reaching hockey legend Jean Béliveau.
Montreal Canadiens hockey great Jean Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups in his NHL playing career. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

I owe my career to Jean Béliveau.

You may not believe this story. Sometimes I can barely believe that it happened either.

The other night, as I flicked on the TV to watch the Canadiens play the Senators in game one of the playoffs, I heard the voice of the late, great Jean Béliveau.

The Canadiens were using a snippet from an old interview to crank up the home team, as well as the Bell Centre crowd. Hearing that deep familiar voice took me back to a pivotal moment in my life.

Montreal Canadiens great Jean Béliveau waves to the crowd during a pre-game ceremony before the team's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in January 2009. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

Spring 1983. I was fresh out of McGill, arts degree in hand, wondering what to do next. I lacked focus and I lacked confidence. If graduation is a crossroads, then my crossroads was shrouded in fog. I couldn't even see the signs!

My dad tried to help. He hooked me up with a friend who was a management consultant — a headhunter. He was going to teach me how to write a resumé, craft a cover letter and hopefully see me on my way to gainful employment. 

Monday morning bright and early, I showed up at his office. His name was Joseph Doré, and that first morning he asked me two basic questions: What were my passions and whom did I look up to?

My passion? Words, reading and writing.

My hero? As a lifetime Canadiens fan, that would be the great Habs captain Jean Béliveau.

Now, Joseph Doré was a practical man. He looked at me and said, "Why don't you write a story about Jean Béliveau and see if you can get it published? It would be a start."

Easily said, and easily done, as it turned out

Easily said. But how do you contact Jean Béliveau? Why, you pick up the phone and call the Forum, of course!

There he was, four feet away from me, across the desk. I resisted the temptation to reach out and touch him to see if he was real!

That's what I did. I called the Forum and asked for Mr. Béliveau.

And guess what? He answered his own phone. I explained who I was and what I wanted to do. After a slight pause, the deep voice on the other end of the line said, "Can you come in tomorrow at 10 o'clock?"

The next morning, I was sitting in Jean Béliveau's office. My hands were shaking, and I was petrified.

For a Habs fan, an audience with Jean Béliveau was akin to a devout Roman Catholic having a private audience with the Pope.

There he was, four feet away from me, across the desk. I resisted the temptation to reach out and touch him to see if he was real!

We sat together for 45 minutes. He went over every aspect of his career. His first contract with the Canadiens, playing with greats like The Rocket, and dealing with the intense scrutiny and pressure of being a Canadiens captain. 

Gracious, kind, respectful

I'm sure he had been asked many of the questions hundreds of times, but he was gracious, kind and respectful.

I was interviewing him, but in the end I was the one who walked out feeling special. I drove home feeling like Red Fisher!

Montreal Canadiens team captain Jean Béliveau holds the Stanley Cup in Chicago May 19, 1971, following the Canadiens' victory over the Blackhawks. (CP photo)

That story became my calling card. In the end, I mailed out 500 copies. Along with my resumé, the Béliveau story landed on the desk of every newspaper, radio and TV editor in Canada. I still have the stack of rejection letters to prove it.

By the way, I also mailed a copy to Jean Béliveau. One day, a few weeks later, the phone rang. The voice was familiar. It was the man himself, Jean Béliveau. 

He thanked me for sending him a copy of the story. I braced myself for some criticism, but he was so kind. He told me how much he loved the piece, and he said it would be kept in the place where he kept his most treasured souvenirs.

I was speechless. He had not only given me an audience, now  Jean Béliveau had actually called me at home to say thanks. 

The  Jean Béliveau story did not win me a Pulitzer. In fact, it was never published. But several weeks after the call from Mr. Béliveau, the phone rang again. It was CBC sports producer Pat Michel calling me from the Montreal newsroom.

The story had landed on her desk. She'd read it, she'd liked it, and … could I come in for a chat?

And that was the start of it all. A few weeks later, I was an intern in the Montreal newsroom, and I was instantly hooked on the TV business. 

So as the Canadiens make a run at another Cup, thank you Jean Béliveau. Thanks for giving me 45 minutes of your time. I have a special reason for never forgetting you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jonathan Crowe cohosts Here & Now for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. He has previously worked as a reporter, producer and videojournalist.

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