Montreal Canadiens

 

There are more than a few irregularities in the beginning of a shortened season.  Things that would go smoothly in the standard cycle of season-postseason-offseason become unexpectedly complicated. With training camps delayed for months and then rushed, some players showed up on the ice with their timing all out of whack and their bodies all out of shape.  With contract negotiations delayed for months and then rushed, some players didn’t show up on the ice at all.  The opening of the 2013 season featured not one, not two, but three RFA holdout dramas- Benn in Dallas, Subban in Montreal, and O’Reilly in Colorado.  That’s a lot of holding-out for players with no discernable leverage.

Why would a player with no good choices refuse to sign with the only team he can play with? Although a few couldn’t resist dire references to Subban’s supposed “character issues”, most media were gentle with the holdouts. Careful of their connections or just jaded by the lockout, it’s a business was the chant of the analysts, but opinions weren’t so measured in their comments sections. No matter how much they were told about player comparables and agent strategies, readers tended to revert to a more elemental view. Words like greedy, selfish, and arrogant were tossed around. Players were accused of putting themselves before the team and above their teammates, and compared unfavorably to those around the League who peacefully signed friendly deals. For some, a holdout alone is enough to transform a player from Future of the Franchise to Loser Who Should be Traded. In the bleeding heart of the fanbase, old-fashioned fictions like loyalty and humility still have more traction than business.

Holdouts are rare nowadays. Lindros, famously, held out on the Nordiques. Doughty held out on the Kings; Schultz, in a different way, on the Ducks. But those are exceptions. Overwhelmingly, now, players show up when and where they’re told, smiling. The hard-won rights of collective bargaining- salary arbitration, unrestricted free agency- have made the years of indentured servitude few. Most players endure them in good faith, their quiet acceptance of less in the present an investment in their ability to get more in the future.

Back in the day, though, when most players never tasted the true free agency once in their entire careers, holdouts were more common. The myths that survive paint Original Six players as ignorant of their true worth and indifferent to their exploitation- think Gordie Howe cheerfully accepting his $1000 raise every year. But such cases are not entirely representative.  In fact, there were a great many incidents where individual players tried to leverage their skill against the team. The tactics they used were variable, but the aims were identical, the same aim pursued by Benn, Subban, and O’Reilly this season: to get a deal closer to their actual value to the team. In the mid-30s, an aged Eddie Shore held out on the Bruins for star money; in the late 60s, a young Bobby Orr would threaten the same. In 1973-74*, Ken Dryden spent a whole year working in a law firm and playing defense in an industrial league rather than play with the Habs for less than he was worth. Less famously, Carl Brewer made an art out of using amateur status and national team play to escape Leafs control.

But one of the longest holdouts was, paradoxically, one of the best men ever to play the game: Jean “No Half Measures” Beliveau, who never did anything in his life unless he could do it longer and better than everyone else.

***

In 1950, the Montreal Canadiens had never had a dynasty. In forty years they’d won the Cup five times, but their last victories had been during World War II, when the League was widely considered to be weakened by talent depletion. The late 40s had seen a drop in both their regular season records and their playoff success rate. The Leafs and the Red Wings were on the rise. The Habs, apparently, were in decline.

Frank Selke was determined to turn this shit around. He’d defected from Toronto to Montreal in 1946 and brought with him an unparalleled sense for how to develop and control players. The vast farm system he built for the Canadiens would, eventually, assure them the steady stream of talent necessary to dominate in the Original Six for the better part of thirty years. But at this point, the web of affiliates was still growing. Most of the players it would produce were still a few years away and the core of the current roster was already too old. Selke needed fresh young talent, and he needed it fast.

Jean Beliveau was 18, and the Canadiens brightest prospect. Like most talented junior players of the day, he’d been signed to a contract with an NHL team at 15, but unlike most of his peers, he did not sign the dreaded C-form. A C-form, if you were wondering, is old-time hockey legalese for YOUR ASS IS OURS: it bound the player the team, unconditionally, at the time and salary of the team’s choosing. Teenage Beliveau didn’t sign one of those. He signed a B-form, which was looser in one regard: it bound the player to the NHL franchise if he went pro. Beliveau, then, could play amateur hockey anywhere, for anyone, for as long as he wanted, and the Habs couldn’t say shit about it. But he could play for no professional team other than the Canadiens.

In theory, the difference between a C-form and a B-form for a player of Beliveau’s caliber should have been non-existent. A borderline NHLer might see a legitimate choice between going pro or staying amateur, since amateur leagues still often paid or at least came with a job, and offered the prospect of international play for those so inclined. But Beliveau? He was a likely star at 15 and a definite star by 18. There was no way he wouldn’t say yes when the Habs came calling.

They came, offer in hand, as soon as Beliveau was legal. Selke was, very generously he thought, prepared to take young Jean onto the team then and there, which was not nearly so common in 1950 as it is now. With only six teams and lots of older talent in the pipeline already, minor league time was standard, and Selke had to justify his decision to an incredulous press. He’s big, the GM said, and very mature. He’ll be a great fit.

Except he didn’t want to sign. The first time the Habs approached Jean Beliveau with a standard rookie contract and the promise of plentiful ice time in the premier professional hockey league in the world, he looked back at them and said, actually, I’m gonna stay in junior. He was called up for two games and played excellently in both, but despite proving himself to the fans, the media, and the organization, he still had no interest in signing a contract.  The next year, as a 19-20 year old, he returned again to junior, and again, the Canadiens waited.  Next year, for sure, right?  He’ll be too old for the Citadelles.  He’ll have to come.

He didn’t.  Rather than signing with the Habs, Beliveau chose to play of the Quebec Aces of the Quebec Senior Hockey League- an amateur circuit. So as a point of comparison imagine if PK Subban had decided to play in Belleville until he was 20, and then rejected the Canadiens in favor of signing a lucrative contract with the Whitby Dunlops.  Makes sitting out for a couple of weeks seem pretty trivial, doesn’t it?

Why didn’t Beliveau want to come to Montreal? Accounts differ. At the time, newspaper columnists accused him of being scared off by the pressure and attention of playing for the Canadiens, and suggested that he lacked the psychological toughness necessary for the NHL. Beliveau himself, in his autobiography, made much of his fondness for Quebec and its people, presenting the entire thing as a matter of local pride. But there is also this: in 1950, when the Habs came offering a standard NHL rookie contract worth about $7000, Beliveau was already making $9000 a year from his junior team. Between endorsement deals, free gifts (including cars donated by grateful fans), and straight-up illicit payoffs, he was getting rich in Quebec- far richer than he could get in the NHL.  When he went to the Aces, they paid him $20,000 per season.  No one in the NHL at the time, not Howe, not Richard, made that sort of cash.

Did Beliveau hold out for money? Probably not completely. Reading his account of his time in Quebec, no one could doubt that he had a deep, genuine affection for the place, and it couldn’t have hurt that he was already something of a minor folk deity in the town. He loved and was loved in return- what else could one possibly need in life? Other than fame and fortune, of course, but Jean had those too.

However, as much as he may have had some noble motives for staying, there’s also plenty of evidence that Beliveau cared very much about his financial prospects. When he first negotiated with the Habs, he refused to make a deal without first consulting his family and junior team manager. In later contract deals, he showed up with a tax lawyer and a financial adviser. Decades before it was common practice to bring any kind of legal assistance into player-team contracts- at a time, in fact, when some teams would flat-out refuse to deal with players who lawyered up- Jean Beliveau was smart enough and self-interested enough to make sure he got the best possible deal, no matter what impression it gave in the press.

And it’s possible he would have held out a lot longer for that deal. In 1952-3, the third year of his holdout, he was again called up for three games, wherein he scored five goals. The media swooned over his size and grace. Maurice Richard raved about his shot, The Hockey News named him star of the week. That year, the Habs won their first Cup in seven years. And the next spring, at training camp, despite being a proven talent with the opportunity to become a big part of a now-winning team, Beliveau still would not sign.

Fuck this, said Frank Selke, if I can’t persuade him to turn pro, I’ll make him. The Canadiens bought the entire QSHL- that is, an entire men’s amateur league- and changed it, by fiat, into a professional circuit. As a member of the Quebec Aces, Jean Beliveau was now a professional hockey player, and under the terms of his B-form, obliged to come to the Canadiens.

Even with no options left, Beliveau still managed to negotiate the single largest contract in the history of the NHL to that date: five years, $100,000. And then he showed up at training camp, smiling.

***

Virtually all of the criticisms you could throw at an RFA holdout in 2012 you could have leveled at Jean Beliveau in 1950.  Young kid who has barely proven anything yet, holding out for more money than the greatest stars in the game? Thinks he’s worth more money than Rocket Richard?  What, he’s too good for the Canadiens?  Thinks he’s better than the team? How greedy.  How selfish.

But we know that such things aren’t true. Beliveau has such a great character that he defines great character.  If Jean Beliveau is greedy loser, then up is down, black is white, penguins are iguanas and the moon is made of cheese. It just ain’t so.  The fact that Beliveau held out on his team directly conflicts with the idea that holding out is indicative of poor character traits.

What if holding out is actually a good thing?  Sure, it’s inconvenient for the team, but is docile complacency really what we want in our players?  Signing where you’re supposed to sign and going where you’re supposed to go signify obedience, I guess, and tractability, but hell, are obedience and tractability suddenly signs of greatness? What about qualities like intelligence, confidence, self-assurance? What about determination, perseverance, and the courage of one’s convictions?  Holding out for a better deal might be greedy, or it might be pure competitiveness with just a little bit of that f***-you underdog edge, and that’s exactly what we want. We worship men who will do anything to win on the ice and vilify those who take it to the offices, although the type of character is the same in either case.  Maybe we should be a little bit proud when one of our RFAs doesn’t just automatically roll over for lack of leverage.

In retrospect, it’s easy to look back at what Beliveau became and say, oh, well, of course he’s worth that much, but in 1950, nobody knew what he would become.  All he was was a gifted junior with a high sense of self-worth and a stubborn unwillingness to cave to the system in place.  Maybe that mental toughness is part of what made him what he eventually became.

 

*This article originally misstated the year of Dryden’s holdout as 1972-73.