Beliveau can still charm a T.O. crowd

IAN ROBERTSON -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:53 AM ET

Jean Beliveau, still very much an ambassador from hockey's golden age, is happy at recent changes he says netted a new, improved and back-to-basics game.

And after signing 150 to 200 copies of his updated autobiography yesterday, the silver-haired former Habs star said the fans he met here readily agreed.

After polling buyers of his 50%-revised 1994 book My Life in Hockey, "there was not a person who said they don't like it," Beliveau, 74, said in an interview.

In the new edition, which includes references to his surviving cancer, he discusses changes made since the National Hockey League settled its 2004-05 season-killing lockout of players in July.

Beliveau predicts skill will replace the brute force that overshadowed too much of the game that won him the nickname "Le Gros Bill" and a reputation as a classy, almost-unstoppable puck-handler on skates.

"In addition to everything else, a lot of smaller kids will have a chance to play now," he said at Indigo Books in the Eaton's Centre. "Youngsters today who hope to get in the game had better improve their skating."

Also glad that referees are being told to penalize more unsportsmanlike behaviour than in recent years, Beliveau said "the rules were there, but they weren't enforced.

"I'm not talking about body-checking, which was always there," said the ex-Canadiens captain, who was with them from 1953 until retiring in 1971, before becoming an executive and team spokesman until 1993.

'NICE, FLUID GAME'

"For the last few years a hockey stick had become too much of a weapon in the hands of too many players. For years I've said bring the stick back on the ice.

"Hockey is a nice, fluid game," he said. "When they were hooking, how could you handle the puck?

"I like the changes," Beliveau said, adding he also lauds the NHL for moving the two blue lines closer together, removing the red line and restricting goalies to playing pucks behind their nets.

The veteran player and businessman said he predicted a grim future. The number of teams and mega-salaries grew and owners began losing millions each season, while crowd sizes and play faltered as players focused on outdoing rivals with sticks and body-slams.

"I knew the league could not still operate," said Beliveau, who attends each game at Montreal's new Forum with his wife of 52 years, Elise. "I hope the league can become financially stable and solid."

In the new edition of Beliveau's book, co-authored by Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz, Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky said he grew up watching hockey on TV and "marvelled" at the skill of Beliveau and his "class" play.

"I remember watching him on TV," agreed Andy Wilson, 47, of Toronto, who got two copies signed, one for him, another for his son George, 9, a keen player and rarity in Toronto -- a Canadiens fan.

Beliveau will autograph his autobiography at Book Express in the Cambridge Centre Mall from 1 to 3 p.m. today.


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