Just as the young hockey season was getting to be unbelievable with such absurd happenings as the Buffalo Sabres and the Detroit Red Wings skating along undefeated, the ice melting in Philadelphia, the Rangers routing the Bruins, Rocket Richard resigning after a week as coach in Quebec City—and now the Vancouver Canucks, fresh from a 6-0 pasting in Buffalo, chasing the Montreal Canadiens out of the Forum—along came Serge Savard to help restore some of the old order. Led by Savard's bold rushes, the Canadiens stormed back to tie the score 3-3 in Saturday night's game, and early in the third period there went Savard again, cutting between and around the exasperated Vancouver defensemen. Suddenly Savard passed the puck—and there was Marc Tardif alone in front for an easy goal; the Canadiens ultimately won the game 5-3.
Savard's all-round excellence helped keep the Canadiens undefeated, too, but more than that it was a heartening reminder that this aggressive defenseman, badly damaged goods not so long ago, is hale once again.
Off the ice Savard is chief needier of the Canadiens, and he seemed a bit worried one day as he looked around the dressing room for his next victim. "Sometime I'm going to run into a guy who's sore," he said. "That will be the end of it." Just then the normally moody and aloof Frank Mahovlich walked by. "Hey, Frank," Savard called, "I see where some more poor Canadian tourists are stuck in Europe. Only crooks like you run travel agencies." Mahovlich, who operates a travel business in Toronto, laughed it off, but his brother Pete wasn't so jolly. "Savard," Pete said, "if you were a horse you'd be out to pasture now with all those other broken-down nags you own."
On the contrary, Savard's four harness horses are not quite ready for retirement, and neither is their broken-down owner, who in the last three years has shattered his left leg twice and cracked and gashed his right ankle. Twice doctors suggested that he forget about playing hockey and concentrate on the lucrative Quebec lottery franchise he operates in Montreal, and twice he told them, "I will—the next time."
Savard's return to the swirling, dashing form he displayed as Montreal won the Stanley Cup in 1969 has greatly inspired the 1972 Canadiens—just as it did Team Canada against the Russians last month. Savard was able to play in only rive games against Russia, but Canada won four of them and tied the fifth. "He played like the old Savard," said Canada Coach Harry Sinden.
The old Savard—the 23-year-old Savard of 1969—was the apparent successor to Jean Beliveau as leader of the Canadiens. According to tradition, that man must be of French stock—a Beliveau, a Rocket Richard, a Howie Morenz. And there he was, Montreal born and bred, a graduate of the Junior Canadiens and already a Stanley Cup hero. "Everything was made for him," Beliveau says.
The troubles began March 11, 1970 when Savard crashed into a goalpost and fractured both the tibia and fibula in his left leg. "I had three operations within the next week," he says. "They had to insert two pins in the leg to keep it together." Without Savard the Canadiens missed the cup playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
Savard also had to sit out the first month of the 1970-71 season, and he was just skating himself into top playing condition when he refractured the same leg in the same places. "Bobby Baun of the Maple Leafs hit me with a clean hip check—hard and low," he recalls. "He caught me right where the pins were, but it didn't seem to bother me." Savard got up, skated off the ice and sat on the bench. Then the pain began.
Back in the operating room, Savard's doctors grafted bone from his right hip to the broken bones in his left leg. He exercised all summer and was on the ice again with the Canadiens when they reported to training camp in September 1971. "The first time I came back I don't think I was conscious of my broken leg. The second time I couldn't help thinking about it. For instance, when I jumped over the boards onto the ice to practice I always made certain that I landed on my right skate, not my left. Then one day I jumped over and came down on my left foot without even thinking about it. After that I wasn't worried anymore."
The doctors were, though, and they refused to let him even scrimmage with the Canadiens. "I wondered if they were keeping something from me. You know, maybe they knew I'd never be able to play again."
Savard finally was allowed to rejoin the Canadiens last Feb. 4, more than a year after Bobby Baun's check. "All I wanted to do was work myself into shape for the playoffs," he says. Five weeks later, though, he was back in the hospital. A fire broke out in the St. Louis hotel where the Canadiens were staying and a number of hotel guests were trapped in their rooms. Savard and other Canadiens helped with the rescues by climbing ladders and kicking open windows of smoke-filled rooms. Savard's reward was a badly cut right leg and an ankle studded with chips of glass.
Last summer Savard was surprised that Sinden selected him for the Canadian team that would play the Russians. "Why kid myself?" he thought. "Bobby Orr was hurt. I was named as a fill-in."
Savard did not play in the first-game loss to Russia but took a regular turn in Canada's 4-1 victory in the second game and was the best NHL defenseman in the subsequent 4-4 tie. The next morning at practice it happened again. Savard was in a corner, almost against the boards, when an errant shot hit him on the right ankle.
"One doctor in Vancouver told me I had a bone bruise. Another said I had a hairline fracture of the ankle. I didn't know what to think." Savard returned to Montreal, where it was determined that he had indeed fractured his ankle. The doctors insisted he would be unable to skate again for at least a month.
Eight days later Savard was in Sweden practicing with Team Canada, and after the NHL all-stars lost their first Moscow game Sinden, in desperation, sent him back into the lineup. As the world knows, Canada won the next three games.
"It is nice to be back again," Savard says. And to know that, at least in Montreal this wacky season, Le Bon Dieu is in His heaven.