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Return Of The Native

Oct. 08, 1990
Oct. 08, 1990

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Oct. 8, 1990

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Yak Attack

Return Of The Native

Better late—by 10 years—than never, Denis Savard is right where he belongs, with his hometown Canadiens

Denis Savard grew up four miles from the Montreal Forum, learned the art of puckhandling a $5 taxi ride from hockey's temple and, on the rare occasions that his junior team was given the building to practice in, even put on his equipment in a space next to the Canadiens locker room. But he never set foot in that room—the sacristy, if you will—until the Canada Cup training camp in 1984, when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks. "I remember walking in and looking up at the wall at all those Hall of Famers," Savard says. "You could have knocked me over, I was so impressed. I was thinking, Geez, how many Stanley Cups did these guys win?"

This is an article from the Oct. 8, 1990 issue Original Layout

There are 36 portraits on the east wall of the room, the faces of Howie Morenz and Rocket Richard and Doug Harvey and Jean Bèliveau and the other Hall of Famers who wore the Canadiens' red, white and blue—or what is sometimes in these precincts called, with a straight face, the sainted flannel. Accompanying them is a line from John McRae's poem In Flanders Fields: TO YOU FROM FAILING HANDS WE THROW THE TORCH. Only an organization so smitten with its own tradition would dare expropriate the First World War for such parochial ends.

Anyway, the June 29 trade that sent defenseman Chris Chelios and a second-round draft choice from Montreal to the Blackhawks and brought Savard permanently to this fabled room was extraordinary, not merely because of the stature of the players involved, but also for its future implications. The trade was not simply a swap of stars: a tough Norris Trophy winner who was the soul of the Canadiens for a mercurial center who is the 25th-leading point getter in NHL history. For the Canadiens it was a stunning philosophical flip-flop, as if Richard Nixon had joined the National Rainbow Coalition or Roger Corman had started making art films.

By acquiring Denis Savard, Canadiens managing director Serge Savard (no relation) put the wings back on the Flying Frenchmen, who haven't been piling up that many frequent flier points over the past decade. Denis has given Montreal its first true No. 1 line in 11 years, repaired a power play that was so pathetic it was being mentioned in the same breath with that of the 1971 California Golden Seals and made Stèphane Richer, the Canadiens' most dynamic winger, a happier player. Serge also left his team with a defense—the foundation of the Canadiens' glory throughout the years—as raw as a January morning in Montreal.

The Canadiens will be different this season, if not necessarily better. They should also be more exciting. After a decade in which Montreal won only one Stanley Cup, in 1986, and management felt compelled to use a cheerleading scoreboard to light a fire under hockey's most sophisticated audience, the trade got everybody in Montreal charged up. Especially Denis Savard. Savard is delighted to be returning home, but he is equally pleased to be leaving Chicago coach and general manager Mike Keenan, with whom he has battled openly over the last two seasons.

When he got the farewell call from Keenan, Savard, a seven-handicap golfer, had just finished nine holes at Butler National in Oak Brook, Ill. The conversation didn't take long. "Fifteen seconds, tops," recounts Savard. "I said, 'Mike, I appreciate the comments. I'm on a golf course. Goodbye.' " Savard was so thrilled, he shot a 12 on the next hole.

"People have been wanting a French Canadian great in this city for a long time," says Montreal coach Pat Burns. "It's the thing they live for. To them, Denis Savard is god, a French Canadian superstar. He can do no wrong."

The Canadiens are not so much a team as, in novelist Mordecai Richler's evocative phrase, a spiritual necessity in Montreal. They also have this thing about lineage, with a succession of French Canadian players passing the mantle of stardom from one to the other over the decades. But since Guy Lafleur retired from the Canadiens in 1984, Montreal has been bereft of someone to carry on the tradition. Richer, who has had two 50-goal seasons sandwiched around a 25-goal season, has potential, but he is still at least one more explosive season away from being an idol. And Patrick Roy, another French Canadian on the current team, is out of the running because he's a goaltender. In this line of succession, goalies don't count.

So the Chelios-Savard trade was about red lights, the kind that go off when goals are scored. And it was also about fallen torches. But that's not how Savard sees it. "I'm just one of 20 players who'll have a job to do," he says. "Hockey is everything here, no doubt about it. It's like a religion to people. I know there's pressure. But the game's the same. I'll be playing against the same teams."

Of course, this time Savard will be doing it with a CH on his chest, and that could quickly change his perspective. He has always played well in the Forum, scoring nine goals in 15 games there over the past 10 seasons, but those once- or twice-a-year visits weren't enough to prepare him for the excesses of hockey life in Montreal. No longer will Savard be pushed off the front page of the sports section by the likes of Michael Jordan or Andre Dawson or Mike Ditka. When the Canadiens took a preseason trip to Sweden and the Soviet Union in September, a retinue of 29 media members tagged along.

The phenomenon of the hockey homeboy is not unique to Montreal. Canada is a mom-and-pop nation where almost everybody has a cousin whose best friend lives next door to the uncle of some NHL player. But in a country where everybody knows somebody who knows somebody, Savard stands out because he seems to know them all back.

He was raised in Verdun, a working-class suburb of Montreal where people are plainspoken no matter which language they use. Savard, his wife, Mona, and their two-year-old daughter, Tanya, now live in an upscale town north of the city, but Savard still drops by the old neighborhood on occasion. For lunch he breezes into the Labelle Bar B.Q. restaurant and through the kitchen, calling out greetings and kissing waitresses on both cheeks. Savard's uncle once owned the place, and Savard worked there as a teenager, busing tables and washing dishes. This is his town, a place where he played his hockey for 11 years. These are his folks, people who watched him grow into one of the best centers in the game. Savard came home from Chicago every summer, and the only thing that changed about him, it seemed, was the bulge in his wallet. He will earn $935,000 for the first season on his four-year contract.

"The first game Denis ever played was at Notre-Dame de Lourdes school when he was seven years old," says Andrè Savard, one of Denis's three older brothers. "It was the first time he'd been on skates. He'd been on ice before, but only wearing boots. My parents hadn't bought him skates because the rink was outside and it was cold and they weren't sure he would like it. He wore [brother] Luc's old skates, which were pretty big for him, and scored 11 goals. My mom and dad went to the next game to see for themselves. That's when they bought him his own pair of skates."

Two years later, Denis attended a summer hockey school. His instructor, Orval Tessier, who would later coach him in Chicago, wrote on his report card, "You're an excellent skater. You'll be playing pro one of these days." Soon Denis became a local legend, abetted by the well-publicized oddity that at age 13 he played on a line with Denis Cyr and Denis Tremblay, friends who shared not only the same first name but also the same birthdate—Feb. 4, 1961. Les Trois Denis advanced as a unit to the Montreal Juniors, who are owned by the Canadiens, and their line wound up combining for some 400 goals in their five seasons with the Juniors. Savard had 63 of them in '79-80, his final season, and with Montreal happening to have the No. 1 overall draft pick that year, it was naturally assumed that the local boy would make good for the Canadiens.

But the team had other ideas. They needed a center, yes, but Doug Wickenheiser, a strapping 6'1" kid in Regina, Saskatchewan, was the darling of the draft because he had been the leading scorer in the Western Hockey League. Although Savard had grown up in Montreal, he hadn't grown that large—he was 5'10" and 170 pounds—and the Montreal front office fell back on the comfortable notion that a good big man is better than a good little man. Armed with their scouts' assessments, which were bolstered by a Central Scouting report that ranked Wickenheiser second (behind defense-man Dave Babych) and Savard fourth among the players eligible for the draft, the Canadiens abandoned their French Canadian heritage—and, as it turned out, their Stanley Cup chances in the early 1980s—by choosing Wickenheiser. Meanwhile, Chicago landed Savard with the No. 3 pick.

Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and if Wickenheiser had managed a 20-20 season, maybe the Canadiens' passing on the boy next door would not have been a scab Montreal fans would pick at over the next decade. Instead, Wickenheiser had seven goals and eight assists in 41 games his rookie year. Montreal held Wickenheiser out of that season's home opener—which, of course, happened to be against the Blackhawks—so as not to put undue pressure on him. That night he sat and saw Savard put a spin-a-rama on defenseman Larry Robinson and beat goalie Denis Herron for a goal early in the game. The roar that followed was the biggest noise heard in Montreal since draft day the previous June. Wickenheiser went on to score 44 goals for the Canadiens in a little more than three years, but he did not play a full NHL season after 1987-88, and he is now performing for Asiago, an Italian first-division team.

Savard has no regrets. "Ten years in Chicago helped me," he says. "If I'd come to the Canadiens right out of juniors, I don't know how well it would have gone."

"It's the perfect situation for him to come to Montreal now," says Boston Bruin defenseman Raymond Bourque, another Montrealer who thinks it can be a blessing to play elsewhere. "He's an established superstar. He knows how the public is in this city. It won't be as tough as it would have been for him at 19. He would have been asked to play at the top of his game from Day One."

Instead, Savard was asked to report to the Blackhawks, and he arrived in August 1980 armed with a lot of moxie and only a little Verdun street English. He stayed in a hotel in the seedy area near Chicago Stadium, waiting for the start of training camp. One day he took a walk and struck up a conversation with a man who, he soon learned, was contemplating mugging him. Savard didn't stick around to find out how that story would turn out. He kicked the man and sprinted back to his hotel, where he remained for three days, telephoning home in the occasional moments when he wasn't crying. Soon, Keith Brown, a Blackhawk defenseman, invited Savard to move in with him, saving Savard's sanity if not his career.

This was not the only time Brown would come to Savard's aid. Early in the 1988-89 season, shortly after he took over in Chicago, Keenan was putting the Blackhawks through their second 50-minute skating drill of the week—without pucks, naturally—and the mood of the players was turning sour. Savard, whom Keenan had appointed captain, considered the ambience to be counterproductive, so he started skating toward the exit in an act of defiance. But before he could reach the door, Brown and Doug Wilson grabbed him and talked him into coming back.

Keenan and Savard were like metal rubbing against metal for the two seasons they worked together. "I don't think I picked on Denis," Keenan says. "I respect Denis a great deal, although we didn't necessarily see eye to eye on all issues. I expected a great deal from him, just as we expect a great deal from all our players. If he honestly thinks about it, I think he'll say he learned something here that will help him in his career. We saw him as a better player than he saw himself."

Savard agrees—to a point. He concedes that Keenan made him a fitter player, a more aggressive player. But he also thinks the aggression diminished his game, changed the focus from daring to grinding. In 1987-88, Savard's best season—he scored 44 goals and set a Blackhawk record of 131 points—Bob Murdoch, then the coach, guided Savard with a light rein. In two seasons under Keenan, an oft-injured Savard scored career lows of 23 and 27 goals. He says his enthusiasm for the game faded and he felt like a robot. "I even changed as a person," he adds. "Instead of a guy who laughed all the time, I became quiet. I had become too intense.

"I couldn't figure Mike out," says Savard, who resigned as captain after being injured midway through the 1988—89 season. "I could never do what I wanted to do. I'm a gambler. In the offensive zone, sometimes I'd like to try a move that is everything or nothing. That doesn't mean if I lose the puck I won't be back for defense. But if the move works, I might be clear to the net. I couldn't do that with Mike. If I didn't throw the puck in deep, he said I wasn't going to play. For his system and style, I was worth nothing.

"Also, it's important for me, as a person, to be liked. I know if I'm not liked, I don't feel good about myself. That's just the way I am. Not that I can't take criticism—I know I sometimes deserved it—but I felt sometimes he was trying to make an example out of me. I'm a caring person, and when I get my feelings hurt every day, I can't respond."

During the 1990 Campbell Conference playoff finals, the Blackhawks, who reached the conference finals five times during Savard's tenure (and lost three times to the eventual Stanley Cup champions), were matched against Edmonton. Savard had broken his left index finger in January and had been troubled by it even after it healed. He had been playing with the finger numbed by anesthetic spray, but for the first match against the Oilers, he was not in pain, so he decided to go without the treatment. Keenan found out and played Savard one shift that lasted all of 10 seconds, then benched him for 19 minutes.

"I was under the presumption Denis had frozen the linger because we had had that discussion at the morning skate and at lunch," Keenan says. "The point was if he wasn't going to get it frozen, he could have given the team a better alternative by having someone healthy in the lineup. That was the only point of contention."

Savard came back in Game 2, but his fickle frozen finger had all but sealed his fate. When Keenan assumed the duties of general manager last June, Savard knew he would soon be getting a new address.

Last June there were two top-level centers on the market for the Canadiens to choose from—Dale Hawerchuk, who wound up moving from the Winnipeg Jets to the Buffalo Sabres, and Savard. Serge Savard had discussions with Winnipeg before fixing his sights on Chicago. "Denis fit better on our team than Hawerchuk," Serge recalls. Serge already knew Denis—they had gone to a horse auction together years before—and Burns remembered him from the days when he was an assistant junior hockey coach in Hull, Que., 100 miles west of Verdun.

"I think he's a top-notch center, maybe the third, fourth or fifth best in the league," Burns says. "He's going to be with two good hockey players—Richer and [Shayne] Corson. They could be close to greatness, and Denis will help them. Look at what he did for Al Secord [who scored 54 goals playing with Savard in 1982-83]. Denis can also help the power play."

Ah, yes, the power play. Last season the Canadiens' power play was so impotent it didn't need Savard, it needed Masters and Johnson. In early February it was stumbling along at a 12.1% success rate, which for a full season would have been the fourth worst since the NHL began keeping such statistics in 1963. Montreal raised it to 15.9% by the end of the season, but it was still the worst in the NHL. Then, while being eliminated by Boston in the Adams Division finals, the Canadiens went 0 for 20 on the power play.

"It seems in the playoffs, specialty teams win for you," goalie Brian Hayward says. "Our power play cost us a lot of games. It killed us against the Bruins. And we probably lost the Stanley Cup against the Flames the year before because they out power-played us and got a lot of big goals when they were a man up. Now we can say, 'Here, Denis. The power play is yours.' "

And so it is. Because he poses such a threat with his quick, darting style, defenders cheat toward him and create open ice elsewhere. He also has wondrous dexterity on his skates and with the puck. "Denis has great vision," says assistant coach Charles Thiffault. "But seeing something and being able to execute are two different things. He can execute."

Savard took gleeful charge in the Canadiens' exhibition games, positioning players and yelling for the puck. His voice rose an octave as it resonated around the Forum, making him sound not unlike Marge Simpson.

So, the fans have their god, the power play has Mr. Fixit, and Brian Skrudland, a defensive center who was Richer's caddie last season, can go back to a line to which his talents are better suited.

Now that Chelios is gone, the Canadiens also have a hole on defense you could drive a Zamboni through. Chelios missed 27 games last season because of injuries and his production was down compared with his Norris Trophy-winning season in 1988-89, but he was still the kind of player who made everyone around him a little better. Sort of gilt by association. The 28-year-old Chelios was almost always the Canadiens' best player on the road in the tough buildings, a measure of the man even if it is an attribute not easily quantified. Now the average age of the club's eight defensemen is 23, and Petr Svoboda is the only member of this corps who has played more than one full season in the Montreal fishbowl.

"The character of our team has changed," says Hayward. "It was always defense, defense, defense first. Before we'd go on the ice, sometimes a guy would say, 'Let's try to win 1-0.' And sometimes we did. Or 2-1. Or 3-2. Now it's going to be different. We don't have depth on defense. The team is small. Other teams will just dump the puck in and challenge the defense. Now we're going to have to try to win 4-3 and 5-4."

"I always liked Chelly," Burns says. "He was a leader. He wouldn't yell, 'C'mon, wake up.' He'd sit in the corner of the room by himself, drink his Coke and look at his teammates as if he was saying to himself, 'You guys make me sick to my stomach.' He'd hammer someone into the corner boards and then give a quick look over to the bench as if he was saying, 'C'mon people, what are you waiting for?' We gave up a junkyard dog who wouldn't back down from the world. I think Denis can also be a leader. But I think he's a guy who'll come into the room and say, 'What's your problem? Let's go out and play.' "

Just to make sure Savard got the hint, when the Canadiens opened their exhibition season in Stockholm, Burns gave captain Guy Carbonneau the night off and handed Savard the C for the game. When the Canadiens came home for their first preseason game in the Forum, Burns did the same thing.

The Savard gamble is risky. For all his 351 goals and 662 assists, he has never had his name on any of the NHL trophies, has never scored 50 goals in a season and has made the end-of-season All-Star team only once, for 1982-83, as a second-team selection. (Of course, his competition has been Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.) And the Canadiens, who won the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed in three of the past four seasons, are changing styles on the fly. Maybe it can work. Boston remade itself, reaching the Cup finals last season by injecting a healthy dose of discipline into a team known for its pugnacity, but Montreal is undergoing a personality transplant.

Meanwhile, Savard goes merrily about his work. He is the type of person who almost always sees the Stanley Cup as half full instead of half empty, but lately he has been unusually euphoric. For the first time, he worked out with weights over the summer—thank you, Mike Keenan—because he knows that, at 29, he is no longer in the first blush of youth. He did extra skating in July. He comes early to practice. He talks to his teammates nonstop.

"You can see how happy he is to be here," Carbonneau says. "This is his hometown. He's pumped."

But nightmares can lurk in a city where they take this game way too seriously. When he came out for his first shift at the Forum, Savard received a 25-second ovation. The next night, the crowd booed the Canadiens during a 4-3 exhibition loss to the Bruins. As former Canadiens left wing Steve Shutt once said, "The crowd here is always behind you—win or tie."

One day, Savard was told, his face could be up on the wall.

"I have three objectives in life," Savard replied. "Family, hockey and the Stanley Cup. I better win a Cup for the Canadiens first before I have my head up there."

If he doesn't, maybe Montreal will just have his head. Period.

PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOThe hope is that Savard will get the Flying Frenchmen airborne all over again.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOThe mustachioed Bums expects Savard (center) to raise his teammates' play a notch.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOAs a not-so-subtle hint, Savard has twice been given the captain's C during the preseason.PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOSavard (18) says that he felt like a robot during his last two seasons with the Blackhawks.PHOTOANTHONY NESTEKeenan's arrival in Chicago led to Savard's departure