Chicago Hope

The enthusiasm of new coach Denis Savard and the scorching play of Martin Havlat have the perennially dismal Blackhawks finally back on the rise
January 08, 2007

Denis Savardarrives at the arena a few minutes after seven on a late December morning andplops himself behind a desk in an office adjacent to the Chicago Blackhawks'dressing room. The office is borrowed--Savard, who never big-times anybody, haskept his desk in the assistants' room even though he was promoted to head coachon Nov. 27--but the hockey pallor is his own, a product of too many hours atthe rink and too many packs of Marlboro Lights. Nine hours earlier theBlackhawks had kicked away a 2--1 loss to Nashville by twice failing to clearthe puck during a third-period penalty kill, including a clearing attempt thatcenter Denis Arkhipov gift-wrapped to a Predator's stick. But in postgamecomments Savard offered nothing more damning, or enlightening, than theobservation that one-goal games are an NHL staple. The Blackhawks are ademonstrably better team since Savard inherited the job from the fired TrentYawney (a respectable 9-5-3 after starting 7-12-2) and clearly a more dynamicone--they now send two forecheckers deep and encourage their defensemen to jointhe attack. But in terms of paint-peeling oratory in the room or coachingpearls tossed to the press, the revitalized Hawks are at the yawn of a newera.

"Arkhipovstruggled a little, yeah," Savard says as he sits at his desk, an elfinsmile on his lips. "But you know what? He's played so well for me, and downthe line he's going to do a lot more good things than bad."

If the StanleyCup is half full for Savard, who has dispelled some of the Eeyore-like gloomaround the Blackhawks, it is far more empty for a franchise that hasn't won aCup since 1961 (the second-longest streak of futility in NHL history),struggles to draw fans and has missed the playoffs in seven of the last eightseasons. To extend the A.A. Milne analogy, the team has basically beenPooh.

The notion thatthe 45-year-old Savard, one of five Blackhawks to have his number retired (hescored 377 goals in 13 seasons with the team), can bring structure anddirection to Chicago, let alone restore hockey to the civic conversation, seemsquixotic. For one thing, the Hawks, who made him an assistant nine years ago,have had seven head coaches during that time; he has been passed over more thanthe fruitcake on a holiday dessert table. For another, as a player he was allriffs and grace notes, a master of hockey jazz--not at all the cerebral sortwho is an obvious future coach. Savard's game was so much a matter ofimprovisation that after he was traded to Montreal in 1990, then Canadienscoach Pat Burns struggled to find linemates for him. Burns even ordered theinjured Sylvain Turgeon to sit in the press box and take notes about everythingSavard did because Burns planned to try Turgeon with the mercurial center.Turgeon came away as flummoxed as everyone else. "I wish I had known thenwhat I know now," says Savard, who retired in 1997 after 17 seasons, havingscored 473 career goals and averaged 1.04 points per game in the playoffs."Sometimes I was way too creative, and it doubled my work. I really woundup learning structure in Montreal. Without it, you can't win. You keep peopleaccountable."

The erstwhileking of the blind pass, who now reminds his forwards to do what he says and notwhat he did, began his tenure as head coach by meeting individually with themembers of his seven-player leadership group. When he came to Martin Havlat,whom he made an alternate captain when the Czech right wing returned on Dec. 9from an ankle sprain, the message was direct. "Savvy told me, 'Score a goalevery game,'" says Havlat, "'and we'll be all right.'"

Havlat's return,with two goals and an assist against the Minnesota Wild, proved to be agodsend. In his last 12 games Havlat had scored 15% of Chicago's goals, andthrough Sunday led the team with 12 goals and 13 assists. While hockey'schattering classes were questioning the three-year, $18 million contract thatgeneral manager Dale Tallon lavished on Havlat after obtaining him fromsalary-cap-strapped Ottawa last July, maybe they should have looked at hisskill in his complementary role or at his playoff numbers last season, a robust13 points in 10 games.

"I summeraround [Ottawa] and talked to some of their guys," says Blackhawks captainAdrian Aucoin, "and they all told me he'd been their most talented player.By far." Savard likens Havlat to Philadelphia star Peter Forsberg for hisability to dominate, but stylistically Havlat most resembles, in hisunpredictability, a young Savard.

Maybe theBlackhawks' run is just the usual uptick after a coaching switch, or maybe it'ssomething profound, like the reawakening of a somnolent franchise. "Theysay great players don't make good coaches, but some do and some don't,"says goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who returned from a broken finger two weeksbefore Savard took control and has been as effective as he was in his Cupseason in Tampa Bay. "But he's got the chance to be good because he knowsthe game and he's very upbeat."

There you go:Someone, if not yet something, positive about Chicago hockey.


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PHOTOPhotograph by Jeff Roberson/AP PHOTOJONATHAN DANIEL/GETTY IMAGESLOOKING UP Former Chicago star Savard (center) has brought structure to the Hawks, and is 9-5-3 as their coach.