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."