arrives at the arena a few minutes after seven on a late December morning and
plops himself behind a desk in an office adjacent to the Chicago Blackhawks'
dressing room. The office is borrowed-- Savard, who never big-times anybody, has
kept his desk in the assistants' room even though he was promoted to head coach
on Nov. 27--but the hockey pallor is his own, a product of too many hours at
the rink and too many packs of Marlboro Lights. Nine hours earlier the
Blackhawks had kicked away a 2--1 loss to Nashville by twice failing to clear
the puck during a third-period penalty kill, including a clearing attempt that
center Denis Arkhipov gift-wrapped to a Predator's stick. But in postgame
comments Savard offered nothing more damning, or enlightening, than the
observation that one-goal games are an NHL staple. The Blackhawks are a
demonstrably better team since Savard inherited the job from the fired Trent
Yawney (a respectable 9-5-3 after starting 7-12-2) and clearly a more dynamic
one--they now send two forecheckers deep and encourage their defensemen to join
the attack. But in terms of paint-peeling oratory in the room or coaching
pearls tossed to the press, the revitalized Hawks are at the yawn of a new
struggled a little, yeah," Savard says as he sits at his desk, an elfin
smile on his lips. "But you know what? He's played so well for me, and down
the line he's going to do a lot more good things than bad."
If the Stanley
Cup is half full for Savard, who has dispelled some of the Eeyore-like gloom
around the Blackhawks, it is far more empty for a franchise that hasn't won a
Cup 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 eight
seasons. To extend the A.A. Milne analogy, the team has basically been
The notion that
the 45-year-old Savard, one of five Blackhawks to have his number retired (he
scored 377 goals in 13 seasons with the team), can bring structure and
direction to Chicago, let alone restore hockey to the civic conversation, seems
quixotic. 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 than
the fruitcake on a holiday dessert table. For another, as a player he was all
riffs and grace notes, a master of hockey jazz--not at all the cerebral sort
who is an obvious future coach. Savard's game was so much a matter of
improvisation that after he was traded to Montreal in 1990, then Canadiens
coach Pat Burns struggled to find linemates for him. Burns even ordered the
injured Sylvain Turgeon to sit in the press box and take notes about everything
Savard did because Burns planned to try Turgeon with the mercurial center.
Turgeon came away as flummoxed as everyone else. "I wish I had known then
what I know now," says Savard, who retired in 1997 after 17 seasons, having
scored 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 wound
up learning structure in Montreal. Without it, you can't win. You keep people
king of the blind pass, who now reminds his forwards to do what he says and not
what he did, began his tenure as head coach by meeting individually with the
members 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. 9
from an ankle sprain, the message was direct. "Savvy told me, 'Score a goal
every game,'" says Havlat, "'and we'll be all right.'"
with two goals and an assist against the Minnesota Wild, proved to be a
godsend. In his last 12 games Havlat had scored 15% of Chicago's goals, and
through Sunday led the team with 12 goals and 13 assists. While hockey's
chattering classes were questioning the three-year, $18 million contract that
general manager Dale Tallon lavished on Havlat after obtaining him from
salary-cap-strapped Ottawa last July, maybe they should have looked at his
skill in his complementary role or at his playoff numbers last season, a robust
13 points in 10 games.
around [ Ottawa] and talked to some of their guys," says Blackhawks captain
Adrian Aucoin, "and they all told me he'd been their most talented player.
By far." Savard likens Havlat to Philadelphia star Peter Forsberg for his
ability to dominate, but stylistically Havlat most resembles, in his
unpredictability, a young Savard.
Blackhawks' run is just the usual uptick after a coaching switch, or maybe it's
something profound, like the reawakening of a somnolent franchise. "They
say 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 weeks
before Savard took control and has been as effective as he was in his Cup
season in Tampa Bay. "But he's got the chance to be good because he knows
the game and he's very upbeat."
There you go:
Someone, if not yet something, positive about Chicago hockey.