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Denis Savard, of all people, should've known better than to mouth off at Orval Tessier, the new coach of the Chicago Black Hawks. A dozen or so years ago, Tessier had coached the Hawk center at a youth hockey camp in Verdun, Quebec. One thing Savard learned, he says, was that Tessier's "a guy who lets you know who's boss."
But Gallic temper prevailed over memory when a frustrated Savard skated to the bench early in the third period of the Hawks' Sept. 26 preseason game against Minnesota and flung his gloves on the floor of the players' box. Then, recalls Tessier, "He says to me, 'That bleeping power play isn't working.' So I said to him, 'O.K., you don't bleeping have to play on it.' " Savard, who last year broke the Hawks' single-season scoring record with 119 points and whose scintillating stickhandling makes him a favorite with Chicago fans, spent the rest of the game on the bench while his team skated to a 3-2 loss.
By such remorselessly swift and unpolitic strokes of justice, Tessier, 49, has begun to recast the character of the first NHL team ever entrusted to him. It was a character sorely in need of recasting. In 1981-82, the Hawks were a sort of run-and-mug club that had the seventh-best offense in the 21-team league and the third-worst defense. They surrendered 31 more goals than they scored. In addition, only five teams were assessed more penalty minutes than Chicago, whose infractions included 33 misconducts. The Hawks ended the regular season in fourth place in the Norris Division with a 30-38-12 record. That they clutched and grabbed their way into the semifinals of the playoffs before losing to Vancouver only underscored the point that, while Chicago had talent, it lacked discipline. Today the Hawks seem to have both.
After Sunday's 7-3 win over Toronto, Chicago was 7-2-5 and second to Minnesota in the Norris. The Hawks had scored 13 more goals than they had given up (62 to 49) and, perhaps most indicative of the change Tessier has wrought, had the fourth-fewest penalty minutes in the league and only one misconduct. As for the Savard-Tessier relationship? Not to worry. "Denny came to see me next morning and said he wished it hadn't happened," says Tessier. "I said I wished it hadn't happened, and that was the end of it. I don't have a doghouse. I don't believe in treating human beings that way."
Besides taking quick command of the Hawks, "Orval's proving that better defense doesn't take away from our offense," says Savard, who after 14 games had six goals and 15 assists. So well has Tessier indoctrinated the Hawks with his gospel of defense that they never hesitate to spout one of his favorite maxims: "If we take care of our own end, the other end will take care of itself."
"Thus far he's proven it to us," says Doug Wilson, who last season won the NHL's Norris Trophy (best defenseman) primarily because he scored 39 goals, the second-highest total ever by a defenseman ( Bobby Orr had 49 in 1974-75). This year Wilson leads the Hawks in scoring with 22 points on four goals and 18 assists and in shots on goal with 54. Defensively, though, he's still a liability. As a result, in a 3-3 tie with Washington last week, Tessier had a chance to live up to another of his maxims: "I coach for the team, not the player." With nine seconds remaining in the opening period and a face-off in the Chicago defensive zone to the right of Goaltender Tony Esposito—a situation in which Wilson would cover the slot—Tessier left Wilson and his partner, Bob Murray, on the bench and sent out Greg Fox and Keith Brown in their place.
While Tessier later maintained that the decision was no reflection on Wilson's defensive ability, he did say, "Had the face-off been at the other end, Doug would've been out there. He's a great offensive defenseman, and I won't put any shackles on him. But I think we're going to see him become more of a two-way player, which he's perfectly willing to do."
"You work for Orval, you play for him," says Wilson. "That was the first thing he told us. He got our respect right away because he made a lot of moves and sat some people down. That takes guts for a rookie coach." In Chicago's season opener, at home against Toronto, Tessier didn't dress Captain Terry Ruskowski (who was later traded to Los Angeles) or veteran forwards Rich Preston and Grant Mulvey. In goal, he started third-year man Murray Bannerman over Esposito, a 13-season veteran who's revered around Chicago. Since then, the two net-minders have split the chores, with Esposito going 4-0-3 and Bannerman 3-2-2.
Nor did Tessier object when General Manager Bob Pulford traded veteran defenseman and tough guy Dave Hutchison, leaving 6'1", 205-pound Left Wing Al Secord, who had a team-high 303 penalty minutes in 1981-82, as the Hawks' chief enforcer. Secord, who boxes during the off-season to keep in shape, emerged as a scorer last year with 44 goals, and this season he ranks fifth in the NHL with 13. But Secord is another case of a star feeling the strictures of the Tessier regime.
"I played for Don Cherry in Boston," he says, "and in one way they [Tessier and Cherry] are alike because they stress hard work, but where Don wanted us to be physically intimidating, Orval emphasizes skating, coming back with your check, playing good position in our end."