- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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 André 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.