Keenan and Savard were like metal rubbing against metal for the two seasons they worked together. "I don't think I picked on Denis," Keenan says. "I respect Denis a great deal, although we didn't necessarily see eye to eye on all issues. I expected a great deal from him, just as we expect a great deal from all our players. If he honestly thinks about it, I think he'll say he learned something here that will help him in his career. We saw him as a better player than he saw himself."
Savard agrees—to a point. He concedes that Keenan made him a fitter player, a more aggressive player. But he also thinks the aggression diminished his game, changed the focus from daring to grinding. In 1987-88, Savard's best season—he scored 44 goals and set a Blackhawk record of 131 points—Bob Murdoch, then the coach, guided Savard with a light rein. In two seasons under Keenan, an oft-injured Savard scored career lows of 23 and 27 goals. He says his enthusiasm for the game faded and he felt like a robot. "I even changed as a person," he adds. "Instead of a guy who laughed all the time, I became quiet. I had become too intense.
"I couldn't figure Mike out," says Savard, who resigned as captain after being injured midway through the 1988—89 season. "I could never do what I wanted to do. I'm a gambler. In the offensive zone, sometimes I'd like to try a move that is everything or nothing. That doesn't mean if I lose the puck I won't be back for defense. But if the move works, I might be clear to the net. I couldn't do that with Mike. If I didn't throw the puck in deep, he said I wasn't going to play. For his system and style, I was worth nothing.
"Also, it's important for me, as a person, to be liked. I know if I'm not liked, I don't feel good about myself. That's just the way I am. Not that I can't take criticism—I know I sometimes deserved it—but I felt sometimes he was trying to make an example out of me. I'm a caring person, and when I get my feelings hurt every day, I can't respond."
During the 1990 Campbell Conference playoff finals, the Blackhawks, who reached the conference finals five times during Savard's tenure (and lost three times to the eventual Stanley Cup champions), were matched against Edmonton. Savard had broken his left index finger in January and had been troubled by it even after it healed. He had been playing with the finger numbed by anesthetic spray, but for the first match against the Oilers, he was not in pain, so he decided to go without the treatment. Keenan found out and played Savard one shift that lasted all of 10 seconds, then benched him for 19 minutes.
"I was under the presumption Denis had frozen the linger because we had had that discussion at the morning skate and at lunch," Keenan says. "The point was if he wasn't going to get it frozen, he could have given the team a better alternative by having someone healthy in the lineup. That was the only point of contention."
Savard came back in Game 2, but his fickle frozen finger had all but sealed his fate. When Keenan assumed the duties of general manager last June, Savard knew he would soon be getting a new address.
Last June there were two top-level centers on the market for the Canadiens to choose from—Dale Hawerchuk, who wound up moving from the Winnipeg Jets to the Buffalo Sabres, and Savard. Serge Savard had discussions with Winnipeg before fixing his sights on Chicago. "Denis fit better on our team than Hawerchuk," Serge recalls. Serge already knew Denis—they had gone to a horse auction together years before—and Burns remembered him from the days when he was an assistant junior hockey coach in Hull, Que., 100 miles west of Verdun.
"I think he's a top-notch center, maybe the third, fourth or fifth best in the league," Burns says. "He's going to be with two good hockey players—Richer and [Shayne] Corson. They could be close to greatness, and Denis will help them. Look at what he did for Al Secord [who scored 54 goals playing with Savard in 1982-83]. Denis can also help the power play."
Ah, yes, the power play. Last season the Canadiens' power play was so impotent it didn't need Savard, it needed Masters and Johnson. In early February it was stumbling along at a 12.1% success rate, which for a full season would have been the fourth worst since the NHL began keeping such statistics in 1963. Montreal raised it to 15.9% by the end of the season, but it was still the worst in the NHL. Then, while being eliminated by Boston in the Adams Division finals, the Canadiens went 0 for 20 on the power play.