Denis Savard grew up four miles from the Montreal Forum, learned the art of puckhandling a $5 taxi ride from hockey's temple and, on the rare occasions that his junior team was given the building to practice in, even put on his equipment in a space next to the Canadiens locker room. But he never set foot in that room—the sacristy, if you will—until the Canada Cup training camp in 1984, when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks. "I remember walking in and looking up at the wall at all those Hall of Famers," Savard says. "You could have knocked me over, I was so impressed. I was thinking, Geez, how many Stanley Cups did these guys win?"
There are 36 portraits on the east wall of the room, the faces of Howie Morenz and Rocket Richard and Doug Harvey and Jean Béliveau and the other Hall of Famers who wore the Canadiens' red, white and blue—or what is sometimes in these precincts called, with a straight face, the sainted flannel. Accompanying them is a line from John McRae's poem In Flanders Fields: TO YOU FROM FAILING HANDS WE THROW THE TORCH. Only an organization so smitten with its own tradition would dare expropriate the First World War for such parochial ends.
Anyway, the June 29 trade that sent defenseman Chris Chelios and a second-round draft choice from Montreal to the Blackhawks and brought Savard permanently to this fabled room was extraordinary, not merely because of the stature of the players involved, but also for its future implications. The trade was not simply a swap of stars: a tough Norris Trophy winner who was the soul of the Canadiens for a mercurial center who is the 25th-leading point getter in NHL history. For the Canadiens it was a stunning philosophical flip-flop, as if Richard Nixon had joined the National Rainbow Coalition or Roger Corman had started making art films.
By acquiring Denis Savard, Canadiens managing director Serge Savard (no relation) put the wings back on the Flying Frenchmen, who haven't been piling up that many frequent flier points over the past decade. Denis has given Montreal its first true No. 1 line in 11 years, repaired a power play that was so pathetic it was being mentioned in the same breath with that of the 1971 California Golden Seals and made Stéphane Richer, the Canadiens' most dynamic winger, a happier player. Serge also left his team with a defense—the foundation of the Canadiens' glory throughout the years—as raw as a January morning in Montreal.
The Canadiens will be different this season, if not necessarily better. They should also be more exciting. After a decade in which Montreal won only one Stanley Cup, in 1986, and management felt compelled to use a cheerleading scoreboard to light a fire under hockey's most sophisticated audience, the trade got everybody in Montreal charged up. Especially Denis Savard. Savard is delighted to be returning home, but he is equally pleased to be leaving Chicago coach and general manager Mike Keenan, with whom he has battled openly over the last two seasons.
When he got the farewell call from Keenan, Savard, a seven-handicap golfer, had just finished nine holes at Butler National in Oak Brook, Ill. The conversation didn't take long. "Fifteen seconds, tops," recounts Savard. "I said, 'Mike, I appreciate the comments. I'm on a golf course. Goodbye.' " Savard was so thrilled, he shot a 12 on the next hole.
"People have been wanting a French Canadian great in this city for a long time," says Montreal coach Pat Burns. "It's the thing they live for. To them, Denis Savard is god, a French Canadian superstar. He can do no wrong."
The Canadiens are not so much a team as, in novelist Mordecai Richler's evocative phrase, a spiritual necessity in Montreal. They also have this thing about lineage, with a succession of French Canadian players passing the mantle of stardom from one to the other over the decades. But since Guy Lafleur retired from the Canadiens in 1984, Montreal has been bereft of someone to carry on the tradition. Richer, who has had two 50-goal seasons sandwiched around a 25-goal season, has potential, but he is still at least one more explosive season away from being an idol. And Patrick Roy, another French Canadian on the current team, is out of the running because he's a goaltender. In this line of succession, goalies don't count.
So the Chelios-Savard trade was about red lights, the kind that go off when goals are scored. And it was also about fallen torches. But that's not how Savard sees it. "I'm just one of 20 players who'll have a job to do," he says. "Hockey is everything here, no doubt about it. It's like a religion to people. I know there's pressure. But the game's the same. I'll be playing against the same teams."
Of course, this time Savard will be doing it with a CH on his chest, and that could quickly change his perspective. He has always played well in the Forum, scoring nine goals in 15 games there over the past 10 seasons, but those once- or twice-a-year visits weren't enough to prepare him for the excesses of hockey life in Montreal. No longer will Savard be pushed off the front page of the sports section by the likes of Michael Jordan or Andre Dawson or Mike Ditka. When the Canadiens took a preseason trip to Sweden and the Soviet Union in September, a retinue of 29 media members tagged along.