A magician on ice, darting, dashing and dancing with the puck and pulling fans right out of their seats in excitement, Denis Savard starred through seventeen remarkable NHL seasons before being elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.
Denis Savard was born in Rosemere, Quebec on February 4, 1961, but moved to Pointe Gatineau with his family when he was five years old. His passion for hockey was born with the first time he donned skates. "My Dad built a rink in the backyard. That's where I started skating. My three brothers (Gilles, Luc and Andre), they took me to the ice rink for the first time," Denis, the baby of the family, recalls. "My oldest brother took me to Notre Dame de Lourdes in Verdun and laced up my skates for the first time."
Growing up in a suburb of hockey-mad Montreal infused the neighbourhood kids with the desire to one day play for the incomparable Canadiens. "Every kid on the block played hockey night and day," Denis remembers. "I watched my older brothers play hockey and picked up the game by watching. I enjoyed it so much." Denis found that the more he skated, the better he got. "Even when I was a young boy, we had practices before school. We got there at 6:30, practiced until eight and then went to school. Then, we had practices after school. And they were outdoors. There was only one (indoor) rink in Verdun at the time, but there were outdoor rinks everywhere. It seemed like there was a rink on every block!"
After Denis scored 7 goals in his first organized league game, it became apparent that the young Savard was a talent to watch. "My Dad (Arthur) was one of those parents who never pushed me into being a hockey player but he did everything he could as a parent to get me the skates, the stick, the ice time."
Surprisingly, Savard's memories of minor hockey are scarce. His most prominent recollection isn't of a multiple-goal game or a championship but rather a contest his team lost. "I was nine years old and we were playing Pointe Claire." The details of this game are as vivid today as they were back then. "If we'd have won the game, we'd have gone to a tournament in Toronto. That's a big thing when you're a kid. But we lost that game. I thought sure we'd get to that tournament. It's the thing I remember most about being a kid. I guess I just don't like to lose. I don't like disappointments. I won a lot and when you're used to winning, winning, winning, when you lose, it marks you." That same drive to excel labeled Denis through his professional career as well.
Denis centred one of the best junior lines ever constructed. Savard was in between Denis Cyr and Denis Tremblay, a trio which immediately picked up the tag 'Les Trois Denis.' Coincidentally, all three were born on February 4, 1961 and all three grew up within blocks of each other in the same Verdun neighbourhood. "What are the odds of that when you think about it," Denis asks, rhetorically. "We played together as kids from age eight all the way through until I turned pro."
With the Montreal Junior Canadiens in 1977-78, Denis Savard scored 37 goals and totaled 116 points, Denis Cyr scored 46 times and collected 101 points and Denis Tremblay scored 38 goals and added 82 points. Savard was named co-recipient of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's rookie of the year and was named to the league's Third All-Star Team. The next season, Savard led the team in scoring with 158 points, including 46 goals. Cyr scored 70 and had 126 points and Tremblay had 39 goals and contributed 82 points. By the trio's third season of junior -- 1979-80 -- Savard again led the Junior Canadiens in scoring, exploding for 63 goals and 181 points and earning First All-Star Team status. Cyr scored 70 for a second straight season and finished with 146 points. Tremblay, before he was traded mid-season, contributed 33 points. "We knew it would not be possible for us to play as a line in professional hockey but we all just wanted to play in the NHL."
Denis Savard had shone so brightly as a junior that in his final season (1979-80), he was named the league's most valuable player. Expectations ran exceptionally high going into the NHL draft. First of all, the draft was being held for the first time at the Montreal Forum, and was made a public event. But the Canadiens had also secured the first overall selection in the 1980 Entry Draft through a trade with the Colorado Rockies. It seemed like a natural pairing Savard would be a hometown hero to carry on the tradition of exciting francophone stars. But Montreal's general manager, Irving Grundman, infuriated the populace by passing over the 5' 10", 175 pound Savard in favour of size, drafting Doug Wickenheiser, a 6' 1" 200 pound forward who had starred with the Regina Pats of the Western Hockey League. The hockey world was dumbfounded and Savard's pride slightly bruised. "Disappointed, but not annoyed," Denis shrugs. Instead, Savard was selected by the Chicago Blackhawks with the third overall pick that year. "I decided that they (Montreal) had a right to decide what was best for their team. And I wanted to prove they had made a mistake. It was an extra motivation for me, for sure."
That September, thirty friends and family members gathered at the airport to bid Denis "bonne chance" as the 19-year-old prepared to fly to Chicago for his first training camp. Denis remembers telling his father, "I'm going to make this team. I'm not coming back."
Being drafted by the Blackhawks, who were in the process of rebuilding, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Savard. "Montreal was strong in those days and they expected their young players to spend time in the minors. I wanted to make it at the NHL level right away and going to Chicago gave me that chance," Savard explains. "I figured with Stan Mikita retiring and with Chicago an older team looking to get younger, I'd get a chance to play right away in Chicago. I just wanted to play professional hockey. Chicago is a great hockey town."
Savard, just 19 and not yet fluent in English, arrived in Chicago a few days prior to training camp in 1980 in order to attend classes in power skating school. "The Hawks put me at a downtown hotel, the Bismarck, and told me to stay there," Denis recalls. "After about a day, I decided to take a walk. This guy came walking at me, carrying a big radio, and he wanted to know who I was and why I was there. He tried to hit me. I ran back to my hotel and started to wonder what I was doing there!"
Not surprisingly, Denis not only made the team but shone as a Blackhawk. In his first game, October 9, 1980 at home against the Buffalo Sabres, Savard collected three assists. In that first season, Savard scored 28 goals and 47 assists for 75 points and was a serious candidate for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. The team was beginning to introduce a group of young and exciting players into the lineup. Future Norris Trophy winner Doug Wilson was on defense. Darryl Sutter, a tenth round selection in 1978, was adding some grit and goals to the mix. Al Secord was picked up from the Bruins part-way through the season. But Denis found another youngster, defenseman Keith Brown, helped him most in his transition from junior to the NHL. "Brownie was one of the best teammates you could ever have. He was only a year older than me but he took me under his wing. I lived at the Bismarck Hotel my first year and he came to me and said, 'Why don't you come and live with me?' That made things a lot easier! Brownie was the type of guy who was serious about the game. He didn't go out the day before a game and he made sure I was home every night. As a matter of fact, my first two years, I never slept so much in my life. It was twelve or fourteen hours a day sometimes. The one thing I'm most grateful for is that I could surround myself with terrific people. Obviously, Brownie was among the best. I was really lucky. "
Savard continues, "When I came to the Blackhawks, we were an older team, but by the end of my second season, we had about nine guys under 21." Denis was paired with Secord and another Chicago draft pick from 1980, Steve Larmer. The three clicked immediately quickly and became a potent offensive force. In 1981-82, Savard reached 119 points for the first of five times in his career and finished sixth in regular season scoring. The next year, he hit 121 and finished third in the league, and was chosen for the NHL's Second All-Star Team
Savard had established himself as one of the most exciting players in hockey. His stickhandling prowess was remarkable and his scoring ability amazing. He dazzled fans, opponents and teammates alike with his 'Savardian spinarama' (skating at full-speed, Denis would twirl 360 degrees while still cradling the puck). "I always thought that when you face an opponent with the puck and he's facing you, the best way to try to keep the puck was turning your back to him," explains Denis. "It's a lot easier to fend off a check. He's got to come around your body to get to you and it's more difficult. My whole idea was to protect the puck and one night, I just kept going and it worked. From there, I perfected it in practice. I'm sure a lot of players could do what I did but they're not willing to try it in a game."
First Al Secord and then Rick Vaive banged and crashed, giving Savard room to bounce and wheel on his skates, dancing forwards, backwards and dipsy-doodling through the offensive zone. Savard helped turned the Chicago franchise around. In 1985-86, he scored a career-best 47 goals, include an NHL record when he scored 4 seconds from the start of the third period in a January 12 contest against Hartford. In 1987-88, he earned his highest career point total 131.
Chicago used Denis in every conceivable situation even strength, powerplay, penalty-killing. "If you play a lot, you don't have to think," he admits. "You go out and react, and that's how the game should be played." By giving Denis added responsibility, it helped him grow both as a person and a player. The Hawks added yet another responsibility to Savard's shoulders in 1988-89, naming him a co-captain of the team along with Dirk Graham.
Through the 1980's with Savard leading the offense, Chicago reached the conference final five times, but never were able to move past. In 1989-90, the Hawks looked as though they were poised to make a run at the Stanley Cup. "We had a great team that year," Denis smiles. "Our coach, Mike Keenan, came in and put together a good defensive team. In goal, we had Greg Millen and a young, up-and-coming guy named Ed Belfour. We had good defensemen like Dave Manson and Doug Wilson. We had a lot of good forwards, too -- Michel Goulet, Steve Thomas, Adam Creighton, Troy Murray and Dirk Graham. Jeremy Roenick had a real good rookie year. We had a lot of depth." Although Savard's production (82 points) fell to the lowest level he'd achieved since his rookie season, it was a satisfying season for Denis, who reached the 1,000-point plateau that season.
Denis has special words of praise for his long-time linemate, Steve Larmer. "Larms was the most underrated player. He was a great winger who was able to finish every play I could make to him," Savard states emphatically. "We played together until I was traded to Montreal."
That trade took place in June 1990. Ten years after Irving Grundman's error in judgment, Montreal tried to right the wrong and sent defenseman Chris Chelios and a second round draft pick to Chicago in order to attain the speedy Savard.
Savard left Chicago holding several Blackhawks team records, including points in a season (131 in 1987-88), most assists in a season (87 in 1981-82) and five seasons collecting 100 or more points. Chicago had been an often outstanding, occasionally frustrating experience for Denis. "We had a lot of coaches during my time with the Blackhawks," he sighs, listing some of the men he played for: "Orval Tessier, Bob Pulford, Keith Magnuson, Mike Keenan, Darryl Sutter. I spent thirteen seasons with the Blackhawks and had seven coaches. Every one had his own ideas and they were good coaches."
It was time to move on for Denis Savard, and to play in Montreal was exciting. "It was one of my dreams," he admits. "I was very happy." But there was something else, too. "The expectations were really high when I got there."
"Playing in Chicago all those years and putting up some good numbers, they never tried to make me a different player," explains Denis. "When I got to Montreal, I had a meeting with general manager Serge Savard (no relation) and he told me things would be different with the Canadiens. I was going to have to play defense, plus, the Canadiens rolled four lines so I'd get less icetime. But Serge also said that I'd have a chance to win a championship."
Savard's newfound responsibilities as a two-way forward meshed well with his offensive abilities, but it also taught him a valuable lesson. "I scored 28 goals in my first two seasons in Montreal," he states. "I concentrated more on defense and playing at both ends of the ice and it prolonged my career. I say to players today, 'If you're able to make that adjustment, especially when you're an offensive player, you can prolong your career by being able to play on both ends of the ice.' Those were my eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth seasons and I wound up playing seventeen years."
Denis also learned another important lesson: "I learned that it doesn't matter how many goals you get or how many points. One-on-one doesn't win the (Stanley) Cup, and that's what you play for." His tenure in Montreal had been very satisfying. "The fact I went back home and played for three years and won the Stanley Cup made my career that much better."
Although Savard won the Stanley Cup championship he so desired, 1992-93 wasn't without its challenges. One of the great offensive centres of the eighties found himself playing wing on Guy Carbonneau's checking line. Then, after playing the first two rounds of the playoffs, Savard broke his foot and spent the remainder of the playoffs, including the clinching game, behind the bench as an assistant to coach Jacques Demers. When the Canadiens defeated the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 on June 9, 1993, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented the Stanley Cup to Canadiens' captain Guy Carbonneau, who scanned the ice for Savard and then handed hockey's most cherished trophy to his teammate.
"That was a neat thing for Carbo to do. He said, 'It's yours. Grab it!'" The look on Savard's face was sheer ecstasy he had achieved his ultimate hockey dream! "The timing wasn't right for us in Chicago but the timing was right when I got to Montreal," explains Denis. "We didn't have the best team on paper, but we had the best goalie in Patrick Roy and he was the main reason we won. We had good team chemistry, we had guys who hung around together and were close and we had a great goalie. Who would've thought that it would take ten overtimes to win the Cup, but that's what did it. It was a dream come true and something I'll never forget."
During the summer of 1993, after having played three seasons with Montreal, including his only Stanley Cup win, Savard was picked up as a free agent by the second-year Tampa Bay Lightning, who were looking for leadership as much as they were hoping for point production. Although the Lightning finished last in a strong Atlantic Division in 1993-94, Denis finished third in team scoring, potting 18 goals and 28 assists.
The next year, Savard returned to Chicago when he was traded to the Blackhawks for a sixth round draft choice. Jeremy Roenick had been injured and Chicago needed a replacement. "Phil (Esposito, Tampa GM) asked me, 'Do you want to go? It's entirely up to you.' I told him, 'Let me think about.' I did. It didn't take long." The Hawks were looking for depth during their playoff run and were only too happy to welcome Denis back into the fold. Savard delivered, collecting 18 points in 126 games to help his Hawks reach the Western Conference final.
Denis played two more seasons in Chicago. "I felt a surge of energy, something magical, when I put on a Chicago jersey again. I knew for a fact I was not the player I was when I was 23 or 24, but I was a better all-around player." Continuing, he adds, "When you start somewhere as a player, no matter what happens, you identify with the team you started with. It meant a lot to me that I came back to Chicago in '95. It felt good to be back in that uniform."
Following the 1996-97 season, Denis' seventeenth, he retired from NHL play. His statistics are simply outstanding. In 1,196 regular season NHL games, Denis scored 473 goals, added 865 assists and finished with 1,338 points. He also collected 175 points (66 goals and 109 assists) in 169 playoff contests. One of the premier forwards of the 1980's, Denis Savard played in seven NHL All-Star Games, too.
On March 19, 1998, the Chicago Blackhawks retired Savard's number 18. "It was such an honour. They made a big deal out of it. I hope every young player can have a career like mine," he stated in an emotional ceremony. "Every minute - I loved it."
Kevin Shea is the Hockey Hall of Fame's Manager of Publishing and Editorial Services.