In this edition of the "Blood, Sweat and Cheers" series, "The Great One" Wayne Gretzky talks about his many, many matchups against Denis Savard and the Blackhawks.
Denis Savard and I are seeing more of each other now than when we played, which is natural. In the National Hockey League, you see each other on game nights, and you never really socialize. You’re cordial if you talk at all, and there’s a respect factor. But you don’t really hang out until you’re done, which we both are now. I’ve had the same kind of relationship with Mario Lemieux since we retired.
Denis has been good enough to come to my fantasy camp the last few years. It’s every February in Las Vegas for five days, and it’s part of my charity foundation. A bunch of former players come out and we have a ball. We’ve even had Mike Keenan out there to coach. Just to make us feel at home, he throws a tantrum every once in a while.
As is the case with most fantasy camps, you have a group of people who want to learn hockey from us old guys. You have to be over 21—most of our people are between 30 and 50—but we had one man who was 78 and a couple women too. We’re in our 50s, Denis and I, and we like to think we’re still good at hockey, but we’re not. At least, I’m not. What really matters is how it goes off the ice, and one of the great things that come out of those camps is how much the “students” enjoy the “teachers.”
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That’s not really surprising if you know hockey players. We try to beat each other’s brains in during games, but there’s a real sense of community among us when it comes to good causes. I can’t tell you how many times at these camps I’ve heard people say, “Wow, I didn’t realize these hockey guys were such great people.”
Denis is right at the top of that list, which fans in Chicago know after all these years. When it comes to dealing with people and making sure they’re comfortable and have a nice time, there’s nobody better than Denis. I have to believe he has no enemies in the whole world, including guys he made look foolish when he was playing.
I don’t know that Denis ever has a really bad day. Even on the day he got let go as coach of the Blackhawks in 2008, he took it like a man. I called him, because I knew how it hurt. He loves Chicago and loves that franchise. But he said to me, “Wayne, this is part of the business. I’m fine. I’ll move on. Everything happens for a reason.” Now he’s back as a Blackhawks Ambassador and he’s as happy as I’ve ever seen him, which is great. Good things happen to good people, and he is good people.
I first remember seeing Denis at a pee-wee tournament in Quebec. He was 12, but you could see he was special. Could he ever skate! He scored all three goals for his team, Verdun, and I had three for my team, Brantford, and we won, 4-3. There wasn’t much doubt in my mind that he was going to make it big. You could see even at that age that he was tremendously skilled, plus he was a terrific competitor.
I was surprised that the Canadiens passed over him in the draft [when they selected Doug Wickenheiser first overall in 1980], although it was the best thing that ever happened to the Blackhawks. The theory, I guess, was that he was too small to make it in the NHL, but I think sometimes NHL teams and scouts can see kids too often.
Denis played his junior hockey right there in Montreal, and the Canadiens could see him every night. I’m not knocking them, but there is a tendency, even now, for professional teams to see a young player so often that they stress what’s wrong with them more than what they can do. It’s silly, unwarranted. If you see a kid play every night, you look for that one flaw and it becomes more important than all the other parts of his game that are great.
If Denis had played junior hockey, say, out west, far from Montreal, maybe the Canadiens would have picked him. I don’t know. But he obviously wasn’t too small. And one thing you can’t measure is a kid’s heart. I don’t have to tell Chicago about Denis Savard’s heart. He’s always upbeat and very funny, in French and English.
Fortunately, Denis won a Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1993. The Blackhawks didn’t while he was playing there, but it wasn’t his fault. I mean, he was fabulous from the start, and I can’t imagine how much fun it was for those fans who packed the Stadium every night to watch him play. Whether the Blackhawks won or lost, which wasn’t often, he was unbelievably talented and entertaining. If you bought a ticket for the Blackhawks when he was doing his thing, you got your money’s worth. He was so smart, so fast and so good. Always in shape, always gave everything.
I had a good look at one of most amazing goals I’ve ever seen when I was with the Edmonton Oilers. I want to say it was 1988. We were in the Stadium, and we went on a power play. I like to joke with Denis that he never really had to get past me because I was cherry-picking at their blue line, waiting for a pass so I could skate in on their net. Well, he wound up with the puck, close to their blue line and near the red line. Before it was all over, he basically stickhandled through our whole team. We had only one defenseman on, Kevin Lowe, because we had a man advantage, but it didn’t matter. Kevin was the last guy he went around, and then Savy scored this ridiculous goal. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything quite like it. The place went crazy, of course.
[Editor's note: To watch Denis Savard's take on this play, click here.]
I’m on record as saying that Troy Murray of the Blackhawks was one of the best and toughest guys I ever had to go up against at center. When Denis came on the ice, my instructions were to get off and let Mark Messier try to check him. That was fine by me, thank you. Denis was too quick for me. They had a lot of good players in Chicago, and I know that some of them feel, along with their fans, that they had the second-best team in the league for a period of time. They just kept running into us. We had a lot of great players too. But I think the big difference was not guys who could score. I think our backbone was our goalie, Grant Fuhr.
He was so good, we knew we could take chances offensively. We had that much confidence in him. Plus, he had this mindset you don’t see in a lot of goalies. We had our share of 5-5 games, if you remember, going into the third period. I think most goalies in that situation would feel like they were playing poorly or whatever. Grant really didn’t care as long as we won. If we won, 6-5, he never, ever let the five that went in bother him. Also, we knew that if it was 5-5, he just wasn’t going to let in that sixth one against us. When you have that kind of guy in goal, you can do a lot of things offensively.
One thing you can’t measure is a kid’s heart... I don’t have to tell Chicago about Denis Savard’s heart. He’s always upbeat and very funny, in French and English.
Denis and I have had some common experiences with coaching, I believe. He was coaching the Blackhawks when they had some really good young players coming in, like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Knowing Denis, he made a huge impression on those kids about how to play the game and how to be a professional. How to treat your fans. How to interact with the community. I’ve seen Denis in action, and I have to believe some of his personality and character rubbed off on those kids in Chicago, even if he was their boss.
I tried to do the same with the kids in Phoenix when I was coaching the Coyotes, and hopefully, they benefited from the time I was there. What I couldn’t stand is losing. The highs of winning are nice, but the lows of losing are brutal. It’s a lot of stress, and knowing Denis, I’m guessing he took defeats really hard. If you ask those kids in Chicago, though, I bet they’ll tell you they loved him and appreciate how he contributed to their careers.
My first NHL game was in the Stadium. In 1979, the NHL took in four teams from the World Hockey Association, and one of them was Edmonton. I went there from Indianapolis, where I was coached by another great Blackhawk, Pat Stapleton. The Stadium wasn’t full that night I played my first game in the NHL. But Denis arrived in 1980, had a great rookie season and helped fill that great old building again. I have a lot of good feelings about Chicago. I had a great relationship with Bill Wirtz when he owned the team. I really enjoyed his company, and I’m delighted that the Blackhawks are back where they belong, winning the Stanley Cup in 2010 and contending every season playing before sellout crowds all the time. At our camp last year, with Chris Chelios and Jeremy Roenick there along with Savy, we even wore Blackhawks jerseys. Black and red, which is what I wore as a kid.
A horse I once owned, Golden Pheasant, won the Arlington Million in 1991. Not that I’m an expert on horses. Not like Savy, that’s for sure. He not only was good at hockey, he’s good at horses. Denis has his foundation now, too, and he’s invited me to come to his big fundraiser. Problem is, his golf tournament every July comes right up against our anniversary, when Janet and I were married. But one of these days, I’ll figure it out and we can come there, maybe play another round of golf at Medinah, help Denis out the way he’s helped me out. And maybe my son, Trevor, will be up with the Cubs by then too. They drafted him; he’s playing rookie ball and he loves it. So I’ll go to Wrigley Field too.
I’m just glad that Denis and I are friends, good friends. You get so wrapped up and so involved in the games when you’re wearing that uniform, you don’t really get to know people. Denis was driven to be the best he could be. I tried to be the same. The competition becomes so intense that it becomes almost your whole life. But friendships now are more important. Hockey is such a great sport that if you put in all those years and come away with only goals and assists and trophies, it’s not as rewarding unless you build relationships with guys that will last a lifetime.
I had a blast as a player. But sitting around now with Denis and telling stories and having a beer, it’s just a lot of fun. He is a wonderful man and his wife, Mona, is special too. As a player, I could compare him with Henri Richard, who was a fiery guy, a fierce competitor. As a person, I don’t know that I could compare Denis with anybody. I’m not telling anybody in Chicago any secrets. He’s the best and he’s still entertaining, even without his skates on.
The Blackhawks are lucky to have him as part of their family.