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Drafting a legend: Denis Savard reflects on the 1980 Entry Draft

by Brad Boron / Chicago Blackhawks
Denis Savard scored 181 points with the Montreal Juniors in 1979-80 before being drafted by Chicago.

In the annals of Blackhawks history, there are few drafts that were better than the one held in 1980 at the Montreal Forum. The Hawks were able to acquire a future Selke Trophy winner in Troy Murray, one of the team's best two-way players ever in Steve Larmer and a future Hall of Famer and Blackhawks Ambassador in Denis Savard.

Savard, then a slight 18-year-old center from nearby Pointe Gatineau, Quebec, scored 181 points (63G, 118A) in his final season with the QMJHL's Montreal Juniors and was seen as one of the top prospects in the draft, with a chance to be the top overall pick. caught up with Savard to discuss his experience in the draft process and to get his thoughts on how the draft has changed.

When you look back on your draft experience, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Well, it goes way back now – 31 years already. Geez, that’s what comes to my mind: how long it ago it was (laughs). But it was in Montreal, and I remember the process of that week. My family was there - my mom and my dad were still around - and I had a few interviews with teams over the course of that week. The Canadiens had the first pick, Winnipeg had the second, and the Blackhawks were third. Coming out of that week, my dad really felt that Montreal wouldn’t be the one drafting me. Looking back on it, that probably wasn’t the worst thing; Montreal didn’t usually play their draft picks immediately and sent them down to the minor leagues, and I wanted to play right away. What I remember the most is that when he told me, he was 100 percent sure Montreal wouldn’t draft me, and it would either be Winnipeg or the Blackhawks.

So you were fairly sure you weren’t going to be in Montreal, but how much contact did you have with Chicago before the draft?
Not a whole lot actually; we only had one interview. I went to their team hotel, and we weren’t there very long – maybe 15 minutes or so. I don’t recall what they asked me, but the feeling coming out of there was positive. I wasn’t interviewed at all by the Canadiens, probably because I played right in their backyard for the Montreal Junior Canadiens, so they got to see me every night. The longer you watch a player play, you see a lot of good things, but you also see the flaws, whatever they are. I’m not sure that the Hawks had seen me play as much. The meeting with Chicago was not long, but coming out of it, we felt that if I was available, they’d pick me.

Denis Savard at Chicago Stadium in 1983.

How were you feeling heading into the draft?
It was an exciting day for everyone involved. The players who were at the Forum were all excited because we knew we were going to be first-round NHL draft picks. It didn’t matter if you were a high or low pick; just the fact that you’re going to get drafted that day is a pretty special feeling. I remember being really nervous, but also excited, because you don’t know what to expect. All you really want is to go somewhere that you’ll have the opportunity to play and to have a chance to win, but some teams aren’t as committed as others. The ultimate goal is always to win the Stanley Cup, and you hope to be somewhere that gives you that chance.

The 1980 Entry Draft was the first time the event was held at an NHL arena, and it happened to be right in your backyard, the Montreal Forum. Did that make the moment extra-special?

It was very special. I still remember my whole family being there; we had a big crowd of family and friends. The Canadiens chose Doug Wickenheiser, and I had hoped to be the first player drafted, but obviously it didn’t happen. I grew up there, and I felt like it was kind of a no-brainer for them to pick me, but then again, I thought, if it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. Now we all know that the best thing that could have happened to me happened: I was on the board after Winnipeg took Dave Babych, and Chicago picked me.

Your draft class was a pretty good one. Babych was an All-Star, and two of the players taken just after you are Hall of Famers: Larry Murphy at fourth and Paul Coffey at sixth. Did you know about the other guys in your class and how good the competition was?
I have to admit, I didn’t really know any of them. The only guy who I really followed before the draft was Wickenheiser because I knew that Montreal had talked about drafting a centerman first overall, and he was the other one at the top of the draft class. They wanted to bring in a young center to play with Guy LaFleur – what an opportunity that was – and I knew that might be me. But they wanted size, and Doug was probably 6-foot-2, and he had great numbers too, so that’s where they decided to go. But otherwise, I didn’t really pay attention.

You were part of a really good draft class for Chicago: Troy Murray was taken in the third round, and Steve Larmer was in the sixth round. Did you get a chance to talk with them during that summer, or was the first time you met them at training camp that fall?
I met them in training camp; I don’t recall Steve or Troy being there – they probably didn’t go. But I think the only guys who were there were the top guys. Nowadays, a lot of players go, even if they’re not guaranteed a top spot.

When you look back at it though, it was probably one of the franchise’s best three- or four-year spans in terms of drafting, and it helped us become a contender. Doug Wilson and Keith Brown were two prior first-round picks; then you have guys like Troy and Larms, and we made a great trade in getting Al Secord. But outside of that, the core of those teams really came through the draft.

All you really want is to go somewhere that you’ll have the opportunity to play, and be somewhere with a chance to win a Stanley Cup. - Denis Savard

Having been to a number of drafts since, how has the event changed overall?
It’s such a big event now. I mean, it was big before, but there’s so much talk and hype that goes into it beforehand, too. And rightfully so, it’s a big deal. It’s such a great atmosphere. They make it very special for the players – they get the jersey, they get the hats, and it’s a big production.

So with all of your experience, and having gone through this process yourself, what would be your advice to this year’s crop of draft picks, especially the top picks?

Well, it’s definitely the start of a great journey, and you want to make sure to get off on the right foot. Training is going to be very important this summer. We were young, and in my day we didn’t really know any better. We didn’t have the number of trainers and doctors that each team has now, and these new players have all of those advantages. Get on a program right away, and come to training camp in the best shape of your life, whether you need to put weight on or take care of anything else.

I’ll always say this: Your first impression with management is very important, and it will stay with them for a long, long time. If your prospect camp and training camp performance is only so-so, they may think you’re a so-so player. You have to impress them right away. The expectations are there; that’s why you’re a first-round pick. But now it’s up to you to make good on those expectations.
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