When the Blackhawks made Denis Savard their No. 1 choice in the 1980 amateur draft, furrowed brows abounded throughout the NHL. He came across as a sprightly player with a gaudy junior resume, but numerous scouts and experts thought he looked too small. What they could not measure was the most important body part: his heart.
If only skeptics could have seen the day at Montreal’s Dorval Airport when it was time for Savard to leave home for another country, another city, another world. His parents, brothers and friends were all there, all crying. Denis joined the communal sob session, but not before promising an extended absence.
“I’m not coming back until summer,” he said. “I’ll make the team in Chicago.”
The rest really is history, but to broad brush Savard’s journey from Quebec’s frozen ponds to hockey’s Hall of Fame as a free and easy skate would be folly. Alone in a Loop hotel, he majored in French, which meant ordering the same meals in limited English. Filet mignon is nice, but every day? He watched the Cubs on TV in the afternoon, and ventured out at night but once. On a trip to a corner clothing store, Savard was approached by a creature who didn’t want his autograph, only his wallet.
“I ran back to the hotel so fast, I could have been in the Olympics,” Savard recalled. “Then I phoned home. I told my parents, ‘What am I doing here?’ And, of course, we all cried again.”
When this 165-pound rookie began practicing with the regulars, however, nobody could catch him there, either. Soon, the league’s third overall selection justified his presence, but he was still a kid in a foreign environment. Then Keith Brown, a prince of a man, instructed Savard to pack his bags. Brown had a house in Elmhurst, where a number of Blackhawks resided. Savard could move in, with a single caveat.
“I had to do my job,” Savard said. “Dishes. Brownie cooked, I washed the dishes. That was huge for me. I drove to the rink with him every day and did whatever he did. You couldn’t do any better than model yourself after Keith Brown.”
Almost immediately, Savard displayed his brilliant skills, not to mention a joie de vivre he still exudes as a Blackhawks ambassador. Was it his spin-o-rama move that started to bring fans back to the Stadium after several uneventful winters? Absolutely, but it was also the zeal and emotion he expressed on each shift.
"You know how long I would like to do what I’m doing now for the Blackhawks? Only forever.” - Denis Savard
Do you remember when Savard snared the puck during a power play by the mighty Edmonton Oilers and danced through the entire team to score shorthanded? Certainly, but Savard has become one of the most beloved athletes in Chicago sports history because he is real and engaging, a giver in every sense. You think he was a treat to watch on a breakaway? See how he treats you when you bump into him at the car wash.
“I don’t know how to put this... but I never thought of myself as a star,” said Savard, a seven-time All-Star who amassed 1,338 points. “Maybe that’s what kept me going. What I did yesterday, that’s yesterday. When I got the call in 2000 that I made it to the Hall of Fame, I said, ‘Are you freaking kidding me?’ I’ve been very fortunate.”
Savard’s perpetually upbeat persona belies the fact that even he had bad days. Before he was traded to Montreal in 1990—“It was time to move on"—Savard felt the wrath of coach Mike Keenan’s penchant for creative tension. Keenan even attempted to hold a “team vote” on whether Savard should be suspended for the playoffs until veterans Brown and Doug Wilson ended the madness. Did it end well? Savard would have it no other way. When he climbed the stairs as a Canadien for the 1991 All-Star Game, the Stadium shook from the ovation. In 1993, he won a Stanley Cup in Montreal. After a tour in Tampa, Savard returned to Chicago in 1995.
“Putting on the Indian Head again…I was home,” said Savard. But fast forward to 2008. Four games into the season, Savard was relieved as head coach of the Blackhawks. Again, he responded with class. For Savy, the glass is always half full, even after you’ve finished your beer.
“This is a business, and in business, there is always change,” Savard said. "This team is not about Denis Savard. Joel Quenneville is doing a great job and he’s a great guy. I love what he’s doing. The Blackhawks owed me nothing, but you see what they did. They brought me in as part of the family. They could have said, ‘thanks for everything…turn in your parking pass.’ Ticket money is in the bank. But not this organization. Not the way it is now.”
Savard is also working for Impact Sales. That’s the food business, and he’s not doing dishes. He and wife Mona are bracing for the imminent departure of daughter Tanya, 22, to Los Angeles. She’s going into a tough racket, the film business. She wants to be a director. They’ll cry at the airport, but if Tanya brings the family’s spirit with her to Hollywood, she, too, will make it big.
“Could I live on a beach in Florida and still be an ambassador?” said Savard. “I suppose, but I want to be around for the Blackhawks. Whatever they want me to do, wherever they want me to go. They treat me like gold. That night to start this season, when Bobby, Stan, Tony and I skated out on the ice? Unbelievable. And in the locker room before…the stories. How can I not be happy? You stew over the things in life that don’t go your way, that’s wasting time.
"You know how long I would like to do what I’m doing now for the Blackhawks? Only forever.”Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001. Check out The Verdict archive here.