MONTREAL – After representing his country twice during his playing career, Serge Savard jumped at the chance to suit up for Canada in a different role in 1987
Four years after hanging up the skates, “The Senator” continued making his mark on the hockey world as a first-class general manager. That’s why it was no surprise that when Hockey Canada went looking for someone to build a winning team for the Canada Cup, they turned to Savard to be their architect.
“After we won the Stanley Cup in 1986, I was asked to be the GM of the All-Stars for Rendez-vous ’87 and after that they asked me to join the management team for the Canada Cup,” recalled Savard, who joined forces with Bobby Clarke, Glen Sather and Phil Esposito for the occasion. “Both times I made sure to bring my coach in Montreal, Jean Perron, along with me.”
|Savard (third from left) was one of four GMs for Team Canada. |
Contrary to the days where Savard was one of the headliners donning the Maple Leaf, the Montreal native had the slightly less pleasant task of choosing from the embarrassment of riches at his disposal during the selection process.
“It was a big difference compared to when I was playing in international events during my career,” mentioned Savard, who took part in the star-studded 1972 Summit Series and 1976 Canada Cup events. “Making a team full of superstars was different, but definitely exciting.
“Putting together a team with that much talent isn’t hard,” he admitted. “We knew what our players brought to the table. I invited several players to camp who other people probably wouldn’t have chosen. Rick Green was one of those. In my mind, he was the best defensive-defenseman in the NHL.”
Despite the GM’s glowing endorsement, Green wasn’t able to crack the Canadian D corps that included future Hall-of-Famers like Raymond Bourque, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. Another tough call for Savard came between the pipes when he had to decide what to do with the budding young netminder who was fresh off the float from his first Stanley Cup parade.
“Having to cut Patrick Roy was heartbreaking for me because in my opinion he deserved to be on that team,” confessed Savard of the 1986 Conn Smythe Trophy winner. “I came really close to resigning my position as general manager over that decision.
“But Patrick wouldn’t have been our starter either way,” he clarified. “Bobby Clarke and Mike Keenan had already decided they wanted to keep Ron Hextall and Kelly Hrudey to backup Grant Fuhr.”
The debate over roster spots wasn’t the only internal turmoil facing Team Canada that year. While everything went off without a hitch on the ice, with so many strong personalities and competing egos behind the bench and at the helm, it wasn’t surprising to see the team’s brass butt heads on a few other key decisions along the way. Specifically, how to approach the marquee match-up against the Soviets in the final.
“During the first game of the finals, I mentioned to Mike Keenan that he should check the Soviets’ sticks because their curves were all illegal,” shared Savard, who had spent hours scouting their opponents prior to the finals. “We had all agreed ahead of time to use the NHL rules about stick curves, but Keenan didn’t want to call them on it because he didn’t feel it was right.”
It’s impossible to know whether measuring those illegal curves could have impacted the results as much as it eventually would for the Habs in the 1993 Cup Finals a few years later, but Canada and the U.S.S.R. ended up splitting the first two games by identical 6-5 scores. The stage was set for a storybook ending in the ensuing tie-breaker.
The eight-time Stanley Cup champ didn’t enjoy losing as a manager any more than he liked it as a player and the pressure to defeat the Soviets began to mount. The two hockey powerhouses put on a show in Game 3, battling it out to a 5-5 tie heading into the third period.
“It was a really tight game that could have gone either way. You never know. We had defensemen like Paul Coffey who scored a lot of goals but who also took a lot of chances that could have cost us,” recalled the Habs Hall-of-Famer.
“But when I saw [Wayne] Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux heading down the ice on a 2-on-1 I didn’t even have time to think about how that could do it for us,” laughed Savard of that famous series-clinching goal. “It was Mario’s incredible talent that decided that game for us. You had the two best players in the world out there together; there really was no other way it could have ended.”
Hugo Fontaine is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Shauna Denis.
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1972 Summit Series