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100 Greatest Players

Denis Savard: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Gifted center sparked Blackhawks revival in 1980s

by Bob Verdi / Special to

Space does not permit a complete list of Denis Savard highlights. But one stands out, even to another virtuoso, Wayne Gretzky.

Gretzky and the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers were at Chicago Stadium on the evening of Feb. 24, 1988. The score was tied at 3 when the Chicago Blackhawks took a penalty. On came the Oilers' fearsome power play, two minutes of anxiety for opponents, if indeed it lasted that long.


Video: Denis Savard sparked Blackhawks revival in 1980s


Sure enough, the Oilers gathered for a rush. Savard, on the kill unit, just inside the Blackhawks blue line, picked off a pass by Glenn Anderson. What to do now against a cast of future Hall of Famers?

"Waste time, if I could," Savard said later. "I saw Mark Messier coming toward me. I wanted just to skate around as much as I could."

That Savard did, weaving in and out, circling in the neutral zone, figure eights, pirouettes. Then, he noticed a couple of Oilers staying back, fairly deep in their own end. So Savard took off, as if attached to the puck, feinting to and fro, pressuring on the left side, where he managed to slip the puck between the legs of Kevin Lowe. Savard gathered it back, took a shot on goalie Grant Fuhr, and scored shorthanded. No other player on either side touched the puck during the entire sequence.


Games: 1,196 | Goals: 473 | Assists: 865 | Points: 1,338


Blackhawks 4, Oilers 3. The building shook.

"One of the greatest goals you'll ever see," Gretzky said.

"The best I ever scored?" Savard said. "Probably."

The Oilers were kings in those days -- they won the Stanley Cup again a few months later -- but the Blackhawks were always chasing, taking some consolation in the belief that they were perhaps the second best team in the NHL. One reason for this mindset, and standing-room crowds at the Stadium, was Savard, a gifted center who would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.

When Savard arrived in 1980, without doing any time in the minor leagues, the Blackhawks were not in a good place. Bobby Hull had departed long ago for the Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association. Stan Mikita, another icon, had recently retired. Bobby Orr, who signed on as a free agent in 1976, tried but his frail knee would not cooperate.

The Blackhawks needed someone who could bring fans back to the Stadium, and lift them out of their seats. Savard was ready, willing and able to oblige, and no less an authority than president Bill Wirtz said that "Denis helped save the franchise … he made us relevant again."

But first the Blackhawks had to make him one of theirs. A native of Pointe Gatineau, Quebec, and a prolific scorer with the Montreal Juniors, Savard hoped he would be selected by his hometown Montreal Canadiens in the 1980 NHL Draft. But they opted for Doug Wickenheiser, a player with more size, as the No. 1 choice. The Winnipeg Jets, next up, chose Dave Babych, a defenseman. The Blackhawks gladly took Savard, who was disappointed but not dissuaded.

"It was pretty emotional," he said. "There I was at the airport in Montreal, crying along with my parents, going to a strange city, not really able to speak any English. But I told them, 'I'm going to make that team in Chicago. The next time I return to Montreal, I will be with the Blackhawks.'"

If Savard, at 5-foot-10 and maybe 170 pounds, was thought to be too small, someone forgot to measure his heart and hockey IQ. Almost immediately, the Blackhawks' highest-ever draftee to that point electrified fans with his speed and creativity. He might have known only enough words to order breakfast, but the franchise soon would be revived. Doug Wilson, a defenseman who joined the Blackhawks in 1977, was becoming a star. Meanwhile Keith Brown, a character guy, helped make the young French-Canadian feel comfortable. Savard had no problem earning his welcome. In 1980-81 he had 28 goals and 47 assists, then the most for a Blackhawks rookie.

One season later, Savard erupted for 32 goals and 87 assists --- the most in team history -- for 119 points. Only Hull, with 107 points in 1968-69, had achieved triple digits with the Blackhawks. Savard again had 87 assists in 1987-88, when he broke the franchise mark for points with 131. Savard partnered with Al Secord and Steve Larmer to form one of the League's most dangerous lines, and the Blackhawks became a staple in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Three rounds in 1982, three in 1983, three in 1985, three in 1989, three in 1990.

Alas, three times during that stretch, the Blackhawks were eliminated by the Oilers, through no fault of Savard's. He thrived during the postseason, with 175 points (66 goals, 109 assists) in 169 playoff games for his career -- although not all with the Blackhawks. On June 29, 1990, he was traded to the Canadiens for Chris Chelios and a second-round draft choice.

Savard played in seven NHL All-Star Games, one of which was particularly memorable: in 1991 he was a late injury replacement for the Wales Conference at Chicago Stadium. Wirtz, an ardent Savard admirer, publicly lobbied for the former Blackhawks superstar. When Savard took the ice for the warmup, he was given a long standing ovation.

"I was sick as a dog that week," Savard said. "If it was anywhere else, I wouldn't have made it. But I had a special feeling for Mr. Wirtz, the Blackhawks and their fans. As it was, I couldn't even finish the game. I left in the third period, and spent the next two days in bed with the flu or whatever it was."

When Savard could not find room to maneuver, he created space through sheer ingenuity. He had the spin-o-rama down pat. A right shot, Savard would switch the puck to his backhand, buttonhook around in clockwise fashion, then fire on a goaltender while the adversary who thought he had this dynamic icon in check wondered what happened. Just when you figured you had Savard covered, he went thataway. He was fluid and explosive. On Jan. 12, 1986, against the Hartford Whalers, he scored four seconds into the third period, tying the NHL record for fastest goal after the start of a period.

"Reminds me of Mikita, and that's high praise," Hull said. "A lot of the same moves and vision."

Savard had 50 points in 1992-93, when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. He signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1993, before being traded to the Blackhawks at the trade deadline in 1995. He retired after the 1996-97 season with 473 goals, 865 assists and 1,338 points in 1,196 NHL games. He is third behind Mikita and Hull with 1,096 points for the Blackhawks. Savard's No. 18 jersey was retired on March 18, 1998, at the United Center.

Savard was named an assistant coach with the Blackhawks on Dec. 3, 1997, and held the position he held until Nov. 27, 2006, when he was promoted to coach. He guided Chicago to a 40-34-8 record in 2007-08, when it nearly made the playoffs and he mentored newcomers Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. When Savard was replaced four games into the next season, players were shaken, and successor Joel Quenneville appreciative.

"Denis teed things up pretty good for me," said Quenneville, who helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015, with Toews and Kane leading the way.

Savard returned the compliment.

"Joel does things I could not do as coach," he said. "When I was behind the bench and things weren't going well, when maybe our big guys weren't playing the way they could, I would just wait. I would try to be patient until things started going their way. Not Joel. He adjusts right on the spot. Not between games or between periods. Between shifts."

Savard established The Denis Savard Foundation, which contributes to charitable causes. During his playing days, he and his family became year-round residents of Chicago, a city that once seemed so foreign to him but quickly embraced him. Along with fellow Hall of Famers Hull, Mikita and Tony Esposito, Savard was named an ambassador for the Blackhawks in 2010. Whenever he is shown on the video board at the United Center, it's another standing ovation for "Savoir Faire."


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