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Canadiens legends salute their medical team

Savard, Cournoyer, Bowman join tribute by many to doctors

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

MONTREAL -- It was the first time that Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame defenseman Serge Savard had seen the nearly 50-year-old photo, and when he laid eyes on it, he blinked once, then twice.

"Holy (heck)," Savard said, almost whispering, an hour before taking part in the first annual Hockey 911 event, a benefit for the Montreal General Hospital Foundation on Oct. 2. "I'm not having fun, am I?"

The photo was taken at the Montreal Forum on March 11, 1970, by Montreal Star photographer Adrian Lunny. It shows exquisite pain on the face of Savard, who, at age 24, had just broken his left leg in five places after crashing into the Canadiens goal post, the net not budging in the days when they were anchored by long steel pegs. Goalie Rogie Vachon is watching the play bearing down on him, oblivious to the plight of his teammate who had just foiled a New York Rangers breakaway.

Savard would undergo three operations on the shattered leg in the following week, spend the offseason in rehabilitation, return to the Canadiens -- and then have the same leg broken again at the Forum on Jan. 30, 1971, hip-checked by Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Bobby Baun. Savard would skate off the ice on that fracture after having retrieved the puck and cleared it from the Montreal zone.

From left: Hockey 911 panelists Chris Nilan, Serge Savard, Scotty Bowman, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey and Trent McCleary.

"The first break, I remember (Canadiens doctor) Doug Kinnear on the ice beside me," Savard recalled. "My skate was lying on the ice the wrong way, and I said to him, 'Don't touch me. I know it's broken.'

"The second time I broke it, well, that was nothing," he said with a shrug. "It wasn't displaced, it broke under the two pins they'd put in me the first time. But the first break was the worst experience of my life. People said that my career was finished, that I'd never come back. But I did. After the second break, I played another 11 years."

Savard chatted about the photo during Hockey 911 with Dr. David Mulder, the Canadiens' long-time head team physician who treated each break and many more of Savard's bumps and bruises.

And then Savard displayed the picture as a bit of show-and-tell during the sold-out event in a Bell Centre restaurant that celebrated the historic relationship between the hospital and the Canadiens franchise.

Late Dr. Douglas Kinnear, celebrated in the inaugural Hockey 911, is seen examining former Canadiens captain Bob Gainey.

More than 450 guests enjoyed three periods and overtime of hot-stove league storytelling from former Canadiens Savard, Yvan Cournoyer, Bob Gainey, Chris Nilan, Trent McCleary, Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, Mulder and fellow Montreal General doctors who have played a huge role over many decades of caring for the Canadiens.

The evening shone a spotlight on the humble and universally beloved Mulder, who is entering his 57th season with the organization. Special tribute was paid to the trailblazing work and legacy of the late Kinnear, Mulder's mentor who was head of the Canadiens medical team from 1962 until his retirement in 1999.

Mulder is Montreal General's former surgeon-in-chief, former chairman of the department of surgery and former director of the division of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Montreal's McGill University. He has been a medical giant almost since the day he arrived in Montreal from his native Saskatchewan in 1963, instrumental in care, education and research at the General and the lead in the restructuring of trauma care in Quebec.

Orthopedic surgeon Eric Lenczner (center) relates the ruggedness of the almost indestructible Bob Gainey (right).

Other NHL teams have been in touch with the Montreal General Foundation about staging events similar to Hockey 911, where former players and Bowman put a gentle spin on terrible injuries, inspiring recoveries and how Kinnear, who died this May, Mulder and other doctors have not just saved careers, but in some cases, such as with McCleary, a life.

McCleary suffered a fractured larynx and collapsed lung at the Forum on Jan. 29, 2000 when he stopped a shot with his throat. In distress, he was helped off the ice but collapsed in the corridor leading to the team clinic, unable to breathe. McCleary was rushed to the General where Mulder performed a life-saving tracheostomy with the player still in full uniform.

The two men put a very human face on this life-and-death event, the fear of brain damage at the time unfounded, "though my wife still questions that," McCleary said with a laugh.

Fast thinking and quick action by Dr. David Mulder (right) saved the life of Canadiens forward Trent McCleary (center) on Jan. 29, 2000.

Wearing a No. 1 name-plated Canadiens jersey, Bowman was nearly overcome with emotion discussing Mulder's involvement with his own family. The doctor counselled in the treatment of Bowman's son, Stan, the Chicago Blackhawks general manager, who in 2007 was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. And he performed triple-bypass surgery on Bowman's father, prolonging his life by a decade.

Cournoyer, Gainey and Nilan each had their own remarkable stories about Kinnear and Mulder, a little mad scientist brightly stirred in. Gainey, whose foundation was a partner in Hockey 911, remembered Kinnear not so much finessing a separated shoulder back into place as muscling it, and the one-mile taxi ride up to the General from the Forum for treatment, in equipment but for skates, then coming back down to lace up to finish the game.

Mulder's thick Canadiens casebook involves on- and off-ice injuries and dramatic challenges, including broken bones, tendons slashed by skates, deep lacerations and cracked vertebrae suffered by Brian Savage, McCleary, Richard Zednik, Donald Audette, Max Pacioretty and others, as well as the cancers that struck captains Jean Beliveau and Saku Koivu.

Legendary coach Scotty Bowman reacts to 10-time Canadiens Stanley Cup champion Yvan Cournoyer (right) discussing Bowman's legendary curfews of his brilliant 1970s Montreal teams.

The dramatic April 9, 2002, return to action of Koivu after his recovery from non-Hodgkin lymphoma "was emotional beyond belief," Mulder said. "Before the game, Saku came to me in our little clinic and said, 'Doc, I don't think I've ever thanked you enough.' I was almost in tears."

So grateful was Koivu for the care he received that his foundation raised the millions needed for the General's purchase of a PET/CT scan unit to be used by cancer patients.

As Mulder has bound bodies back into a single piece since he began work with the Montreal Junior Canadiens for $10 a game in 1963, so has he forged bonds with players and their families, as likely to stitch one of their children as a face that's absorbed a puck or stick. 

Sitting in the back of the restaurant on Wednesday was Elise Beliveau, wife of the late Jean Beliveau, with her daughter, Helene; the General has cared for the Beliveau family since the early 1950s, the Canadiens icon and Mulder having been as close as brothers.

Chris Nilan (left) and Serge Savard compare war stories from their days with the Canadiens.

"You can't imagine how important this has been in my life," Mulder said of his work with the Canadiens. "Who would have thought? I speak of my career as a tale of two institutions: my career at the General and McGill, and at the Forum and now the Bell Centre. It's been an incredible opportunity."

The Canadiens and many in attendance who had their own stories to share returned a bit of that love.

"We're a big family," Savard said. "The Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups. That doesn't happen anywhere else. 

"I can't say enough good things about the way that Dr. Kinnear, Dr. Mulder, the doctors and the Montreal General took care of us as players and continue to take care of us and our families after our playing days are done."

Photos: Asbed Palakian, courtesy Montreal General Hospital Foundation

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