Video: Serge Savard was standout stay-at-home defenseman
Once a rising star as a rushing defenseman, he became a top-notch stay-at-home type, willing to let others go on the attack while he remained behind to halt counterattacks with his long reach, angling forwards away from the goal, blocking shots and starting the transition to offense. And, every once in a while, Savard could still jump into the rush.
He did it all with a patience and assuredness that settled his team, no matter the situation or score.
In that shutdown role, Savard was paired with Larry Robinson. Joined by Guy Lapointe, they were called "The Big Three" and it's doubtful there was ever a better threesome on one team's defense corps in NHL history. Coach Scotty Bowman's Canadiens could not have captured four consecutive Stanley Cup championships between 1976 and 1979 without them.
Games: 1,040 | Goals: 106 | Assists: 333 | Points: 439
"'The Big Three' were the essence of the Montreal dynasty," longtime hockey columnist Al Strachan said on the TV series "Legends of Hockey." "Those three held the whole defense together. And it was Serge Savard who held those three together."
Longtime Montreal hockey commentator Yvon Pedneault said that Savard "was the defenseman Scotty Bowman was looking for when the game was on the line, when [a playoff] series was on the line and when the championship was on the line. He was a true leader."
"His hockey IQ was the reason he was so good," Bowman said. "He had very good vision. He played with the confidence to make the plays he made -- it might look like a risky play, but he very seldom made a mistake.
"After his injuries, Serge didn't carry the puck as much as others, and that meant he didn't get as many points, so he didn't get the recognition or the credit. But he had durability. Those defensemen played about 35 minutes a game. He could do it; he had a lot of stamina."
For Bowman, two attributes defined Savard's excellence. He read the opposition well and would "control the game by just staying back and looking around," the way great Canadiens defenseman Doug Harvey did during the 1950s. And Bowman praised Savard's penchant for making the right play so his team maintained possession of the puck, like another Hall of Fame defenseman Bowman later coached with the Detroit Red Wings, Nicklas Lidstrom. "Serge didn't throw the puck away. When he got the puck, we usually kept it."
Savard's ratings bear out Bowman's view. In the seven seasons between 1972-73 and 1978-79, Savard was among the NHL's top 10 plus-minus players six times -- and four times in the top five.
His career offensive numbers remained modest -- 106 goals and 439 points in 1,040 regular-season games -- but Savard's contributions are best measured by other achievements, most notably having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup eight times in an 11-year span and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1969.
He played in four NHL All-Star Games and was selected to the Second All-Star Team in 1979, the same year he was awarded the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. He represented Canada and the NHL internationally on three historic occasions -- the 1972 Summit Series, the inaugural Canada Cup in 1976 and the 1979 Challenge Cup.
Through all these major events, Savard remained an unruffled and calming figure, the reassuring voice who only thought of what was needed to win the game, as those who shared the ice with him attested.
"I don't think the word 'panic' exists in his vocabulary," Lapointe, his frequent fellow prankster on the Canadiens, said on "Legends of Hockey."
"He was able to keep that kind of composure even when the play or the stakes went higher," Canadiens teammate Bob Gainey said. "And that's what really stood out to me about Serge was his ability to stay on course. While things were flying out of control around him, he got steadier and bigger and better."
On the biggest stage for Canada against the Soviet Union in '72, Savard was never steadier, even though he played through a cracked ankle that limited him to five of the eight games. Canada never lost with him in the lineup, and he was the only member of the team to play in all four wins, the tie and none of the defeats. Bobby Clarke called him "our best defenseman."
That was the sentiment in Montreal, too, although he would later be overshadowed by Robinson's powerful offensive dimension and physically imposing play. Still, in a players poll for the 1981 book "NHL: The World of Professional Hockey," by Jay Greenberg, Frank Orr and Gary Ronberg, Robinson and Savard finished 1-2 as the game's best defensive defensemen.
Savard's play allowed his partner to develop. "When Scotty first started going with Serge and I, we just clicked," Robinson said on "Legends of Hockey." "But Serge was such a big, strong, smart player that I made a ton of mistakes but he was always there to cover up for me."
"I played with Larry most of my career and I'd say, 'You go ahead. Don't worry about what's happening in the back," Savard said. "And I became a more defensive defenseman."
But he didn't start out that way. Rather, Serge had been a big, smooth-skating, highly skilled center as a youth. Born Jan. 22, 1946, he was raised in the Abitibi region northwest of Montreal and was discovered playing school hockey by a Canadiens scout on a tip from the owner of a general store. His size prompted the Canadiens to convert him to defense, and once he got settled playing Junior B hockey he progressed quickly, jumping to the Junior Canadiens (where he was captain and coached by Bowman) then to minor pro with the Houston of the Central Professional Hockey League, where he was the rookie of the year in 1967.
He joined the big club full-time in '67-68, touted in the media as the Canadiens' answer to Bobby Orr -- though Savard would later say, "There are stars, superstars and then there's Bobby Orr." Coach Toe Blake also used him at forward killing penalties and, during the Canadiens' Cup championship run in '68, the rookie scored two shorthanded goals, including the only goal in Game 2 against Bowman's St. Louis Blues, who were swept by Montreal in the Final.
Savard again elevated his play for the '69 postseason. In the semifinals against the rival Boston Bruins, he assisted on all three Montreal goals, including the game-winner in overtime, in Game 1; scored the tying goal with 1:09 left in the third period of Game 2 and assisted on the winner in OT; and scored a third-period, tying goal in the series-clinching victory in Game 6. He outscored Orr in that series -- three goals and four assists to Orr's one goal and three assists -- in their only head-to-head playoff matchup.
The first defenseman to win the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP, he had four goals and six assists in 14 games in '69 and as a penalty-killer was only on the ice for two goals-against.
His marvelous skating and uncanny sense of anticipation allowed him to regularly hold the puck at the offensive blue line, then spin away from an oncoming winger at the last instant, showing him nothing but the No. 18 on his back, and creating a scoring chance. Eloquent Canadiens broadcaster Danny Gallivan called it the "Savardian Spin-o-rama," and that term became part of the hockey lexicon.
Then the injuries began. In March 1970, his left leg shattered when he crashed into a goal post, requiring three surgeries in a week and the insertion of pins. Without him, the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
In 1971, he needed a bone graft when the pins became dislodged and he rebroke the leg. A year later, he cut his right leg kicking out glass to save guests in a St. Louis hotel fire. Then he injured his ankle at a practice with Canada in September of '72.
Sports Illustrated called him hockey's unluckiest player.
Savard never lost faith in his career, but he did lose some speed -- he went from smooth to lumbering. He retained his great mobility, however, and opposing forwards advanced with slim hopes of getting past him. "Bobby Clarke has told me a few times, 'He was the best defenseman I ever played against,'" Bowman said.
"Not enough people gave Serge the credit he deserved," Clarke said on "Legends of Hockey." "He could just do everything on the ice -- and more. He could control the pace of the game. If the game was 3-1 for the Canadiens, it might end 3-1 but you'd never get the darn scoring chance to get it to 3-2 against them because he could control it so well."
Savard, a 1986 Hall of Fame inductee, fully embraced hockey's main ethic: Individual honors mattered little compared to what his team could accomplish. "The most fun in the game is winning and nobody can achieve that on their own," he said. "If you play for a team and you break all the records and the team doesn't win, it's no fun."
Few in hockey ever had more fun than Serge Savard.
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