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Serge Savard: His own 'Spin-o-rama' on Habs greatness

by Red Fisher
Montreal Gazette columnist Red Fisher is in his 54th season on the Canadiens beat. Let's agree he is supremely qualified to name the 10 greatest Montreal Canadiens all-stars of all-time, which are all forwards and defensemen.Today's column considers No. 10 on Red's list, defensemen Serge Savard.

The 1969-70 season, only his third full one with the Canadiens, had all the signs of being Serge Savard's best. He had entered the season with his second Stanley Cup in his first two seasons under one arm and the Conn Smythe Trophy under the other.

In hardly no time at all, Savard had become a crowd-pleaser. He was a man to be watched, and people everywhere liked what they saw. In his first 64 games in 1969-70, the 23-year-old defenseman had 12 goals, two more than he had scored in his previous two seasons.

He had become the team's best penalty-killer and whenever Savard gathered his legs beneath him, spun around and took off for the offensive zone, well ... it was nothing less than the stuff of which highlight reels were made. His season and, many people feared, his career were over fewer than five minutes into the third period of Game 65.

Savard was chasing the New York Rangers' Vic Hadfield deep in the Canadiens' zone. Savard caught Hadfield and twisted the puck away from him as he was about to deliver at shot at Rogatien Vachon. Jean Ratelle jumped on the loose puck, Vachon made the stop, but Bob Nevin flicked the rebound into the empty net. Vachon, Hadfield and Savard had fallen to the ice during the action around the Canadiens' goalmouth, but a buzz of concern swept around the Forum when Savard didn't move.

"Don't touch me," Savard said to referee Vern Buffey. "My leg is broken."

Shattered would have been a better word: it was broken in five places. The damage was massive. Pins were needed to repair the numerous fractures. He missed the remaining 12 games and the first 11 the following season. Without him, the Canadiens missed the playoffs for the first time since 1948.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were at the Forum on Jan. 30 during Savard's comeback season. A little beyond the midway point of the first period, Savard, carrying the puck, moved in on Leafs defenseman Bobby Baun. Savard fell to the ice, promptly leaped to his feet and flung an elbow at Baun. Then he raced back to his own zone for the puck, passed it and headed for the bench.

"My leg hurts," he said to Canadiens athletic trainer Yvon Belanger.

"Which one?" Belanger asked.

"The one I broke last year."

 "How bad?"

"It's numb," Savard said. "I can't feel it anymore."

In the Forum clinic, Savard's skates and pads were removed. An ugly lump the size of a fist already had formed.

"It's broken," Savard said. "I know it's broken."

By this time, the first period was over. Captain Jean Beliveau walked in, his face drawn with weariness.

"It's broken, Jean," Savard said. "Damn it, it's broken. The same leg. "What do I do now?" he asked, breaking down in tears.

"You're only 25, Serge," Beliveau said. "If you were 35 ... well, maybe it's over. But you're young. You can beat this."

"Broken ... broken." Savard wailed.

Later, Beliveau was to mention: "It did not seem to be a hard check, not hard at all. And he skated to the bench ..."

Savard missed the last 30 games of the season and the first 50 in 1971-72. Hockey people, including Savard, often have wondered how good a defenseman he would have become if he hadn't missed all that time recovering from breaking the same leg in consecutive seasons.

The answer is that even after the two terrible injuries, he was good enough to play an important role in Team Canada' s epic victory against the Soviets in 1972 and was on a fourth Stanley Cup team in 1972-73. He was so good, he scored 20 goals and 40 assists in 1974-75.

He was this good: he joined Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe as the best trio of defensemen the Canadiens ever have assembled on one team, a Big Three which was part of the dynasty that won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the late '70s.

Savard made it happen with his size, reach and a hockey sense that allowed him to win Cups with the Canadiens as their GM in 1986 and '93. And as for his skating, who can forget his pirouette and Danny Gallivan's calls of what he chose to name the "Savardian Spin-o-rama?"

Savard's last season with the Canadiens - his 14th - was in 1980-81. He had been on eight Stanley Cup teams. In those years, players with one or more years of service with the Canadiens were provided with an extra year's salary. Savard, as astute in business off the ice as he was taking care of business on it, got his money.

Next stop: devoting more time to several business investments, which he had started even while he was playing. That's what he had in mind, that is, until his pal John Ferguson, who was the general manager in Winnipeg, reached out for Savard in the waiver draft. It's not something Savard particularly wanted. It's not what Canadiens management expected would happen. Why would anyone want to draft a 35-year-old defenseman?

Ferguson's reasoning was that if Savard couldn't do much on the ice, he would at least be an influence in the dressing room. He also figured there was always room in a dressing room for someone who had played on eight Stanley Cup teams - particularly if the guy happened to be a close pal.

Savard resisted the idea.

"Are you going to Winnipeg?" I asked him.

"Not a chance," he said. "I'm retired."

The Jets started the season without him, but Ferguson kept after his man and eventually wore him down. He reported to the Jets in time to appear in 47 games. A kid named Dale Hawerchuk, who had been the No. 1 choice in the entry draft, had a question for Savard:
"How many Stanley Cup rings do you have?"

"Eight," Savard said.

"Eight? Wow," Hawerchuk said. Then Hawerchuk thrust out his ring finger to Savard: "Yeah, but do you have a Memorial Cup ring?"

Savard played the rest of that season - well enough to help bring the Jets into the playoffs for the first time since joining the NHL three seasons earlier. He was with them the next season, but soon enough back with the Canadiens.

"Have you heard about Serge?" a friend asked one day.

"What about him?"

"He's your new general manager in Montreal," he said.

"How do you know?"

"Trust me."

"I'll check it out," I said.

"Serge isn't home," Mrs. Savard said on the telephone from Winnipeg. "He's on the golf course. He'll be home around 11 o'clock tonight."

I called my friend back. "Mrs. Savard says Serge is playing golf. She says he'll be home tonight at 11."

"He left for Montreal about an hour ago," my friend said. "The Canadiens are holding a press conference tomorrow."

The next day, The Gazette carried a Page 1 story that reported Savard would be named to the general manager's post. He was at the press conference that afternoon.

"How'd you shoot yesterday?" I asked him.

"Shoot? What do you mean ... shoot?" he asked.

"On the golf course. I called your home yesterday. Your wife told me you were playing golf."

Just one word from Savard: "Oh."

Reprinted with permission from the Montreal Gazette, this Red Fisher column originally ran Jan. 29, 2005.

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