When the Montreal Canadiens’ Serge Savard became the first NHL defenceman to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs in 1969, he remembers being given two options to commemorate the honour.
He could accept a plaque declaring him the award’s winner. Or he could order a custom-built miniature version of the grand trophy, a gleaming replica of iconic Maple Leaf Gardens. There was a catch, of course, and it spoke to the way players were once treated by tight-fisted NHL owners. The plaque was free. But the replica trophy would cost the playoff MVP $1,500. Considering Savard, at the time, was earning $14,500 as a second-year defenceman, it was a particularly hefty sum.
“Ten per cent of my salary,” he said in a recent interview.
If the same policy applied today, by way of comparison — if the Conn Smythe Trophy would have cost its most recent recipient, Victor Hedman, about 10 per cent of his salary — the 2020 price tag for the trophy would have been $787,500.
“I said, ‘Give me the plaque,’ ” Savard said. “That’s the way it was. There was no money then. There were no sponsors. There were no ads on the boards or anywhere. You had to be smart.”
Over his Hall of Fame career as a player, Savard, now 74, was the model of the street-smart pro. Best known as one of Montreal’s famed Big Three defencemen, alongside Larry Robinson and Guy Lapointe, he won eight Stanley Cups as a player. As a member of Canada’s victorious Summit Series team in 1972, he was a linchpin presence. Though he played in just five of the eight games due to injury, Canada never lost with him in the lineup, winning four and tying one. And as the general manager in charge of the Montreal teams that won the Stanley Cup in 1986 and 1993, his reign as the last executive to repatriate Lord Stanley’s mug to Canada hasn’t found itself under serious threat often enough.
Still, in a lot of ways, even reeling off that impressive resumé doesn’t quite do justice to his stature in his home province. You come to realize this turning the pages of Savard’s memoir “Serge Savard: Forever Canadien,” newly translated to English by journalist Phillippe Cantin. When he was growing up in tiny Abitibi, Que., the living-room walls of the Savard family home were adorned with pictures of three powerful men: the pope, the premier and Rocket Richard. Religion, politics and hockey. In his book Savard calls it “the other Holy Trinity” of Quebec life. Certainly all three often found themselves intertwined. On the day in 1995 when Savard was fired as Canadiens GM along with coach Jacques Demers, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau proclaimed the bloodletting “a cataclysm.” Former premier Robert Bourassa called Savard at home to commiserate.
In other words, Savard has lived a more varied and rich existence than your typical shutdown defenceman. He parlayed his stature into a career as a successful businessman, building a real-estate portfolio, owning a newspaper and heading a group that once owned Montreal’s distinctive Chateau Champlain hotel.
And he’s certainly not shy about voicing his displeasure with the current management of the once-vaunted Canadiens. Though he hasn’t officially worked for the Canadiens since that fateful day in 1995, Savard was a member of the committee that hired current Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin in 2012, around which time, Savard recently told the Montreal Gazette, Canadiens owner Geoff Molson offered him a job that never materialized. Savard, while accusing the organization of forgetting its past, has cast Bergevin as ungrateful.
“I didn’t hire him, but I can tell you if I was against him, he would never have got that job,” he told the Gazette.
If Savard can come off as bitter, he’s had a history of finding himself on the right side of history. A flip through “Forever Canadien” suggests there are still ill feelings between Savard and the members of the 1970s Philadelphia Flyers, the Broad Street Bullies who won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975, and whom the Canadiens defeated in 1976 to begin a string of four straight titles. As those ruffian Flyers were savaging the NHL, Savard was campaigning against the senselessness of such goonery when such pacifist views were far from a mainstream.
“People didn’t want to hear that, because everyone said fighting was part of the game,” Savard said over the phone from his home in Hilton Head, S.C.
In his book, he calls behaviour like Bobby Clarke’s ankle-breaking slash on Soviet star Valeri Kharlamov “a stain” on the sport. He calls Canada’s “absurdly ferocious conduct” in Summit Series exhibition games in Sweden “a disgrace.” And he calls Montreal’s win over the Philadelphia thugs “the most satisfying” of his Cups, both as a player and a GM.
“It put an end to those two years when brute force won out,” Savard writes. “Bobby Clarke hates it when I say this, but the Flyers stole two Stanley Cups in 1974 and 1975 because the National Hockey League let them get away with their intimidation tactics.”
Savard doesn’t sugar-coat his mistakes in his memoir. He calls his trade of a 28-year-old Chris Chelios for Dénis Savard his worst move. While he alludes to Chelios’s involvement in “dubious” incidents that possibly “tarnished” the team’s image — including a breaking of playoff curfew that coincided with a wee-hours car accident in which Chelios played a part — Savard insists he made the deal because he was convinced by medical staff that Chelios’s injured knee would only last another season or two. Chelios, as it turned out, played 19 more seasons until age 48. Denis Savard, meanwhile “had already lost a step and we hadn’t taken notice,” Savard says in the book. “It was one of the biggest blunders of my career.”
Even when he didn’t necessarily make a mistake, Savard had a reputation for making things right. After he traded Montreal tough guy Chris Nilan to the Rangers — after Nilan openly challenged coach Jean Perron’s authority in front of the team — Savard invited Nilan to an off-season meeting. Knowing that Nilan had gifted his 1986 Stanley Cup ring to his father, Savard presented him with a replacement.
“It was a nice gesture,” Nilan, now a Montreal sports-radio host, said in an interview. “Outside of that one fateful day when he traded me, Serge was always good to me. I put him in a bad position, so I’ll give him a mulligan on that one.”
Unvarnished candour is hardly standard fare in many reconstructions of hockey history. But Savard shares plenty in the pages of “Forever Canadien.” He tells of a dressing-room tête-à-tête with Henri Richard, brother of the Rocket, in which Savard slapped Richard in the face over a disagreement about a leaked story in the media. (They promptly made peace). He tells of late-night escapades of an unnamed teammate who drunkenly punched a fire hydrant to the detriment of his hand’s game-readiness, only to have teammates stage a fake injury at the next morning’s practice to cover for the stupidity. He tells of addressing rumours of Chelios’s drug use by challenging Chelios to submit to regular voluntary random tests — tests, Savard says, Chelios always passed.
“We were a family,” Savard said of his teams. “And when you’ve got four, five, six kids in a family, there’s always drama somehow.
On the ice, with Savard shoring up the back end, things were less eventful. Scotty Bowman, the legendary coach of five of those Montreal Cup teams, has long considered Savard an irreplaceable piece of that dynasty’s bedrock, the defensive conscience that allowed the likes of Larry Robinson to freelance at will. “(Bobby Orr) was an offensive machine,” Bowman has said. “But at the other end of the rink, Serge Savard was everybody’s dream as a hockey player.”
That dream of a hockey player was also a realist of a spender. Speaking of his Conn Smythe Trophy, Savard said he eventually forked over the money for a replica model. That was about a decade after he had won the trophy, and only after his earnings as a businessman had far exceeded his salary, which by then was about $150,000 a year.
“It took me about a decade,” he said, “but I finally had one made.”