Tag Archives: Denis Savard

Denis S. On The Ceiling

When I was at the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame at the Bell Centre the other day, I had a good look at all the honored members’ images on the ceiling in the lobby. They’re all in circles, so it’s kind of dizzying.

It took me a couple of days to figure out why Denis Savard is part of this. And make no mistake, I though Savard was a great player, a stickhandling demon. A guy with all kinds of slick moves. He’s a Hall of Famer because he was a great player with 17 years under his belt.

But he only played three years in Montreal, one where he scored just 16 goals. His glory years were in Chicago. It was unusual to see him lumped in with Vezina, Morenz, Richard, Harvey, Beliveau, Lafleur and the boys up there on the ceiling.

Ralph Backstrom, on the other hand, played 13 seasons in Montreal and won six Stanley Cups. But he’s not up there.

But after a couple of days, I figured it out. The Canadiens are honoring those who wore the CH and are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. So that was that.

Tony Esposito seems to be the only HOFer not on the ceiling. But he only played 13 games for the Canadiens and it’s not enough I guess. Whatever the minimum number is.

 

A Night At A Fan Club

In going through some papers last night in the basement, I found something I’d written in 1992. I’m not sure why I’d written it, but anyway…

The first page talks about how I grew up to be a Montreal Canadiens fan living in Orillia, a city thick with Leafs fans, but I won’t bother with that part here.

After that I went into being in Russia in 1991 and spending an evening with members of the Russian Montreal Canadiens Fan Club, where no one spoke English except for one guy, Konstantin Krylov, who presently is a scout for the Anaheim Ducks.

At that time it was during the fall of the Soviet Union, and up until then, Russians had had very little contact with foreigners from the west. It was almost unheard of that westerners would spend any time at all in a Russian’s home, so it was all new, for both sides.

But I was lucky. I lived with a Russian family in St. Petersburg several times over the years, for short periods, and I still feel very fortunate for the experience.

I’m beginning halfway through my piece, when I went to a meeting at the apartment of the president of the fan club, Alexander Varnovsky

“Anatoly brought me by streetcar to Alexander’s apartment building in the heart of Leningrad. As we approached the old six-story building nestled beside a children’s playground off a main downtown street, Anatoly pointed upwards to the president’s place. There, in the window, thousands of miles from home, in such a mysterious country, was a giant Montreal Canadiens crest. And beside it, Alexander and several of his friends waved and smiled and motioned to us to come up.

Hockey Night in Leningrad, without the television.

That evening at the Fan Club was without doubt one of the most enjoyable and interesting few hours I’ve ever spent. I could sense a feeling that I was truly welcome, and they seemed happy that they were able to get some Canadian impressions of the NHL, and of course their beloved Montreal Canadiens.

Alexander’s apartment looked like many hockey fans’ apartments, although it was very small. The walls were alive with Habs’ team photos from different years, and photos of Lafleur and Cournoyer and Beliveau and Carbonneau, among others, smiled down. Sasha had written many times to Habs public relations director Claude Mouton, and Mr. Mouton had graciously answered many of his letters and sent hats and pennants etc. All of Mouton’s letters were proudly displayed.

Even as I was taking off my coat, the questions started rolling off their tongues. The big one, the one brought up the most, was how I felt about the ’91-’92 team, and did I think they had the talent to go all the way. Of course they did, I answered. I’ve been answering that question the very same way all my life. So in Russia, it was no different.

As tea and pastry were served, I tried to explain why I thought the team would be successful. And I was grilled constantly about all aspects of the Habs, and the N.H.L. in general. What really stood out, what truly impressed me, was the amount of knowledge and insights my new friends had about North American hockey. They had only seen international competition for the most part – Canada Cups, World Championships, Olympics and such. Until then, a Montreal-Boston clash, for example, rarely or never graced the screens of Russian T.Vs.

But they were all hockey scholars in the truest sense. They all had their own ideas on who should win the Hart Trophy, or who the best goalie was, or what GM was the craftiest, or what skater was the most innovative.

They appreciated the aggressiveness of Shane Corson and Mike Keane, and loved the style and grace of Denis Savard. They expressed concern over the youthful defence of the Habs, and were all in agreement when Wayne Gretzky’s name came up as the greatest in the game today.

Throughout the evening we talked about league president John Ziegler, Serge Savard, Russian and Canadian fans, Hall of Famers, and famous games. They said that the classic Super Series ’76 featuring the Canadiens and Red Army 3-3 game was the turning point for them all, when they saw for the first time the beauty of Montreal’s game. They had heard many stories before that, but this was their first look, and it left a lasting impression.

The evening went by far too quickly, and after several hours it was time to go back to Anatoly’s. The entire fan club walked us the few blocks to the streetcar.

I made some great friends that night. We all share a deep love for the Montreal Canadiens, and I feel so fortunate to have met and spent such a memorable evening with them.

Several months later, back in Calgary, I received a letter from Leningrad, which had now become St. Petersburg once again after the system had collapsed and they were starting anew. There was one page in Russian and another translated into English, and it stated that I had been unanimously voted into the St. Petersburg Montreal Canadiens Fan Club.

I was the first and only member of the club from outside Russia, and I am very proud.

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Irving Grundman Said…

You’d have to think it’s quite odd for a GM to answer some punk’s question about getting tickets. Somehow I can’t see Pierre Gauthier or Brian Burke doing this, or any GM for that matter.

It’s one last letter from the bunch I’d lost years ago and then found recently, and surprisingly, it came from Irving Grundman, who was the Habs GM at the time.

But first, a few things about Mr. Grundman.

Irving Grundman replaced Sam Pollock as GM in 1978, and it was unexpected. Most thought Scotty Bowman would be named the new boss, but it was decided that Bowman would probably be too quick on the draw in trading players, and the bowling alley magnate Grundman was brought in, mostly because of his money-handling abilities.

By all accounts, Grundman wasn’t the greatest Habs GM there ever was, although the recent few might give him a run for his money. It was he who decided to choose Doug Wickenheiser instead of Quebec star Denis Savard in the 1980 draft, whereas Wickenheiser never became the player they thought he’d become and Savard would star in Chicago. Grundman and Jacques Lemaire disagreed on things and the star forward retired and moved to Switzerland. There were also problems finding a decent replacement for Ken Dryden in nets, and three coaches were hired and fired in Grundman’s short time at the helm.

Grundman also pulled the strings on the huge Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Craig Laughlin, and Brian Engblom trade to Washington for Ryan Walter and Rick Green and it was this move that is considered most responsible for the saving of the strugging Capitals franchise. Langway would win the Norris Trophy the first two years he was in Washington.

In his defence, Grundman also drafted Guy Carbonneau and Chris Chelios, which were good moves, but all in all, he was considered out of his league and should have concentrated on the bowling alley business.

After he was let go by the Canadiens, he would become a Montreal city councillor, found himself charged with corruption, and sentenced to 23 months of community service and fined $50,000.00.

Almost three months to the day after Mr. Grundman wrote this letter, he was fired by the Canadiens, and Serge Savard would take his place.

Flashback To A Nice Habs-Jets Overtime Game

This December 1992 game in Winnipeg was a beauty, with Andre Racicot in goal as Patrick Roy, on the bench, had the night off.

About halfway through, we also learn that someone named Gary Bettman from the NBA is in the running for top job in the NHL.

The following spring, Montreal would win their 24th Stanley Cup.

The 1980-81 Gang That Didn’t Quite Shoot Straight

Below, the 1980 Habs baseball team. Even though he’s not in the photo, Maurice Richard also played on the team.

The Canadiens just couldn’t get it done in 1981, being swept by the upstart Edmonton Oilers with a skinny kid named Wayne Gretzky emerging as a freak of nature in the Oiler’s lineup. And shortly after the disappointing sweep, Montreal coach Claude Ruel resigned and was replaced by Bob Berry. (11 different coaches have followed since). It just wasn’t a rosy time for all concerned.

These were the days of the New York Islanders dynasty, with Denis Potvin, Mike Bossy, Brian Trottier, Billy Smith and company winning four straight. They were good, I give the bastards that. But if you think I’m going to rave about the New York Islanders, you’ve got another thing coming.

By then, the idea of the Habs winning four-straight as they did in the late 1970’s was only a pipe dream. It had become painfully obvious that the dynasty wasn’t just on life support, it was officially over. The Flower’s greatest years were behind him, his 50 goal seasons would come no more. Goaltending had cracks. And Patrick Roy was still several years away.  

Steve Shutt was the team’s leading point-getter in the 1980-81 season, recording 35 goals and 38 assists for 73 points. Mark Napier was next with 71 points, while Lafleur was third with 70 points. The goaltending duties were shared by four guys that season – Richard Sevigny, Michel Larocque, Denis Herron, and Rick Wamsley.

Doug Wickenheiser, the Habs first-overall pick, chosen over fan favourite Denis Savard, suited up in this 1980-81 season and turned out to be not quite the player Montreal thought they were getting. He had been a star in junior with the Regina Pats and his big body at centre ice had folks wondering if they might have a new Jean Beliveau on their hands. But Wickenheiser never managed to become a major impact player (115 points in 202 games in Montreal), and was finally dealt to St. Louis. And to add salt to everyone’s wounds, including Wickenheiser’s, Denis Savard had become the toast of the town in Chicago.

It would be five more years before the Canadiens would become champs, and at the time, a handful of years was unacceptable. Nowadays, my calculator can’t count how long it’s been. It’s just ridiculous. But the slump may end soon.

 

 

Doug Wickenheiser Showed What Real Life Is

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Doug Wickenheiser was going to be the next big centreman for the Montreal Canadiens. Sort of like Jean Beliveau in a way, but of course that was an unfair expectation. There was only one Beliveau.

But Wickenheiser was going to be a beauty, that’s for sure. In his three years with the WHL Regina Pats, the big guy had tallied 37 goals, then 32, and finally, in his final year, a whopping 89 goals and 81 assists. The Montreal Canadiens were rubbing their hands with glee.

The Habs could’ve gone with the slick Quebecois fan favourite Denis Savard, but he was small, and the sight of 6’1″, 196 pound Wickenheiser erased any other ideas from the Habs brass. It was going to be Wickenheiser, they said. And thoughts of a new Jean Beliveau swirled around their heads.

But for some reason, Wickenheiser struggled in Montreal. Not only wasn’t he the new Jean Beliveau, but he was also just another struggling player, totalling just 7, 12, 25, and then 5 goals in his four years in Montreal before being dealt to the St. Louis Blues. Fans longed for Denis Savard and couldn’t believe the massive mistake made by the Canadiens brass, especially head scout Ron Caron, who was promptly fired for this poor choice of a draft pick.

In the meantime, Savard, picked third by the Chicago Blackhawks, (flashy defenceman Dave Babych went second) lit it up nightly, and in his brilliant ten years in Chicago, averaged 31 goals a year, including three years where he popped 47, 40, and 44 goals. It was no contest. Everyon agreed Montreal should have chosen Savard, a fire-wagon sparkplug from Pointe-Gatineau, Quebec.

Wickenheiser moved on to St. Louis, and never lit it up there either. It was obvious he was one of many players who were big stars in junior, but found the NHL a completely different story. The player everyone thought was going to make it big eventually bounced around after leaving the Blues, from Vancouver to the Canadian National team to the minors, Europe, and a ten other stops in between. It was just another story in along list of hockey player stories. Most have short careers in too many different cities. The stars are the ones we hear about, the ones who are good enough and fortunate enough to have more than a half-dozen years or so in the bigs.

In retirement, everything was going great. Wickenheiser had opened a nursery and frozen custard business in St. Louis, and his wife Dianne was expecting. But then, only eight days from Dianne delivering twins, a cyst on Wickenheiser’s wrist proved to be cancerous. There was talk of amputation. But the tumor was successfully removed and he was able to hold his new twin girls. 

For three years, all was well for Doug Wickenheiser. All he had to was wait out that magic five-year period to be proclaimed cancer-free. It wasn’t to be. Doctors found he had a rare form of lung cancer, but Wickenheiser, showing true greatness, and kept his head held high.  “I know I’ve got it,” he said. “I know I’ve got to deal with it. It’s part of life. People get sick. People get disease. I really just try to stay positive and pray everything goes well. I think it’s really harder on my wife.”

“I don’t think they (the twins) really know what’s wrong,” he said. “But they have their own prayer every night. They say, “Baby Jesus, please help Daddy’s boo-boo get better.”

Doug Wickenheiser passed away on January 12, 1999. He was only 37.

An arena in his home town of Regina bears his name.