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Speed also saves: Savard streaks to 1,000th game

Published Oct. 6, 2005

If goals were judged for artistic merit, Denis Savard would have racked up many perfect 6.0's during his 14-year NHL career.

He razzled and dazzled with his spin-o-ramas. He blew by defensemen as if they were lampposts. He was the consummate showman.

Now the "Flying Frenchman" uses his speed more for backchecking than breakaways, and that's just fine with him as long as he is still playing.

"I'm not ready to retire," the 33-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning center said. "I still love to play too much. I'm still having fun."

Sunday, against the Oilers in Edmonton, he will become just the 95th player in the 77-year history of the league to play in 1,000 games.

As the games pile up, so do the points _ although at a much slower pace. He notched his 1,221st point Thursday, tying Peter Stastny for 17th on the NHL's all-time scoring list.

"Whew! That's a lot of games and a lot of points," said Lightning rookie Chris Gratton, who was 5 when Savard began his memorable NHL career.

It takes skill, determination and luck to last this long in a sport as physically grueling as hockey. It's an especially big feat for a little guy.

"I think he's 125 pounds soaking wet," former Montreal teammate Brian Skrudland said with a smile.

Actually, Savard has 175 pounds on his 5-foot-10 frame, although at times his weight has dipped to 155. Former teammate Denis Cyr explains Savard's durability this way: "He has incredible speed so most players couldn't catch him to check him. He's been able to avoid a lot of the rough stuff."

Rink rat goes to Chicago

Savard's story begins on Feb. 4, 1961, the day he was born in Pointe Gatineau, Quebec.

On that day, two other boys named Denis also were born. Eight years later, Denis Cyr, Denis Tremblay and Denis Savard were united on the same line of the same hockey team. The "Three Denis" became household names throughout the province of Quebec.

"Denis (Savard) was the rink rat," said Cyr, who played parts of six seasons in the NHL and now is general manager of the Peoria Rivermen of the International Hockey League. "Hockey, hockey, hockey. That's all he wanted to do and all he thought about."

Savard said that until he was 17 he didn't think he had a chance of making the NHL. He recalled: "My dad told me, "This is the year for you. You have to have a good year if you want to get drafted pretty high.' "

Savard did. He posted 181 points in 72 games for Montreal of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.

When it came draft time in 1980, the Montreal Canadiens' fans wanted the team to draft the home-grown star who could work magic with the puck. Oh, what an exciting team it would have been with Savard and Guy Lafleur.

But Montreal selected Doug Wickenheiser with the first pick overall. Dave Babych was picked second by Winnipeg and Savard went third to Chicago.

Savard showed Montreal's management what it was missing, scoring his first NHL goal in the Montreal Forum.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," he said. "It was a four against four. I picked up the puck just at the top of our circle. (Larry) Robinson was charging at me. I made one move and went around him. I passed through the neutral zone, Serge Savard was the defenseman. I went to the right and took a slap shot just inside the blue line and it went in. It wasn't a great shot, but it just hit the net and went past Denis Herron. We won 5-4."

"He likes to kid me about that goal," said Robinson, now an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils.

The judges would have given it only a 4.5 for artistic merit, but the marks would improve.

Since that goal, Savard has scored 489 more, including 58 in the playoffs (18th all-time). He has had 12 hat tricks and three 40-goal seasons and was an All-Star six times. There may be a place for him in the Hall of Fame one day.

During a six-hour delay in the Ottawa airport on New Year's Eve, a hockey highlight film was shown in a lobby. Several Lightning players watched. Savard's magic was displayed. "That's Savvy?" rookie Roman Hamrlik asked incredulously. "Real good."

A goal scored from his backhand while falling to the ground rated a 6.0 with Hamrlik.

"Someday' in Montreal

Savard's NHL career got off to a good start on the ice, with 28 goals and 47 assists for the Blackhawks. Savard had a chance to play, filling a void created by the retirement of one of his idols, Stan Mikita. But it was a tough year for Savard. He spent his first two months in the Bismark Hotel in Chicago, unable to speak English.

"I cried some nights; I wrote letters to my parents," he recalled. "I was lonely. But it made me grow up fast."

Teammate Keith Brown befriended Savard and offered him a place to live. Brown cooked and Savard did the dishes.

Savard played 10 years for the Blackhawks and did everything but lead them to the Stanley Cup. The team got to the conference championships five times but never won. "We came close, but we faced a lot of great teams _ especially the Edmonton Oilers," he said. "We just weren't as good as they were."

During his years in Chicago, Savard combined his love of horses and gambling and bought thoroughbreds and horses for harness racing. One horse he named Maybe Someday _ as in "maybe someday" winning the Stanley Cup.

For all Savard has accomplished, he said his career wasn't complete until he won the most coveted prize in hockey.

"Someday" came last June, three years after the Montreal fans finally got their home-grown star when the Canadiens traded Chris Chelios for Savard and a draft pick in 1990.

During the Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings, Montreal teammate Stephan Lebeau changed the names of his cats from Wayne and Janet (Gretzky) to Denis and Mona (Savard's wife). While the Great One was Lebeau's greatest idol, Lebeau also had idolized Savard as a youngster.

Savard broke his foot in the first game of the finals and missed the next four games. But when the Canadiens captured the Cup for the 24th time, his teammates picked him up and carried him on their shoulders around the ice.

"It was one of my greatest memories, seeing Denis finally win the Cup after all those years," Canadiens coach Jacques Demers said. "He's such a classy guy. He was hurt in the finals, but in Game 5, I asked him if he wanted to dress and I'd play him the odd shift. He was still hobbling and said it wouldn't be fair to the team. He's such a team player."

Lebeau renamed his cats Wayne and Janet, but Savard will always have his name on the Cup. And to further remind himself of the accomplishment, he was one of about 10 Canadiens who had a miniature Stanley Cup tatooed on his body.

"It has a CH (for Canadien Hockey) and my number on it," he said. "It's real nice."

Just like all those perfect 6.0 goals he has given hockey fans over the years.