In 1953, a seven-year-old Serge Savard pressed his ear up to the radio in his home in Landrienne, Que., listening to Jean Beliveau hit the ice as a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens.
"My dream was to play for the Montreal Canadiens. But I didn’t really believe it at the time," Savard reflected during an interview with Sportsnet on Wednesday from his home in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
Thirteen years later, it was Beliveau who welcomed Savard into the big leagues and a life in bleu, blanc, et rouge.
“Finally I went through the juniors and the first time that I’m invited to the training camp of the Montreal Canadiens, I walk in the dressing room and I run into Jean Beliveau, and he shook hands with me and he said, ‘Good luck, kid.’”
Maybe it was luck, but mostly it was his elite skill and formidable presence on the blue line that saw Savard go on to write his own Hall of Fame story — one that saw him win seven Stanley Cups with the Canadiens' dynasty, plus two more as the team's general manager, and represent Canada during the historic 1972 Summit Series.
Courtesy KO Éditions.
With the release of his new biography, Serge Savard: Forever Canadien, published in French last year and released in English earlier this week, Savard spoke with Sportsnet about his illustrious career, his thoughts on today’s Canadiens, and his cherished friendship with a fellow hockey legend in the late Dale Hawerchuk. Here is that conversation:
SPORTSNET: This isn’t your first book, but it’s certainly the most in-depth look into your life in hockey. What was the experience like, telling your story in this way?
SERGE SAVARD: You know, it’s always something that you have in mind when you have a professional career. I was asked for maybe the last 10, 15 years to write a book about my life, my career, and I always pushed that back. I didn’t really want to do it – at least, not then. And then one day my son, he says, ‘Dad, if you don’t do it I’ll do it.’ So, I thought it was time.
It was fun. A lot of work. You have to dig deep and go back to your youth, to your roots, which I really enjoyed. That’s the part I enjoyed the most. I went to my village, Landrienne, which is 400 miles northwest of Montreal – it’s halfway from Montreal to James Bay. So I went there with [biography author] Philippe Cantin for the 100th anniversary of my village. I got to see all the kids I played with — all my friends from when I was six years old, seven years old, eight, nine. Everybody was there. That was the best part of the book.
Clearly, hockey captured your heart right away in Landrienne. What was it about the game, and growing up where you did, that made you fall in love?
In my village … the winter was about five weeks longer than in Montreal. In those days, we didn’t have any arenas with artificial ice. It was all natural ice.
We played soccer in the summer and we used the same goals that we used in the winter to play hockey. But because the winter was a lot longer, we spent a lot of time on the ice…. We played 30 hours a week. We were always on the ice.
And we were happy. We were very, very happy.
When we look back at the 1970s Canadiens, you’d be hard-pressed to find a team more dominant. When you were part of it, in the moment, winning all these Stanley Cups, were you able to fully grasp just how special that team was?
That’s incredible memories and when I look back, I was so lucky. I was at the right place at the right time. When you look at the team we had in the ’70s, you couldn’t do that today with the salary cap. We had the best goalie, Ken Dryden. We had the top defencemen in the league. Our second line was the Mahovlich [brothers], you know? First line: Steve Shutt, 60 goals; LaFleur, 60 goals; Lemaire, 40 goals. Today, you couldn’t buy a team like that. I lived those moments, and that’s why I was so happy to write the book, for that reason.
I want to touch on that defence – particularly Montreal’s Big Three, with you, Guy LaPointe and Larry Robinson. What was it that made that defence core so formidable?
People don’t realize – you know, we beat the Flyers in 1976, they were very tough – we were not a tough team. We were a big team — we were bigger than the Flyers. If you look at Larry, he was 6-foot-4, I was 6-foot-3, Guy LaPointe 6-foot-2 and then [Bill] Nyrop was 6-2. Pierre Bouchard ... [Pete] Mahovlich — we had a big team. And that’s why we won. One of the reasons: nobody could drive us out of the ice.
Looking back at that Stanley Cup victory against the Flyers – is that, to you, the most significant of your Cup wins as a player?
Hockey, when I started in 1966–67, it was only six teams in the league. And we expand so quickly — we went from six to 12, 14, 16.... We didn’t have enough good players to expand that quickly. We had no Europeans, we had no Russians, and the Americans were just starting to produce good players at that time. Now it’s a very different picture of who plays in the National Hockey League.
When I started, it was one enforcer per team. We had John Ferguson, they had Teddy Green in Boston. In the ’70s, during the Philadelphia era, it was four enforcers per team. So if you want to play with them you had to have four enforcers because you couldn’t play with them.
It was a lot of fights, and I was against fighting. I don’t think it should be part of the game, and too many people thought that was part of the game. We’re the only sport in the world that still allows fights.
And then when we played the Flyers in ’76, they had won two Stanley Cups at that time. and for us, because we were big, we beat them in four games. After that series, I was so happy because we thought at that time we put an end to that type of hockey.
So it sounds like it clearly represented more than a Stanley Cup, in many ways.
I like Bobby Clarke — he became a close friend since we played together on Team Canada ’72. He doesn’t agree with me on those things, and he’s pretty upset when we say that was the best thing that ever happened to hockey [laughs].
If there’s one sporting event I wish I could go back in time and watch, it’s the 1972 Summit Series. It’s an honour to talk to you about it now. Of all the emotions and big moments and politics of that series, what stands out to you most now?
To me, it is the best experience that I had in my whole career. That was the first time that we put all of pro hockey together on the same team – they had the all-star team, but it was not the same thing, and pro hockey were never able to play in the Olympics. So we form the team and we start in Canada and we lost the first game and then we bounced back in Toronto and tied in Winnipeg and lost in Vancouver.
We were 1-2-1 going in Moscow and we lost the first one, so we had to win the last three – which we did. Us, as athletes, I don’t think an athlete can elevate themself, emotionally, as high as we did in 1972. We had our whole country. It was also a big political fight. We didn’t want that, but we were caught in the middle of that. You have, on one side, a communist country that wants to prove to the world that they have the best athlete and the best technique. And on our side, you have [Canadians] saying, “Hey, we invented that game — it’s not your game – and we’re the best at it.” We were in the middle of that. I remember receiving 10,000 telegrams – you know, the communication was not like it is today – we had telegrams, and we put them [up on] the wall. Telegrams!
The arena [in Moscow] hold about 10,000 people. We had 3,000 Canadians and those 3,000 made more noise than the 7,000 Russians. You know, when you look back, right behind our net sitting down there, was Mr. [Leonid] Brezhnev. Right behind.
For me, the only thing I didn’t do in my career, I didn’t play in the Olympics…. But that series, I would say, make up for an Olympics.
Dale Hawerchuk skates up the ice during the 1987 Canada Cup. (Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)
On a more personal note, I’d like to express my personal condolences to you, about the loss of Dale Hawerchuk. I understand you two were close, from your time with the Winnipeg Jets. You saw first-hand how special a player he was.
I came to Winnipeg in December ’81. That was Dale Hawerchuk’s rookie year — he was 18 years old, drafted first overall. There I go, I arrive at 35 years old, (and) he’s a young 18 years — he’s the captain.
So I bought a house, I moved my family there, and then Dale, he bought a house beside mine. And there were a couple kids living there, Scott Arniel … Brian Mullen was the other one … there were three guys living in that house. My daughter was only a year old, and they were always over at the house. We’d come back from a road trip, and those kids had nothing in the fridge, so my wife would cook a big spaghetti sauce and bring that to the house. It was fun. To do that at 35 years old was so different. I really enjoyed those years in Winnipeg.
The day, I’ll explain to you that day. My wife had esophagus cancer four years ago, was operated on three years ago, and she’s now free of cancer. [In August], we went to have a CAT scan … and driving back, about an hour after she had the CAT scan, the doctor called and said, “Mr. Savard, congratulations, your wife is free of cancer.” So we were so happy.
Five minutes later, my phone rings. I see: “Dale Hawerchuk.” He says, “Serge, I want to call you and I want to say goodbye.” He say, he was so close to us, my family, my kids and my wife. He says, “Say hello to your wife and hello to your kids, and I love you all.”
I don’t know if you’ll ever have a call like that in your life.
He starts to cry, and I start to cry. It’s not fair – he’s a young kid. But that’s the way it happens.
What an amazing bond you two shared.
In Winnipeg, the outdoor game, that was four years ago. I couldn’t play – I was too old [laughs]. But Dale calls me … and says, “Serge, I’d like you to come as an assistant coach.” So I went there and I spend three, four days there and we met all the players — all the old players that I played with came back. That was quite fun.
So we always stayed close. That’s life.
He was clearly a special person to you, and to hockey, and a big loss for the entire hockey community.
Yeah. He was.
Your time in Winnipeg was followed by a return to Montreal, as general manager. Looking at the team now, through the lens of both a former player and former GM, what do you think of the current trajectory of the team?
I’ll tell you what, I’m happy with what they did [this off-season], because I thought that our team was the smallest one in the league. The three or four players that they signed, they’re bigger players – you’re talking about [Josh] Anderson, who’s six-foot-three. So they got a little bit bigger. When you come into the playoffs, you look at the team that wins the Stanley Cup – the St. Louis Blues the year before, they were big. Not fighters, but they were big. They were strong. Tampa Bay, two years ago, got beat because of that. They got bigger last year [and] they won. They should’ve won the year before.
Do you ever wish you could just build a team today?
Ah, well. Too late [laughs]. But it was fun. I had my time. I really enjoyed doing that, to build a team. Because you can’t tell, the satisfaction that … sure, when you win as a player, it’s great. It’s different. You’re on the ice, you’re in the action. But when you sit down and you win the Cup as a manager, like the first time in ’86, I went by the board behind the bench — I didn’t go on the ice with the players. I was not in the picture with the players on the ice. But I was there and couldn’t move — I was just watching. The satisfaction that you get, of “I’m the one who put that on the ice with my staff.” That was a great satisfaction.