18 reasons to smile
Serge Savard drew high praise from his former coach Scotty Bowman.
MONTREAL - It's been almost 25 years since Serge Savard played his final game on the Canadiens blue line back in 1980-81. But judging from the standing ovation Savard received from the capacity crowd on his jersey retirement night, it was as though he never left.
"I didn't know what to expect,"said Savard, now the second Habs defenseman to have his number retired, following in the footsteps of Doug Harvey. "The reaction from the crowd was really special."
Always one to put his team first, Savard's teammates were who he found himself recalling most on his big night.
"All I could keep thinking about were my teammates, all of them," he said. "Especially the ones who don't often get the credit they deserve. All I know is, without their help, I never would have been able to win all of those Stanley Cups."
Savard was also grateful for the Canadiens organization for bestowing such an honor on the former Habs captain.
"I would like to thank Mr. Gillett and Mr. Boivin for making all of this possible," said Savard. "This isn't like a Stanley Cup that you win. This is something that is granted and something the team has given to me."
Savard still had trouble believing that his jersey will now forever hang alongside such Canadiens legends.
"To see myself up there next to Maurice Richard is just incredible, even though I would never even dream of comparing myself to him. I don't even come up to his ankles," admitted a humble Savard. "Retiring a jersey is always something major. But it's even more so here in Montreal. It just means more here than anywhere else."
Savard, who spent 28 years with the Habs organization as a player and then as general manager, stood misty-eyed as his No. 18 joined the franchise's elite high above the ice. The loud ovation from the crowd made life difficult for French master of ceremonies Richard Garneau, who had to restart his speech twice after his voice was drowned out by cheers for Savard. Joining longtime broadcasters Garneau and Dick Irvin to honor the Hall of Fame defenseman was legendary Habs coach Scotty Bowman.
The winningest coach in league history was not short on praise of his longtime blue line anchor.
"Serge was the kind of player that every coach wishes they could've had," said Bowman during the ceremony.
That being said, Bowman almost didn't get to coach Savard at the NHL level, after having guided him as the bench boss of the Junior Canadiens when Serge was only 17. Bowman's first NHL coaching opportunity pitted him against Savard and the mighty Canadiens, which as one would expect, wasn't much fun.
"I made a mistake by going to St. Louis," admitted Bowman candidly, who left to coach the Blues from 1967 though 1971 while Savard's rising star was beginning to soar. "Serge did, after all, beat me twice in the Stanley Cup Final!"
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If you can't beat 'em, join 'em and that's exactly what Scotty did after being swept in back-to-back Cup Finals by Savard and the Canadiens in 1968 and 1969. Things changed once Bowman took over behind the Habs bench in 1971-72, with he and Savard teaming up for five Stanley Cups to close out the decade, including four straight from 1976 through 1979.
Saku Koivu may have been only a toddler when Savard was regularly parading down Ste-Catherine street with the Stanley Cup in the '70s, but the Habs' captain has his own fond memories of the man who drafted him back in 1993.
"I never expected when I signed my first NHL contract with Serge that I would still be here or get the chance to be a part of a great moment like this," said Koivu. "I never get tired of these types of ceremonies. They're always so emotional and it's a really good feeling to be a part of it."
The evening's guest of honor was also understandably caught up in the moment.
"I have to admit, I was pretty nervous just before walking out," admitted Savard. "It reminded me of when I was playing because once I got out there, everything was fine and I was totally calm."
And just like most nights when Savard patrolled the Habs' blue line as a player, the Canadiens came away with the victory over the Thrashers on Saturday night.
Manny Almela is a writer for canadiens.com