In his summertime search for a new head coach for the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, general manager Bill Bowler considered plenty of candidates before conducting one standout interview. It was with Marc Savard, the former NHL all-star.
If the 44-year-old Savard’s bench credentials weren’t exactly robust — he had coached his two sons in AAA youth hockey in Peterborough before spending the 2019-20 season as an assistant coach with the NHL’s St. Louis Blues — Bowler said he was particularly impressed by one aspect of his talk with Savard. In the course of a lengthy conversation, Savard made no mention of his playing days. Not that Bowler wasn’t fully aware of who he was talking to. But the GM considered it a good sign that Savard didn’t feel the need to lean on the fact that he had won an OHL championship with the Oshawa Generals while leading the league in scoring in 1996-97, or that, in Savard’s most productive four-year span as a playmaking centreman for the Boston Bruins, he racked up more assists than any NHLer not named Joe Thornton.
To Bowler, an East York native who sits fourth on the OHL’s all-time career scoring list, five spots ahead of Savard, long-ago stats simply aren’t a great indicator of coaching potential.
“If you’re still talking about when you played and how things were when you were a player, I don’t know if that will lead to any success as a hockey coach,” Bowler said. “But all Marc talked about was coaching. If you care about coaching and trying to learn a new craft as a coach, then I think you have a great chance to be successful.”
And so it came to be that Savard, an NHLer whose playing career came to one of hockey’s saddest endings, finds himself embarking this week on an exciting new beginning. As the OHL launches a long-awaited regular season on Thursday night — last season was scrapped due to COVID —Savard will be behind the bench for the Spitfires’ home opener against the Sarnia Sting. He’ll be making his junior head-coaching debut a little more than a decade after his pro playing career ended suddenly at age 33 after a series of concussions, perhaps none more impactful than the one resulting from the 2010 blindside hit delivered by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke. Cooke’s vicious elbow to Savard’s head, which led to neither a penalty on the play nor a suspension after the fact, is widely credited with spurring the NHL’s enacting of Rule 48, a crackdown on hits to the head that, while hardly flawless, has gone some distance to limit such predatory hits.
In the interim, Savard has acknowledged his struggles with various health issues — among them anxiety and short-term memory loss — while coming to grips with a career cut short.
As Savard told the Boston Globe back in 2016: “I’m 39. I still should be playing, right? I miss it. I was an intense player when I played. I just miss the competition.”
Another half-decade on, Savard says he’s healthy and better able to look at the brighter side of his on-ice misfortune. His early retirement, for instance, allowed him to coach his two sons during their formative years in Peterborough’s minor-hockey system — although this season he’ll have to coach against his youngest, 18-year-old Tyler, a member of the Soo Greyhounds, whom the Spitfires are scheduled to play eight times.
It’s allowed him, too, to dabble in the media, working for a time as a Sportsnet analyst on Maple Leafs pre- and post-game radio broadcasts.
And certainly it’s made Savard an instrumental figure in the evolution of the sport he loves.
“Everything happens for a reason. If that’s my legacy, Rule 48, then at least I left a little bit of a mark on the game,” Savard said in an interview this week. “Obviously I struggled a lot with (the effects of head trauma) back in the day, and I’ve been able to overcome it. But I’m glad the league has done something about it. I think (the rule) has made the game better. And I think they’re doing a great job with the player-safety stuff.”
If there’s lingering bitterness about a life altered by Cooke’s recklessness, Savard said he’s over it.
“I guess (Cooke) reached out to me on the night of (the hit), but obviously I wasn’t in the mood to talk. But there’s been nothing since then,” Savard said. “I think it’s gone now, whatever happened … It’s been so long, there’s not really any interest on my part in talking to him.”
Savard didn’t play for more than 10 months after the Cooke hit. And while he eventually made it back for 25 games of Boston’s 2010-11 regular season — the prelude to Boston’s most recent run to the Stanley Cup — his comeback ended during a January game in Denver, when he attempted to get up from a clean hit by Matt Hunwick and, with his eyes wide open, he saw nothing but darkness. It was his sixth documented concussion. And it was on that night, Savard has said, that he shed a tear in acknowledgment that his playing days were over.
“It’s a tough way to end your career, but there’s other things to life,” Savard said this week. “I’m trying to teach that to the (Spitfires), as well. If hockey isn’t your thing, there are other things that can work out … You’ve got to take it one day at a time and hopefully really enjoy it. You never know how long it’s going to last. I think I’m a good example of that.”
To that end, how long he’ll stay in junior is anyone’s guess. He said he’s grateful Bowler handed him the keys to a good team; in the Canadian Hockey League’s pre-season rankings the Spitfires claimed eighth spot, third in Ontario behind No. 4 Kingston and No. 5 Barrie. And Bowler said he is of the belief that Savard’s intention of being a self-described “players’ coach” with an open-door policy — albeit one who’ll borrow from the time-honoured defensive philosophies of the likes of Claude Julien, Savard’s coach in Boston — will be an asset to the club.
Said Bowler: “Players love being around people who’ve been there and done that, so long as they genuinely care about the athlete.”
Though he’s been there and done that, Savard said coaching junior hockey is precisely where he wants to be in the here and now, learning a new craft all these years after his old one was so abruptly taken away.
“Right now, coaching in junior hockey is my goal — not even getting to the NHL. I just want to kind of learn my craft and help these kids,” Savard said. “Right now, I don’t see myself as an NHL head coach, but I don’t see myself as an assistant, either. So I’ve got to learn here for a little bit, and then we’ll see what opportunities arise if everything goes the way I think it will. Who knows what the future holds?”
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