‘I still should be playing’
Five years ago, Marc Savard’s pro hockey career ended following his sixth concussion. His recovery is ongoing, but he has found a new place in the game.
By Stan Grossfeld | Globe Staff
PETERBOROUGH, Ontario — It ended with a jarring but clean check into the glass delivered by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Matt Hunwick in Denver nearly six years ago. Marc Savard’s head snapped back and he crumpled to the ice, his hands over his face.
“I got down on my knees there and I just saw pitch black with my eyes open,” said Savard, an All-Star center for two of his five seasons with the Bruins (2006-11). “And I can remember Donny [trainer Don DelNegro] coming out.
“I said, ‘Donny, I don’t know what’s wrong here, but I’m dying. I can’t see anything.’ And my eyes were open, so I was quite scared there.”
Savard, who had already missed the first 23 games of that 2010-11 season with postconcussion syndrome, struggled to his feet. He clutched a towel to his face as teammates, including captain Zdeno Chara, guided him off the ice. Players on the Bruins bench tapped their sticks against the boards in support.
It was the sixth concussion of Savard’s career, and it came just 10 months after the one he suffered as a result of a blind-side hit to the head by Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke.
After the hit in Denver on Jan. 22, 2011, Savard never played hockey again.
“I remember going into the room and shedding a tear there because it had been a long battle, you know,’’ said Savard, who played a total of 13 years in the NHL and was finished at age 33. “And it just wasn’t getting anywhere, and that’s when I knew.”
His brain had been jarred one too many times.
“I saw probably 10 doctors, and nine of them said it ain’t worth it,’’ he said. “So it ain’t worth it. And that was it.”
Savard went from being a jovial, point-a-game playmaker to a broken man in great pain. He had headaches, memory loss, vision problems, dizziness, exhaustion, anxiety, and worst of all, depression.
According to Savard, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital once rated him as suicidal, although he says he never had actual suicidal thoughts.
He knows people look at him differently after his multiple concussions and doctors don’t have all the answers.
“People don’t understand it,” he said. “That’s what makes it tough.”
But the smile is coming back.
“Getting better,” said Savard, who is now 39 and head coach of the Peterborough Minor Bantam AAA Petes and proud father of 13-year-old forward Tyler Savard, who like his father wears No. 91.
Savard still has health issues — anxiety and short-term memory loss — but he’s back in the game he loves.
“I feel pretty good,” he said.
He’s also counting his blessings.
“The good thing is that I’m helping kids today — earlier than I should have — get better at the game that gave me everything I have.”
Having fun again
On game day, while most everybody else enters the Evinrude Centre through the double-decker doors in the front of the building, Marc Savard slips in quietly via the back door used by the Zamboni operator.
“He doesn’t want to talk to the parents,” said one father of a Petes player. “He just wants to be with the kids.”
He doesn’t want to relive the 207 goals or 706 points he scored in the NHL with the Rangers, Flames, Thrashers, and Bruins.
Savard is dressed in a Petes black fleece and a shirt and tie open at the collar. He’s friendly and relaxed in the coach’s room 90 minutes before the game.
He acknowledges that he has been ducking interview requests.
“There was a couple of years there where I kind of went off the radar,” he said, “but it was only because I wanted to get my health back and get everything straightened out.”
He is still under contract with the New Jersey Devils — the remnants of a seven-year, $28 million deal he signed with the Bruins on Dec. 1, 2009. It allows the Devils a $4 million cap hit for only $575,000. But he’s a Devil in name only, placed on the long-term injured reserve list.
Savard gives the Bruins high grades for how they treated him throughout his personal nightmare. They never once pressured him to return.
“The Bruins were fabulous with me,’’ he said. “They were the ones that told me at the end of the day, I think you’ve had enough. [Former general manager] Peter [Chiarelli] and [coach] Claude [Julien]. It was a group decision.”
“To me, it was a concern for his life more than it was for his career,’’ said Julien. “I used to have chats with him about that. It’s encouraging that he’s back doing what he loves doing.”
‘Just doing this [coaching] has been a breath of fresh air for me. Whether it’s around the coaching staff or these kids, it’s great to get out and joke and have some fun and compete.’
In Savard’s final season of 2010-11, the Bruins went on to win the Stanley Cup, clinching it without him in Vancouver in June. Savard said it was difficult being a spectator.
“Just not to be able to be on the ice with the guys, knowing that I could contribute, was probably the toughest thing,’’ he said.
He watched some playoff games in person in Boston but could not handle the long flight to the West Coast. “I brought my kids to a couple of playoff games,’’ he said. “It was tough not to be out there with them.’’
The Bruins petitioned the NHL — successfully — to get Savard’s name etched on the Cup. They gave him a ring, and the trainers helped him onto a Duck Boat for the victory parade. He wore sunglasses because of his sensitivity to light. But it was a great day. He felt the love of Bruins fans.
“Oh yeah, I did, and they were great,” he said.
He said he’s having fun again, even while meticulously taping the kids’ hockey sticks, his tongue sticking out like Michael Jordan.
“Just doing this [coaching] has been a breath of fresh air for me,’’ he said. “Whether it’s around the coaching staff or these kids, it’s great to get out and joke and have some fun and compete.’’
Before the game, Savard scribbles notes on a Bruins lineup sheet given to him by Julien.
“I can’t say it enough,” he writes. “No passengers. Everyone pulling on the rope.”
The notes are cheat sheets for his short-term memory loss.
He credits his wife Valerie with being “phenomenal” in his recovery.
“If there’s a 7 o’clock practice,” he said, “I probably ask her several times a day, ‘Is it 7 o’clock?’ Just to double check.”
But that’s better than having panic attacks, when he thought he was dying and his wife had to calm him down. He’d stand in front of the TV, watching the game he once starred at, just trying to do one simple thing.
Medication has eliminated the panic attacks, but he still has some anxiety issues.
“A lot of stuff that I never dealt with before I wound up getting from all [the concussions],” he said.
But lately there has been plenty of good news.
Last month, the Oshawa Generals, his old junior hockey team, retired his No. 27. For Savard, it was a three-hanky night.
“I didn’t think I would get emotional practicing my speech at home, but as soon as I got out there, I cracked up,” he said. “It was a great night, something I’ll never forget, and thank the Lord I had all my family and friends there. It was special.”
Fateful blow in Pittsburgh
Bryan Boyes, the longtime Generals athletic trainer, has known Savard since he was a teenager. He supervised him in high school, when Savard also was a co-op student with the Generals. The young Savard was ordering hockey sticks, meeting with Bauer representatives, learning the business.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person here that loved hockey as much as he did,’’ said Boyes. “He just loved doing that.’’
As a Bruin, Savard would call Boyes from the road to chat. But that stopped after Savard got concussed. When Boyes ran into him in Peterborough, the smile was still there but Savard was quiet.
“I don’t think he was very well for a couple of years, and it played a part in his whole lifestyle,” said Boyes. “Seeing him here the night they retired his jersey, he was his old self again and very happy.’’
Savard remains the Generals’ all-time scoring leader, his 413 points in 238 games surpassing even Bobby Orr and a new member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Eric Lindros, both of whom also have their Generals numbers hanging from the rafters.
Like Savard, Lindros was out of the NHL before age 35 because of concussions.
The beginning of the end for Savard came in Pittsburgh on March 7, 2010, when he was blindsided by Cooke, deliberately smashed on the side of his head by a stiff shoulder. Savard remembers it, sort of.
“Like everybody else, I see it in the video,’’ he said. “When it happened, I was out for 29 seconds. Straight. Cold.
“I remember going off on the stretcher and I remember thinking, ‘My kids are probably watching and they were probably worried,’ so I just gave a little wave that was to let them know that I’m OK.”
But he wasn’t.
“That’s the main one, because I never felt like that in my life,’’ he said. “I’ve had concussions; I remember in Calgary I slept for a week straight. But the one from Cooke was a nightmare. I went through a lot of dark days there. For a good three months I was a zombie.
“I was living in a backward kind of world. I was sleeping from 5 a.m. till 10 p.m. or midnight and kind of getting up in the nighttime, and I was very irritable, unbelievably irritable. Didn’t want to talk to anybody. I was alienating people that were trying to help. It was a tough time.”
Cooke called him after the game.
“I wasn’t in any mood to talk to him that night, so I never talked to him,” said Savard. “I never heard from him.”
There was no penalty called on Cooke for the hit. And Savard was frustrated when Colin Campbell, the NHL’s vice president of hockey operations, didn’t suspend Cooke. He was later surprised that Campbell called him a “fake artist” in an email that became public.
Campbell was Savard’s first NHL coach with the Rangers in 1997-98.
“I’ll take the high road,” said Savard when asked about Campbell. “He gave me my first opportunity to some degree. I don’t know where he gets all his hatred from because I played hard for him when I played for him. I don’t get it, to be honest.”
But the Cooke hit was instrumental in the NHL outlawing blind-side hits. Now there are automatic penalties and ejections.
“That’s a winning situation for the rest of the players in our league,” said Savard, “so in a roundabout way and a tough way, I’m glad I can help out the league.”
The hit didn’t knock Savard out of the game for good. He returned after missing the last 18 games of that regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
“I had been through a lot and it was an opportunity to battle that inner demon,’’ he said. “You’re not ready, but I wanted to play.”
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia, Savard netted the game-winner in overtime. It was his own Miracle on Ice.
“The Philly goal was huge,’’ he said. “Huge because personally for what I went through all those months and then to get back on the ice for my first game and be able to score in OT was actually very, very special.”
But after teammate David Krejci broke his wrist in Game 3, Savard faded from pure exhaustion.
“I was out there all the time and I was done,” he said.
The Bruins won the first three games of the series, then lost the last four and were eliminated.
From then on, Savard’s playing days were numbered. He started the 2010-11 season on injured reserve. Then in January, Hunwick — who was a Bruins defenseman on the ice when Cooke freight-trained Savard — delivered the final shot.
Missed in Boston
Back in Boston, at Warrior Ice Arena, Zdeno Chara remembers Savard’s last agonizing moments on the ice.
“It’s the worst,’’ said the Bruins captain. “Obviously he couldn’t see, he couldn’t get his balance. I saw him in the shower shortly after the game and he was just struggling.
“It’s very sad. It’s very unfortunate. You feel bad obviously, you feel for the [team’s] loss and we miss him. We miss him in the locker room still today.”
Chara, like legions of Bruins faithful, misses Savard’s velvety hands, the way he ran the power play and the way he made pinpoint passes.
“Some of the stuff he did, you were like, ‘Wow!’ ” said Chara. “There’s only a handful of guys in the league who can do that.”
Patrice Bergeron agrees.
“I miss his talent,” said Bergeron, describing Savard’s no-look, behind-the-back passes that were somehow right on target.
Plus, everybody misses his sense of humor.
“He was a fun guy to be around,” said Bergeron.
But Bergeron, who has suffered four concussions, understands Savard’s plunge into darkness more than most.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “You’re second guessing everything that you’re going through and wondering if you are going to come out of it.”
Savard had his day with the Stanley Cup on Aug. 1, 2011, in his hometown of Peterborough. His son Tyler turned the trophy into a cereal bowl and ate Froot Loops from it. Savard brought the Cup to his local golf club, where fans lined up to pose for pictures with him.
Savard loves golf and has won several local tournaments. He hopes to play in the senior pro circuit after his four children get older. Chipping and putting are his forte.
“What golf has done for me the most is when I get out there for the four hours,’’ he said. “When I’m out there, I’m able to just clear my head.
“It’s a different kind of feeling because you’re all by yourself, it’s all on you . . . but it’s not the same as being around all the guys.”
The Petes love him, even though he makes the players wear ties for travel to both home and away games. He buys them pizzas when they play well and he tells them the biggest sin in the world is unused ice time.
“He’s a great coach and teacher,” said Petes player Evan Brault. “He doesn’t yell, he jokes around a lot and tells us a lot of NHL stories.”
“Yelling is not going to do anything there,” said Savard. “It’s just like the NHL: You take a night off, and you’re going to get beat.”
Studying the effects
The Petes’ uniforms have patches on the back that say “STOP,” a reminder to avoid hits from behind. Savard would like to see the lookup line — an orange warning track on the ice in front of the boards — tested in junior hockey before being implemented in the NHL.
He has decided to let his two boys decide for themselves whether they want to play hockey. Eldest son Zachary played AAA hockey, quit, and is playing again in high school. But Tyler recently got picked to play at a higher level. Savard said he had butterflies watching him.
He doesn’t really talk concussions with them. “I don’t want to scare them,” he said.
“I’ve always told them from Day 1, you don’t have to play hockey because I did. [But] I don’t discourage it. Hockey has given me everything in my life that I have, so it would be tough for me to do that.”
Tyler knows what happened to his father. He has seen the videos.
“But if you worry about getting hurt, you’re going to get hurt,” said Tyler. “I like to hit.”
When Savard puts on skates for practice, he always wears a helmet, per doctor’s orders.
He has decided to donate his brain to science so it can be studied for the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease that has affected hockey players, football players, and wrestlers who have suffered repeated head trauma.
Savard is a board member of the Canadian Concussion Centre headed by brain injury expert Dr. Charles Tator of Toronto Western Hospital. His friend and former NHL teammate Steve Montador, who also suffered multiple concussions, died at age 35 in 2015 and had his brain donated to the Centre. Tests confirmed Montador had extensive CTE damage.
“That was tough,” said Savard.
Tator, in a telephone interview, could not discuss Savard’s case but said that postconcussion syndrome does not necessarily lead to CTE.
“We do see people recovering from postconcussion syndrome,” he said. “We’ve seen total recovery. It can take years.”
Savard said he would love to coach in the Ontario Hockey League but not the NHL, although he won’t rule it out.
“We’ll see,” he said. “ I don’t want to cut off any lines now.”
His Devils contract expires at the end of this season.