Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Savard was one of the most exciting offensive players in NHL history, gambling on the ice with his instinctual moves in scoring 473 career goals with the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning.
He’s also a bit of a gambler away from the rink. Online poker used to be his game until playing it in the U.S. was made more difficult. At the casino, he’s a blackjack guy who also enjoys craps. “I think it’s a great game. But I haven’t been very lucky throwing the dice. That No. 7 for the players is not very good,” he said.
Hockey and gaming collided for Savard recently at the Horseshoe Casino, located 20 minutes from downtown Chicago. The casino introduced the “Blackhawks Blackjack Pit,” which is branded for the NHL team. Savard and fellow Blackhawks ambassador Bobby Hull hosted an event for Chicago Blackhawks Charities that raised $4,400.
Savard called it “good entertainment,” and he would know. We spoke with the former Chicago star and coach about his playing days, current NHLers and some infamy from his past:
Q. Obviously when you were a player, entertainment was at the forefront. Were any of your moves premeditated when you played, like the spin-o-rama?
SAVARD: No, it wasn’t. I was playing in a charity game yesterday. And even at 52 years old, I wanted to put it on for the people to see. But if you try it, it doesn’t always work. It has to be as a reaction. The first time I did it, it was just on instinct: a defenseman was coming at me in the middle of the ice, and I kind of spun out to get out of the way, and when I did I found myself on a breakaway and ended up scoring.
After that, of course, there’s a theory to it. If you see a defenseman cross his feet as you go left to right, then I was able to spin out the other way. It’s very difficult for defensemen, once you cross your feet, to recover from that. It’s almost impossible with the speed I was doing it. It worked. We have one of these guys now in Patrick Kane. I don’t think he forces it. He plays on instinct a lot.
Besides Kane, who are the other instinctual players in the NHL today? The Savard-like guys?
Pavel Datsyuk is a remarkable player. Great hands, great vision, does great things with the puck. Kane and Datsyuk are the top two. I know Sidney Crosby’s a great player, and does great things on the ice, but as far as looking to make plays, Datsyuk and Patrick Kane are the best two in the League.
How does it feel to be an innovator of moves? People would try to mimic what you did on the ice, especially younger players.
The first few times Patrick did it, I had a lot of texts from people. The first time he did it was against Dallas and he ended up scoring. I was the color analyst on TV that night, and I texted him ‘you have to probably pay some rights for that one.’
He said he would.
I haven’t seen the check yet.
You were a member of the 1993 Montreal Canadiens that defeated the Wayne Gretzky Kings. Was that vibe going into it? Gretzky vs. the Habs?
Having Wayne Gretzky and the LA Kings against the Montreal Canadiens in the Finals is probably what the League wanted. It was fun. But it’s funny how a series turns around on momentum. We were down 1-0, and in Game 2 we’re down 2-0 with three minutes to go and we call the illegal stick on Marty McSorley. We score two goals, and then Eric Desjardins completed the natural hat trick to win the game in overtime. From then on, we just took over.
As a player and a coach, how do you look back at the illegal stick thing? Is there a part of you that’s like “beat’em on the ice” rather than going for something like that to help the team win?
Well, if you can break the rules … it’s like hoping the ref doesn’t see it, and it works, then that’s how it is. Catching sticks isn’t the best way to win a championship game. But if you break the rules you pay the price, and that’s what happened with LA.
But believe me: I don’t know, today, but there were plenty of guys in my day that would have been caught with an illegal stick. And I was one of them. My stick was just a little bit off. If they called me out for it, I would have been penalized.
You were a member of the second year of the Tampa Bay Lightning. For all the talk about the NHL Stadium Series, you actually played one of the first NHL games in a stadium: The Thunderdome against the Flyers.
That, I remember. The League does such a great job promoting the outdoor games now, and we had an indoor one back then. It’s such a big facility, but it felt like you were in a big hockey rink.
Phil and Tony Esposito were the bosses. I played with Tony for four years in Chicago. I think Tony was the one that got me there. I signed a free agent contract after the Montreal Cup – 11 of us left that team. I don’t know if it was the best decision, going from the Cup to an expansion team, but I enjoyed the experience.
When you play hockey, you don’t have much time to enjoy the weather, but I liked Tampa.
Let’s talk about your coaching career, and specifically, the end of it with the Chicago Blackhawks. You were fired three games into the 2008 season. Were you blindsided by that?
Like any business, you have to be successful. You have to win. Especially in hockey. We were 0-3, and that wasn’t the start we expected.
Hey, they made a good decision, let’s face it. I know I was a good coach. And Joel came on board and won two Cups.
But I’m happy where I’m at. Still on board with Chicago as an ambassador. Life is good.
I’m done with coaching. I’ve been out of the game six years already. Once you’re coaching and you’re into it, you’re into the systems and how the teams play. Once you get out of it … of course I know hockey, but it’s changed since when I was coach. The defensive systems are different. I know what they’re doing, but it’s different than when I was coaching.
Did you ever have the Gretzky problem as coach? Looking at guys and just not being able to understand why they couldn’t do a certain thing?
I didn’t. I didn’t look at that. The key things I always asked my guys: I expect you to give me effort, and I’m hoping that the gameplan I give you, you follow it to a ‘T’. Some guys would do it, and some guys wouldn’t. It’s like being a salesman: You have to sell what it is you have, and hopefully they follow it and buy into it.
Finally: Who ends up doing better at the poker table, you or Bobby Hull?
[Laughs] I think we’re supposed to both be dealing tonight. One thing’s for sure: I’m gonna deal a lot more hands than Bobby will. He’s a great guy for telling stories. He’ll have told about five or six before the next hand goes out.