Suspend your disbelief for a moment and imagine this, if you can. While struggling mightily as a third-year NHL player with the Vancouver Canucks and on the precipice of becoming a bust, Cam Neely is dealt, not to the Boston Bruins, but to their hated rival, the Montreal Canadiens during the 1985-86 season. Just think about that for a minute and how so much would have been so different if that had happened. Mind blown, right?
Now you have to know that this is actually not just some sort of fantasy. It came very, very close to happening, according to the man who was at the center of the trade talks. In his recently released authorized biography, Serge Savard – Forever Canadien, the Habs legend detailed how he had a deal in ’85-86 with the Canucks that would have had the future Hall of Famer in a Canadiens uniform in exchange for the very workmanlike and unspectacular Mike McPhee. Savard balked on the deal and Neely was dealt to the Bruins that summer for Barry Pederson in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL history. (It turns out the McPhee traded probably would have worked out better for Vancouver, but would have been larceny nonetheless.)
“I was scared to death because I was a young manager,” Savard told TheHockeyNews.com. “I went to Vancouver and Tom Watt was the coach and he was my coach in Winnipeg so I knew him very well. And (Watt) was in love with McPhee. (Neely) was a young player and he wasn’t playing well and I knew McPhee was a pretty good player who would give me character. Not a lot of goals, but I kept him because I didn’t have the guts to make that trade.”
Or how about this? According to Savard’s book, Patrick Roy’s controversial last game as a Canadien on Dec. 2, 1995, an 11-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in which Roy told Canadiens president, “It’s my last game in Montreal,” may have been the tipping point for him to be dealt, but Savard had already made up his mind that Roy was going to be traded. In fact, he was deep into talks with Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix on a Roy trade when he was fired by the Canadiens four games into the 1995-96 season. And instead of getting fleeced on the deal, Savard was putting together a trade that would have netted the Canadiens power forward Owen Nolan and goalie Stephane Fiset, the former of whom was dealt to San Jose by the Avalanche nine days after Savard was fired by the Canadiens.
In the first pages of the book, Savard promises not to hold anything back and he doesn’t do that in the next 450-plus pages. Savard puts it all out there, literally from his birth at 14 pounds (14 pounds!) and his childhood in Landrienne in Quebec’s Abitibi region to his unlikely ascension to the NHL, the early troubles that preceded a brilliant career before going on to NHL management and all kinds of success in business. The book, written by longtime Quebec sports columnist Philippe Cantin, has already sold more than 35,000 copies in French and has recently been released in English.
There is, of course, a long list of players who have won multiple Stanley Cups. And there’s another of GMs who have done it. But the list of those who have done both is actually quite small. Since the NHL formed in 1917-18, only Jack Adams, Eddie Gerard, Lester Patrick, Milt Schmidt, Bob Gainey, Brian MacLellan and Savard have won in both roles. And as a player, nobody did it more than Savard, who won a mind-boggling eight Cups in 15 years with the Canadiens. The two he won as a GM with the Canadiens in 1986 and ’93, coincidentally, are the most recent by the storied organization. As a player, Savard almost missed out on being a Canadien, being invited to a junior camp only after the Canadiens forgot that they had not told him to bother not showing up. And as a GM, he stepped into the job just weeks after playing his last playoff game with the Winnipeg Jets. But in both his roles, he rose to the top of his profession and, when you combine his contribution to the Canadiens as a player and executive, is one of the most important figures in the history of the organization.
But it wasn’t just that he won with the Canadiens. It was also how he did it. When he took over the hockey operations in 1983, the Canadiens were in a fierce battle with the Quebec Nordiques in a rivalry that competed for the hearts and minds of Quebec hockey fans. The Nordiques never did win a Stanley Cup and ultimately left the province, while Savard led the Canadiens to the promise land twice. And he did it by ensuring the Canadiens drafted Quebec-born players, such as Roy, Stephane Richer, Claude Lemieux, Eric Desjardins, Patrice Brisebois, Benoit Brunet, Gilbert Dionne and Donald Dufresne. He supplemented that with trades for the likes of Vincent Damphousse and Jean-Jacques Daigneault and signing Quebec-born free agents such as Stephane Lebeau, Jesse Belanger and Mario Roberge. Savard said he always strived to have the Canadiens roster made up the same way it was when he played, with roughly half of it made up of Quebec players. His 1994 draft, in which he got Petr Svoboda, Shayne Corson, Richer and Roy in the first three rounds, is regarded as one of the single-best drafts in NHL history.
“I wanted guys who would spend the summer in Montreal,” Savard said. “When I played and we lost in the playoffs, people would ask, ‘What happened? Are you going to win the Cup next year?’ To me, that was really important because that’s the way I grew up with the Canadiens organization.”
To be sure, Savard’s tenure with the Canadiens both as a player and executive harkens back to a better and, obviously, far more successful time for the franchise. And not only because he’s been part of the last 10 Stanley Cups the Canadiens have won. According to Savard, the Canadiens have put less of an emphasis on making their former players feel comfortable and he sometimes feels like an outcast in the organization. Savard said an ownership group headed by him stepped aside when a consortium headed by the Molson family made clear its intention to purchase the Canadiens in 2009. When current team president Geoff Molson recruited Savard to find a new GM for the team that resulted in the hiring of Marc Bergevin, he claims in the book that Molson also offered him an unspecified job that never materialized. One of the most damning quotes comes in the final pages of the book when Savard says, “But today, and I say this with some disappointment, I sometimes get a strange feeling: that my loyalty to the Molsons was stronger than their loyalty to me.”
“That’s exactly how I feel,” Savard said. “I’m not saying that they’re enemies. I don’t really have bad feelings (toward the Molsons). They’re friends. But that hurt me a little bit. That’s why I (said) it.”