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Health and life after hockey both complicated for Marc Savard

I spoke to Marc Savard at length a few months ago about life after hockey, a career with the Bruins, health, and family. This is the story that developed, featured here as a guest post.

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These days, you’re more likely to find former NHL star Marc Savard playing in a professional golf tournament than in a professional hockey game. In the last few years, the 39-year-old has qualified for two events on the Mackenzie Tour – a feeder tour for the Tour comprised of some of the best young golfers on the planet. In the winters, he coaches his son Tyler’s AAA hockey team in Peterborough, Ont. From afar, it looks like Savard has life after hockey all figured out.

But Savard’s life after hockey shouldn’t have necessarily even started yet. Roughly five years after his last game, the long-time NHL veteran is still under contract with the New Jersey Devils. They acquired him as a throwaway piece in a deal with the Florida Panthers, who did the same in a trade with the Boston Bruins. Savard’s $575,000 salary complements his more than $4 million cap hit for a team like the Devils. He has never taken to the ice with their jersey on, and never will. The two-time NHL All-Star of more than 700 points has become disposable.

On the golf course, he doesn’t feel right. Professional tours require all of their golfers to walk but Savard usually doesn’t play 18 holes unless he’s driving a cart. It’s exhausting. When he reaches down to pick up his ball, he sees spots. The average age among Mackenzie Tour players is 27. Savard didn’t start playing golf until he entered the NHL at 20 – "It was kind of the thing to do when you didn't make the playoffs." At the beginning, he played left-handed before switching to his natural right. In Peterborough he can’t play year-round, too busy with his four children to travel or spend time down South. In one Mackenzie Tour event, he missed the cut. In the other, he withdrew. He’s in love with a new sport and he’s trying to compete again, but he’s ill equipped.

It hasn’t always been so hard though. As a hockey player, Savard was one of the NHL’s most gifted playmakers, defined by his ability to think and react. It would be easy to look back to March 7, 2010, and blame then-Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke for Savard’s ongoing post-concussion syndrome. It was, after all, Cooke who knocked Savard out with a blindside hit to the head, effectively ending his career. But as is often the case with head trauma, the damage was done much earlier. It started playing Junior B hockey for the Metcalfe Jets 17 years earlier, when Savard suffered the first of what he estimates is six concussions. At age 16, there’s no time to consider the consequences. Eventually, the concussion faded, and there’s an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft to focus on. Taken 28th overall by the Oshawa Generals, Savard went on to win the OHL scoring title, known as the Eddie Powers Trophy, in back-to-back years. Oh, and an OHL Championship and NHL draft mixed in there too too.

The budding star progressed quickly. In his first year of pro hockey he was named to the American Hockey League’s (AHL) All-Rookie Team. In his first full year in the NHL, he registered 45 points in 70 games with the Rangers. Life moves fast when you’re pursuing the top of the hockey world. The hits to the head are an afterthought. By the time Savard suffered his first concussion in the NHL, he was already playing on the first line with the Calgary Flames.

It was December 31, 2000 and the Flames were playing the Montreal Canadiens. Savard was off to the best start of his career, riding a hot streak that had seen him register 12 points in his previous nine games. He was 23 and one of the best young players in the world. He’d already registered another assist in the game, finding teammate Cory Stillman for a second period goal, when he was forced to leave the game and miss the next three. Just over a year later, now 24, the young playmaker was forced to miss the last 10 games of the 2001-02 season with his second concussion in the NHL.

A trade to the Atlanta Thrashers and 98 games later, when the concussion issues looked like they’d subsided and a nagging ankle injury became the focus, Savard suffered his third concussion in three years and missed another trio of games. So six years later, when the Cooke hit began a downward spiral, it wasn’t a single moment, or a single malicious shoulder to the head that set the events in motion.

"They all added up so that’s why I’m where I’m at today because I couldn’t afford to take another one," he says, sitting in his Peterborough home after going out for dinner with his family. Matt Cooke damaged an already fragile brain, not a healthy one. But no matter how ugly it got, Savard was determined to come back in 2010. He’d been through the recovery process before, and he’d come out of it. His Bruins team was playing out a dominant season, poised for a deep playoff run. It’s what he had worked his entire career towards. He had to be there. Only this time it was ugly. It wasn’t like the other blows to the head. He was different.

At its worst, Savard was unable to handle light and followed a different schedule than his family. He would sleep during the day and wake up in the evening when he could turn the lights off in the house and dim the brightness on his TV. He developed depression, grew anxious and irritable. Were it not for his wife Valerie – "she’s been incredible" – and his family, Savard says he wouldn’t have been able to get through it. Watching the hit was tough on his family. Eventually, he began to seek help and travelled to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) – the clinic that has handled the post-concussion recovery of Sidney Crosby and others. There, he was tested to his limits. "They basically test you through exhaustion," he recalls. It was at UPMC that he began to feel he was getting better and believed he was ready to return after missing the final 18 games of the 2009-10 regular season. He was frustrated when the team’s doctors kept him out of the first round of the playoffs against the Buffalo Sabres. He pushed them to let him play and was finally cleared to return for Game 1 of Boston’s second-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Then, in his first game in two months, as if it weren’t predictable, the two teams were tied 4-4 in overtime with Savard on the ice. The rest, in all its clichéd glory, is history. After a slapshot from team captain Zdeno Chara rebounded into the corner, defensemen Dennis Wideman pinched along the boards to leave a rolling, loose puck for Savard to blast over the shoulder of goaltender Brian Boucher. Next, pandemonium as Savard screamed and shook his fists, slamming his stick twice against the ice before throwing it into the air and jumping into the boards surrounded by his teammates, the crowd deafening.

"You can only imagine what he suffered daily having to recover from a concussion where sweat cannot get you back faster, you just have to be well," play-by-play man Mike "Doc" Emerick said on the broadcast that night. "Was he ever well at the right time, in overtime, was Savard?" But he wasn’t well. Even in that moment, something wasn’t right. The game was a lot for the returning Bruins centre, and he grew exhausted. In Game 4 of the series, after teammate and centre David Krejci broke his wrist and the Bruins and Flyers found themselves back in overtime, Savard played nearly 25 minutes, "and that kind of ruined me for the whole series." And with Savard, went the series, as the Bruins blew a three-game series lead for just the third time in NHL history and the first since the New York Islanders did it to the Penguins in 1975.

The Bruins never forced him to come back. They insisted on following the protocols. But he was coming back. "I wanted to get back and play, that’s the athlete in me." In the offseason, the issues Savard began to feel resurfacing against the Flyers grew worse. By the time training camp arrived, Savard still didn’t feel right and sat out the entire preseason before returning to see specialists. The transition, from the overtime winner to a complete restart a few months later, was tough. Just as he had the year before though, Savard was unwavering on coming back for the 2010-11 season – one that saw the Bruins go on to become Stanley Cup Champions. So he got back to work, and eventually returned. "It was all me, I wanted to come back, I went through all the proper protocols and I felt well enough to do so," he reiterates.

After working to get back, and continuing to push doctors, Savard was cleared to play on December 2. He’d last 52 days. On January 22, after he’d been signed to a new seven-year deal worth more than $28 million, it all came to an end against the Colorado Avalanche. Early in the second period, as Savard pursued a loose puck in the corner, Avalanche defensemen Matt Hunwick – his teammate with the Bruins for three years prior who was traded earlier that season to make room for the oft-injured centre’s massive new deal – drove Savard hard into the boards. As his head made contact with the glass, he collapsed, grabbing his head as his career came to an end just 25 games into his new contract. "This will be enough to activate Marc Savard when he is ready to play," said then-Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli of the Hunwick trade, not knowing that it would put into place a series of events that would deactivate Savard a couple of months later.

Today, as Marc returns to a different rink to coach Tyler’s Peterborough Petes minor hockey team, he recalls those events, and how they played out, forgetting pieces due to long-term memory loss. He remembers that it wasn’t one event, that it wasn’t just the Cooke hit. It may have forced the NHL to rewrite its rules when they couldn't suspend the on-the-edge Penguins winger, but it didn’t end his career. He remembers his conversations with staff, urging them to let him return in the 2010 playoffs and then again the following season. He knew, back then, even when he returned, that he had lost something. He couldn’t break down the play and make quick decisions on the ice like he used to. Losing what made him special was difficult. "It’s just something you wouldn't wish upon anybody," he says, pausing to take a breath. "It was a tough time in my life."

On a day-to-day basis, he does his best to avoid the anxiety that continues to creep in. He’s finally, half a decade later, working out again. He’s trying to stay positive. In the summers, golf helps fuel his competitive spirit and enables him to spend time with his kids on the course. Tyler has taken a liking to the sport. "He’s quite the golfer," the proud father says.

Moving forward, he’d like to coach in the OHL. He has even looked into purchasing an OHL franchise. Ideally, he’d like to own the Petes, but they’re one of the league’s last teams that are controlled by their local government and there are fears that someone will move them if they sell. When his kids are older, he might think about buying property in Florida to play golf on a senior tour -- the Mackenzie Tour is a big challenge.

For now, life in Peterborough is pretty good on most days. "It (the post-concussion syndrome) is nothing that will ever just, I don’t think, go away and there’s still little issues I deal with but it’s something I’ve learned to cope with, I guess you could say, and just keep going."