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Marc Savard, a game in January and the beginning of a life of loving hockey

Sometimes, it takes just one player to start a life of hockey fandom. For this writer, Marc Savard was that player.

Boston Bruins v Atlanta Thrashers Photo by Scott Cunningham/NHLI via Getty Images

When Marc Savard formally announced his retirement earlier this week, a small piece of my love for hockey died.

This is going to get a little personal, sorry.

On January 1, 2009, I turned 23 years old and my father took me to my first NHL game. Up to that point, I had only ever watched hockey in passing or by accident. My rugby team in college had gone to a few Boston University games to support our fellow athletes but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I took an interest in the NHL.

Working at the Boston Herald as their website editor meant slow early evenings until copy began rolling in around 8 or 9 PM, which was a prime opportunity to fall head over heels for a new sport.

(It also didn’t hurt that my roommate decided to become a Montreal fan around this time. I had to do my Boston duty and counter her fandom, obviously!)

So, I’d only been a fan for a few months before my first game. I remember everything about that game vividly. It’s silly but I was mostly excited to follow my dad through the motions of a Bruins game experience. He’d described things like the smells and sounds, but the description was nothing like the experience itself; from the guys standing ankles-deep in slush outside scalping tickets, in through North Station where the smells of Dunkin Donuts assault your senses immediately before going in, scanning our tickets, and filing down to the glass to find space to watch warmups.

As I walked down the cement stairs, I remember the very specific feeling of heart-clenching excitement that accompanied that first rush of music and lights as the players skated out for warmups, and I found myself picking out and identifying the players I recognized from a few months of watching TV. Phil Kessel was growing on me hard at the time, as was Blake Wheeler; I used my crappy little camera to take terrible pictures of both of them. Half the players seemed larger in person, and half seemed tiny. Savard and Vladimir Sobotka were two whose height struck me; I was just as tall as these guys! Turned out, the two of them would make the biggest impact on me as a fan later that night.

“Watch Savard along the boards,” my hockey-playing dad pointed out in the middle of the first period, with the Bruins on a power play and I did - true enough, he made an amazing pass to Dennis Wideman, who dished it to P.J. Axelsson to make the score 2-1. My interest piqued, and I tried to follow him on the ice for the rest of the game; it’s hard, as a newbie, to keep track of lines and who’s on the ice at what time, and though I at one point got sidetracked by Sobotka absolutely freight-training the much larger Jordan Staal, I came out of that game with a very wide-eyed appreciation for what Marc Savard could do.

A very short fall down a YouTube hole only exacerbated things. There’s a series of videos that came out around this time on Hockeybuzz, and another from NESN, in which the Bruins were asked dumb questions about pop culture and life in general, and Savard’s answers were all pretty excellent - at one point a question about hockey nicknames comes up, and he reveals that he used to call Eric Lindros “Lin-dork” so when Craig Berube came to Calgary from Philly he started calling Savard “Sav-dork.”

He was absolutely my favorite, no question. And that was before the “Bruins Hockey Rules” commercial, which is hilarious in its own right:

And truly, that was all she wrote. I immediately found tickets for games in Montreal and New York City for the coming months; my Habs-loving roommate became my hockey partner in crime. My next home game was February 28th, against the Capitals; I met my future girlfriend at that game. She and I dated for six months, attended several playoff games and AHL games, and I kept traveling for further and more hockey events; the NHL draft in Montreal, where I met my first slew of hockey Twitter friends, a game in Phoenix after I moved to Colorado for grad school and subsequently got dumped, games in Chicago and Buffalo and Washington and New York. My favorites were all clever playmaking centers; watching Savard quarterback the power play for that team was like watching some sort of wizardry.

He finished that season, his last full NHL season, with a team-leading 88 points, having played in all 82 games. It’s been ten years, and despite the Cup season and several successful runs, no Bruins player has touched that number since.

Which brings us, unfortunately, to the 2009-2010 season.

After the glory of 2008-2009, 2009-2010 could have been a season we just laughed off as forgettable, if not for three very specific things: the Marco Sturm overtime GWG at the Fenway Winter Classic, the Philly playoff series, and Matt Cooke.

I’m not going to go too in-depth about the hit. You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. You can Google it if this somehow isn’t true for you. Thinking about it still sucks; it’s another hockey instance where I remember exactly where I was — curled up on gif goddess @myregularface’s couch on a Sunday afternoon, petting her cat, thinking about nothing except enjoying a lazy Sunday with friends. And for about 54 minutes, the game was fine - just 1-1 nonsense against the Penguins, until Cooke got his elbow up.

The subsequent press conferences and updates were heartbreaking.

Savard returned for an epic moment - the game 1 OT GWG against the Flyers that we hoped would set the tone for the series (hahahahaha, I know, I know.) I remember screaming so loudly about that goal that my father, who was outside mowing the lawn, actually ran inside to make sure I hadn’t accidentally murdered myself somehow.

The beginning of 2010-2011 was promising. The Bruins had a spark to them that was unfamiliar; they all stuck up for each other, and they spread the scoring out; every line could get the puck to the back of the net. Every line had at least some modicum of skill, and that wasn’t common in the NHL quite yet; fourth lines league wide were still dotted with enforcers and tough guys.

Savard returned, and wasn’t quite scoring at his usual pace, but this was a team that would eventually have four 20+ goal scorers on it, so I don’t recall there being too much concern. Rather than that, I poignantly remember this particular game:

In the video, you’ll see Andrew Ference hit Freddy Meyer after Meyer high-hits Milan Lucic, prompting an all-out brawl - including Marc Savard valiantly trying to beat the stuffing out of Bryan Little.

Here’s a quote from Andrew Ference from that night:

”I was right behind [Meyer], I saw it really clearly, it wasn’t a clean hit at all,” said Ference, who dropped the gloves and punched Meyer, prompting an all-out brawl in the light of 2008’s Bruins-Stars game.

”When you’ve got tough guys like Savvy out there, you never know what could happen. It’s true!“ said Ference. “He likes to talk about that Dallas game a while ago, so he was itching to was fun.”

Say what you will about fighting in the NHL, but it really did seem like in the aftermath of Cooke’s hit, the team made a concerted effort to stick up for each other in cases like this - even if they did go a little overboard.

Savard was a great player to talk to, as well. He was one of the players I always had the easiest time asking questions to as a journalist without feeling like I had my foot all the way in my mouth. Although his answers were always peppered with the usual hockey clichés like any other player, I always felt like he actually answered questions thoughtfully, which was great.

Less than a month later, Matt Hunwick crushed Savard into the boards in a game against Colorado, and Savard’s career ended on terms that weren’t his own. There was never much hope afterward, not like the time before; everyone just sort of resigned ourselves to the fact that that he was going to become just an LTIR contract.

The Bruins’ power play became a running joke; whenever I think about the complete picture of the Cup season, I always go back and read this article from Doug Flynn, specifically this quote:

Julien joked that after he asked for advice to help the power play, his inbox has been flooded with pointers.

“I’ve been texting back and forth with Marc, no doubt,” Julien said. “There’s always, for me personally, there’s the player and then there’s the individual. I care for him as an individual and really hope that he gets better, for the sake of his personal life. I’ve been texting to see how he’s doing and every once in a while I’ve said. ‘I thought you were going to text me to give me some tips on certain parts of our game?’ As soon as I opened that door he took advantage of it. So I’ve gotten a few tips from him.”

Something must have worked; the Bruins eventually snapped their streak of 25 power plays without a goal, and a Cup followed.

In September of 2011, the Bruins’ Stanley Cup engraving was finished, and a photo of it circulated online. I was in St. Louis when it was posted, three sheets to the wind in the back of my friend’s car, fresh off a job interview and a great vacation. Honestly, bless all my Blues fan friends; they’re saints for putting up with me drunkenly crying my face off because there it was:

My favorite player’s name on the Stanley Cup.

Between Marc Savard and Chris Pronger and Andy MacDonald and Paul Kariya, among others, head hits have removed far too many players from the game far too early. We’ve seen star players with years of potential in front of them, years of goals and assists and incredible playmaking laid out by irresponsible elbows and shoulders tossed where they’re not supposed to go; while I’m glad players are now penalized for targeting the head, whether intentionally or unintentionally, it doesn’t bring those players back. It doesn’t give me back seven seasons that feel incomplete, to me, because the player I really started watching hockey for just….isn’t there.

And I think that’s an angle we don’t often consider when we think about hits like this. We focus on how the team will adjust without the injured player, we focus on how the NHL DOPS doesn’t penalize these hits enough; we talk about the offender and his record and about his fine or suspension. But we don’t talk about the fan effect of losing these players. We don’t talk about how to explain to a kid that their favorite player can’t ever play again, and why. We don’t talk about how much it sucks to watch a team try to fill the hole left behind by your favorite; how it kinda feels like your team isn’t quite your team anymore.

The occasional updates on his personal life were heartening but no less sad; truly, with his retirement becoming official, I hope he’s able to find a coaching position somewhere - ideally here in Boston as the power play coach. It’d be the ultimate irony.

The Bruins traded Savard’s contract to the Devils in 2016, but honestly, screw that. He’s a Bruin. His three complete seasons in Boston were three of the best years of his career, and some of the most fun hockey I’ve ever watched.

And I know I’ll be wearing my Savard jersey to games for a long time coming.