Tony Esposito, Pierre Pilote, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard and Stan Mikita pose for a photo. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
It’s a good thing Denis Savard is not a proud man.
If he was, that pride would be standing in the way of his happiness. As it is, he’s back where he belongs, serving as an ambassador for the hockey family he loves, the Chicago Blackhawks.
Savard, you may recall, started the season as coach of a team poised for a breakout. But a 1-2-1 start armed Hawks management with the ammunition to do what it probably always believed it would eventually; fire Savard.
See, Savard just doesn’t fit the profile of a head coach. That’s not a knock, it’s just an observation about his personality. In the same way some terrific players simply don’t make great captains, Savard never seemed right for the role of main man behind the bench.
Traditionally, head coaches and assistant coaches have a good cop/bad cop thing going with players. One breaks you down, the other builds you back up.
I, for one, would be stunned if Savard is ever a head coach again because he has good cop written all over him. He’s at his best when he’s calling you by your nickname, reminding you of everything you do well and that the head coach didn’t really mean everything he said. Savard’s good-guy tendencies obviously made an impact. Anyone who saw Patrick Kane’s tearful interview after Savard was dismissed can tell you the former Hawks coach sure made an impression on one of the team’s best young players.
On a side note, I haven’t seen any footage of Steven Stamkos welling up after Barry Melrose was let go in Tampa Bay. Stamkos was much more likely to break into one of those Lotto 6/49 happy dances.
Savard isn’t the only guy out there best suited to the role of assistant coach, a position he held with the Hawks for almost 10 years before becoming the head man.
Dave Lewis was an important part of Detroit’s success in the Scotty Bowman era. But when the Wings didn’t advance past the second round in two seasons with Lewis as the ship’s captain, he was shown the plank. He got another chance to run the show in 2006-07 with Boston, but lasted just one season.
Mario Tremblay had no previous coaching experience when the Montreal Canadiens made him their bench boss in 1995-96. Predictably, he lasted just two years in that capacity, but he’s been a valuable member of Jacques Lemaire’s coaching staff in Minnesota since 2000-01.
Whether it’s for their encouragement or technical know-how, guys like Savard, Tremblay and Lewis are more suited to a secondary-voice role.
Even given his smiling persona, I have to admit I was a little surprised to see Savard come back into the Chicago fold so quick.
Less than one month after they axed him under somewhat suspect circumstances, Savard jumped when Hawks chairman Rocky Wirtz and team president John McDonough invited him to join the club in an ambassador capacity alongside other Chicago legends Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Tony Esposito.
“It means so much to me that Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough have given me this chance to continue to be a part of the Blackhawks family, something I have always wanted to do,” said Savard last week, at the time of the move. “I have been very fortunate to be a part of this organization, to wear these colors, for so long and this gives me the chance to continue to be a part of something I love. Today is a great day for me and my family.”
In a way, inviting someone back as an ambassador after they’ve been fired as coach seems akin to asking the person you just broke up with if they want to cut your lawn for $15 a week.
Many people, if posed that question, would say: “Thanks, but no friggin’ thanks.”
But there are a few things at play here, not the least of which is the overall good vibes emanating from the Windy City. For more on that and the incredible job McDonough is doing, pick up the Dec. 1 issue of The Hockey News. Savard recognizes the franchise he cares so much about is experiencing a renaissance unlike any we’ve seen in a long, long time.
Good on Savard for not letting potentially hurt feelings get in the way of his personal happiness. He was miscast in the role of supreme commander, but didn’t let his firing stand in the way of him becoming a valued cheerleader.
In the process, he taught his former players one last lesson about the value of keeping your pride in check.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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