Passages

Passages

July 6 1998
Passages

Passages

July 6 1998

Power player

Former Canadiens hockey great Serge Savard scores for Canada—and the city of Montreal

Canada

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH

To any hockey fan of a certain age, the expressive, brooding face— dominated by its oftbroken, hawk-shaped nose—and strapping sixfoot, four-inch presence remain as familiar as the renowned “spinoramas” that Serge Savard perfected in 15 seasons as a National Hockey League defenceman. One wall of Savard’s 22nd-floor office, in a building overlooking the Molson Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens, is filled with mementoes from a career that won him election to the Hockey Hall of Fame —and the Stanley Cup 10 times as a Canadiens player and executive.

There are photographs of Savard holding the Cup aloft, and a print depicting Paul Henderson celebrating after the goal that gave Team Canada victory over the then-Soviet Union in their 1972 matchup. “It was the proudest moment of my life,” says Savard, a key member of that team.

Today, the 52-year-old Savard’s

In other ways, Savard’s enthusiasms have taken a different turn. Since being fired by the Canadiens in October, 1995, after 13 years as managing director, Savard has built a new career as a millionaire developer, hotel owner, investor, and business and political power broker. Although Savard will not say how much he is worth, the real estate company in which he holds a one-third share owns more than 100 properties, ranging from apartment buildings and industrial plants to hotels. The best-known property is Montreal’s Marriott Château Champlain, in which the company—Thibault, Messier, Savard et Associés—heads a consortium that holds half-interest.

passion for Canada still burns brightly. He often wears the Order of Canada pin he was awarded in 1994, and for the second straight year, is chairing Canada Day festivities for Quebec. Savard has expanded the event into a five-day extravaganza. For the past six weeks, he has been crisscrossing Quebec, meeting with officials in the largest municipalities in order to revive celebrations that were long moribund. That, says Glen Sather, president of the Edmonton Oilers and a longtime friend, is typical. “Serge is a guy who gives everything for what he believes in,” Sather says. “When he wants something, it gets done.” Savard’s personal share in the hotel alone is estimated to be worth $1.2 million. On a personal level, in addition to the luxurious home that Savard owns on Montreal’s South Shore, he has two ski chalets in Quebec and a condominium on exclusive Hilton Head Island in South Carolina. “Never mind all he did in hockey—Serge is only now hitting his peak,” insists his close friend, former Liberal cabinet minister Jacques Olivier.

A common refrain around Montreal these days is that it is difficult to find an activity that Savard is not involved in. Although he built much of his real-estate empire while still a player and hockey executive, Savard has become much more active in community work since then.

“He is one of the few high-level people who really gives his time to the community,” says Michel C. Auger, political columnist at the newspaper Le Journal de Montréal. Savard belongs to a committee of businessmen trying, on a volunteer basis, to sell enough season tickets to keep the Montreal Expos franchise in the city. He recently did the same for the Montreal Alouettes. On the amateur sport level, he is a past chairman of the Quebec Games, and is currently heading a business group that has raised $3 million to refurbish Montreal’s Maurice Richard Arena, a popular site for amateur teams that is named after one of Savard’s idols. And he became chairman last month of the Montreal International Sports Committee—a group trying to lure major events to the city.

On another front, Savard—long ago dubbed “Le Sénateur” because of his interest in politics—is publicly supporting Jacques Duchesneau, the former Montreal police chief who is a frontrunner in the city’s mayoralty race. When Daniel Johnson stepped down as leader of the Quebec Liberals in March, there were immediate rumors that the party was courting Savard. He says that, “for now,” he has no interest in elected politics. But he describes Liberal Leader Jean Charest as “a friend” and concedes his reluctance to enter politics “could change some day.” And, Savard adds, “I promise this: if there is another referendum, I will be there to speak up for my country.” That sentiment, of course, is not universally popular in Quebec, where polls show that francophones are evenly divided between federalism and sovereignty. Olivier says his friend’s outspoken stance “has cost him big, big money,” and that some annoyed sovereigntists refuse to do business with him. But, says Savard, “for too long people have been silent because they are afraid of what it means for business. I don’t care about that. If I lose the business of someone like Bernard Landry, so what.” (The deputy premier, one of the most vehement sovereigntists in the Parti Québécois, has clashed with Savard on occasion.)

Meanwhile, Savard has cleverly exploited his hockey contacts to help his business interests. When his group bought the Château Champlain in 1994, no visiting NHL teams stayed there. Popular legend has it— and neither man denies it—that Savard made one telephone call to Sather, one of the most respected and well-connected executives in the league. Within 24 hours, almost every NHL team had switched to his hotel. ‘Why not?” says Sather. “Serge makes sure everybody is taken care of, and our players consider it a thrill to meet him.” Savard, in fact, often greets the teams when they arrive at the hotel.

Some skeptics suggest that Savard’s interest in the Expos is enhanced by the fact that the team’s proposed new ball park would be several hundred metres from the hotel. But, says Auger, “even his worst enemies know that the hotel is doing so well it doesn’t need new business.” (The Château Champlain has undergone more than $8 million in renovations, and its occupancy rate averages over 80 per cent—making it one of Montreal’s most popular hotels.) When it comes to business, Savard’s aggressive style mirrors his efforts as an athlete—and has arguably been just as successful. “Serge was a guy who knew early exactly what he wanted,” says Sam Pollock, chairman of the Toronto Blue Jays and former general manager of the Canadiens. “Even in his teens, he was more focused than guys a decade older.”

Born and raised in the Abitibi region of northern Quebec, Savard attracted the attention of Canadiens’ scouts at the age of 14—by which time he had reached his full height and 210 lb. He played junior hockey for teams around the Montreal area controlled by the Canadiens. At the insistence of his father, a longtime community activist with a keen interest in politics, he managed enough private tutoring to graduate from high school. In his early 20s, after turning professional with the Canadiens, Savard began purchasing distressed apartment buildings at low cost and refurbishing them. His business acumen was enough to make Savard stand out in a sport where only a minority of players oversee their own affairs. “Serge is the only player I ever knew,” says longtime hockey broadcaster and author Dick Irvin, “who spent part of every day reading The Wall Street Journal”

In his personal life, Savard is a curious mix of flamboyance and reserve. Despite the fact that he served as captain of the Canadiens for two seasons, Savard admits that he was not close to teammates. “I am not the kind of guy who socialized with other players,” he says. “I don’t remember ever going out for dinner with another player and his wife.” But Savard’s leadership qualities were unmistakable, says Bob Gainey, a former teammate and now general manager of the Dallas Stars. “He had intelligence and moral strength,” says Gainey, who adds, “I still call Serge sometimes to ask him about hockey matters.”

A stylish dresser who favors double-breasted suits that are carefully cut to disguise some of the extra weight he has put on since playing days, Savard likes big cigars and sports such expensive accessories as a gold Rolex watch and Montblanc pen. Despite his high profile, he usually ducks the media and is very conscious of his image. Savard “loves good wine and food,” says Olivier, and is a longtime regular at Le Mas des Oliviers, a popular restaurant among the city’s power elite. After long lunches, with wine, during his days as an executive with the Canadiens, he would often call for two taxi drivers to get home: one to drive him in a cab, and the other to drive his car. Savard was concerned that his image might suffer if his car was seen parked downtown overnight. But since leaving hockey, says Olivier, “Serge does those long lunches much less. He spends more time with his family.” A recent grandfather by his 30-year-old son, Serge Jr., Savard and his wife, Paulette, have another son, Marc, 27, and a 17-year-old daughter, Catherine. He is also an enthusiastic and regular golfer, with a 13 handicap.

Amid his achievements, the one thing that rankles, Savard admits, is the manner in which he was dismissed by the Canadiens, along with coach Jacques Demers, after the team stumbled off to a losing start in the 1995-1996 season. Although his company has a part

Corey said at the time that no firm discussions took place, but Savard suggests otherwise. “We had money and a specific offer, and they know it,” he says.

share of season tickets and Savard attends some games, he makes no secret of his bitterness towards team president Ronald Corey. About two years ago, when there were suggestions that The Molson Companies Ltd., the team owner, might be prepared to sell, Savard put out feelers—but was rebuffed.

Market analysts estimate the team’s worth, with the Molson Centre included, would be $400 million. As to whether he could put together that money if the team went on the block,

Savard shrugs and says: “I never say things are im-

One measure of Savard can be found in a favorite story that Sather tells about him. When the two first played against each other in the 1960s, Sather, who had a gold tooth, recalls: “Serge kept telling me he was gonna knock it out.” Later, Sather was playing for the St. Louis Blues against the Canadiens when he took a puck in the mouth that knocked out six teeth—including the gold replacement. Sather mailed it to Savard, with a note saying his wish had been fulfilled. He received no response.

possible.” In fact, he recently estimated the value of his company’s real estate holdings at about $500 million.

In 1974, Sather joined the Canadiens. “We went through three weeks of camp and Serge never said anything,” he recalls. “It was killing me. Then we went on the road and roomed together. We had a pre-game steak and went back to have a nap. I was drifting off to sleep when I hear Serge calling my name. ‘Just so you know,’ Savard says, ‘I got your God damn tooth.’ ” At the finish of his story, Sather is still marvelling as he asks: “Can you believe that anyone would have the patience and timing to wait that long?” In fact, those are qualities that Savard’s friends long ago learned to count on—and his opponents discover to their detriment. □