Denis Savard was one of the greatest players to skate for the Chicago Blackhawks. A skillful and speedy center, Savard dazzled fans with his moves and was part of the team’s rebuild toward respectability in the ’80s. Any media guide or team-written biography will tell you of Savard’s offensive prowess, and that he was drafted third overall in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft. What is seldom mentioned, though, is that Chicago’s selection of Savard was a perfect storm of backroom negotiations by the Blackhawks, a poor decision by the Quebec Nordiques, an unfair rule against expansion teams—and the stellar play of a fellow Quebecer named Réal Cloutier.
The Réal Deal
Our story begins in 1974. Teenage sensation Réal Cloutier has completed his second year of junior hockey for the Quebec Remparts (QMJHL). Cloutier led his team to two Memorial Cup appearances and scored 315 points during his two seasons. At 18, he was still two years shy of being eligible to play in the NHL. Players had to be at least 20 to compete in the NHL during the ’70s.
But in the World Hockey Association—the other top-level professional league at the time—anyone 18 or older could compete. The Quebec Nordiques drafted the local junior star in the league’s amateur draft. Instead of slogging through another two seasons in junior hockey, Cloutier turned pro with the Nordiques that fall. He put up a respectable 53 points in his first season, and then exploded with 60 goals and 54 assists in his second.
By then, it was 1976. Cloutier was 20 and finally eligible to be drafted into the NHL. The Chicago Blackhawks selected him 9th overall in the NHL draft, but Cloutier had no plans to join the middling Blackhawks. “Cloutier was loved by the population of Quebec,” said Benoit Clairoux, hockey historian and author of the book Les Nordiques de Québec. “He had no reason to go anywhere else.”
As expected, Cloutier continued to play for the Nordiques, always finishing first or second in team scoring. When the NHL and WHA merged in 1979, Cloutier had accumulated 283 goals—the third-highest goal total in the WHA’s seven-year history.
Meanwhile, a young Denis Savard was making waves in junior hockey, scoring 309 points in three seasons with the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
The Spoils of War
The WHA had provided a second option for elite hockey players in the ’70s, much to the NHL’s dismay. Their presence led to many NHL players “jumping ship” for higher salaries and better control over their careers, and the NHL had to compete in several markets for fan dollars. But in 1979 the war was over; the WHA folded and the NHL won. Four of the WHA’s teams—including Quebec—were granted expansion status by the NHL. It was one league now; forgive and forget, right?
Wrong. The NHL owners were not going to make things easy for the new teams. Instead, several rules were put in place to plunder the former WHA teams of their talent. Any player 18 or under had to go back into the draft, with the former WHA teams picking last in each round that year.
Even worse, all former WHA players who were drafted by the NHL during the 1970s or “signed away” by a WHA team would return to their NHL teams. Cloutier was now property of Chicago, even though Quebec drafted him first. Nonetheless, the Nordiques were not going to lose him. “He was clearly their franchise player, and one of the most talented players at the time,” said Clairoux.
As a concession, the four former WHA teams were allowed to protect three players on their roster—known as “priority selections”—regardless of who owned their NHL rights. Teams had to negotiate for anything beyond that.
“The WHA clubs used any means possible to keep as many players as possible,” said Timothy Gassen, Founder and Director of the WHA Hall of Fame. “They used trades, draft picks, money and other negotiations to keep more players than the merger terms guaranteed. All kinds of wacky deals went on behind closed doors once the merger was official.”
The Nordiques used their priority selections to protect goaltender Richard Brodeur, and defensemen Paul Baxter and Garry Lariviere during the farcical expansion draft, which took place on June 13, 1979. Quebec used their selections on these defencemen because they could not work out negotiations with the teams who owned their NHL rights.
Four days before the expansion draft, the Nordiques and Blackhawks worked out a side deal: Chicago agreed to not reclaim Cloutier in exchange for Quebec’s first round pick in the 1980 draft.
“Cloutier was a very talented player,” said Clairoux. “He was even compared to Wayne Gretzky. Keeping all these players was considered a victory for the Nordiques.”
But despite keeping many of their great players from their WHA days, the Nordiques faltered their first year in the NHL, finishing with the third-worst record. That June, the Blackhawks used their pick from the Nordiques to select Denis Savard.
Cloutier’s play steadily declined over the years—due to an ankle injury and conflicts with his coaches—and he retired in 1985. Savard, meanwhile, went on to score 1,338 points in 1,196 games over a 17-year NHL career and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.
It is easy to say whom a team should have kept, traded or drafted when looking back over 30 years later. But what if the Nordiques had decided to keep their first round pick? Would they have drafted Savard, a native of the Quebec province?
“I’m not so sure,” said Clairoux.
The Montreal Canadiens had the first overall pick in the 1980 draft and the Blackhawks had the third overall pick from their trade with Quebec. If Quebec still had that pick, though, Savard probably would have gone to the Canadiens.
“Letting Savard go to Winnipeg (who drafted second) or Chicago was not a big deal for Montreal, but seeing that young French-Canadian play in Quebec [City] would have been quite different,” said Clairoux. “Montreal hockey fans reacted badly when the Canadiens chose Doug Wickenheiser instead of Savard. If Denis had been selected by Quebec, it would have been terrible.”
Regardless of whether Savard went to the Montreal Canadiens or Quebec Nordiques, the result would have been the same for the Blackhawks. Chicago would have missed the opportunity to draft one of the team’s all-time best players. Chicago fans would have been denied the opportunity to witness Savard’s spin-o-rama, five 100-plus point seasons and other amazing on-ice feats.
Even when Savard lost a step, the Blackhawks were able to trade him to the Montreal Canadiens for Chris Chelios—who also went on to become one of the greatest Blackhawks. Obviously, that trade or Savard’s own contributions to the ‘Hawks would never have happened if Chicago management did not take advantage of the situation—and the Quebec Nordiques—like they did in 1979.