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The Boston Bruins lean over fallen teammate Marc Savard after a hit in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 7, 2010. Savard was taken from the ice on a stretcher. The Penguins won 2-1. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) (Keith Srakocic)
The Boston Bruins lean over fallen teammate Marc Savard after a hit in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 7, 2010. Savard was taken from the ice on a stretcher. The Penguins won 2-1. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic) (Keith Srakocic)

Sean Gordon and Allan Maki

A black eye for hockey Add to ...

For days now, Marc Savard has stayed inside his Boston condo, unable to do much beyond eat and sleep. His friends and Bruins' teammates say he exists in a vacuum of silence - no TV, no music - with curtains drawn even in daylight.

They know this from his text messages and brief telephone calls since he was carried off the ice at Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena, his game and life interrupted by a head shot from the Penguins' Matt Cooke.

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What the Bruins also suspect is that Mr. Savard, at 32 in the prime of a rebuilt career - from "me" player to team player - is done for the season, the playoffs too. They spoke of that yesterday after practising in Montreal, where Boston head coach Claude Julien registered blunt disappointment. "He's not well. Not well at all."

That Mr. Savard's career has been jeopardized has sickened many in the NHL, including Mr. Cooke's Pittsburgh teammate Bill Guerin, who said the league should punish headhunters. Mr. Cooke got off scot-free, although the NHL is vowing to draft new legislation to ban blind-side headshots next season. Boston forward and former Penguin Mark Recchi was certain of one thing: "Once again it's a black eye for the NHL."

Mr. Savard had just unleashed a shot on goal last Sunday and had his head down when Mr. Cooke, angling in from Mr. Savard's right, levelled him with what Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli dubbed "a very surgical hit to the head." Video replays showed Mr. Cooke, an aggressive forward with a history of rag-dolling rivals, didn't leave his feet. The NHL reviewed the play, took into consideration there was no penalty called, took into account its previous disciplinary calls for other on-ice hits, and decided Mr. Cooke should not be suspended.

"We couldn't find criteria that was consistent with suspending him," said NHL senior vice-president Colin Campbell.

For fellow Bruin Patrice Bergeron, seeing Mr. Savard lying motionless on the ice was something worse. In October, 2007, Mr. Bergeron was rammed into the end boards from behind by Randy Jones of the Philadelphia Flyers and suffered a concussion that ended his season. For the longest time, Mr. Bergeron was a physical wreck, crippled by the slightest sound or movement.

"I couldn't really do anything in terms of little activities that you do every day - watching television, having a crowd of people around me. I had a lot of trouble with noise," he recalled. "There's no chance that I would have been able to handle being here [in the locker room]today, talking to you … I know that [Mr. Savard]needs time. He needs to not use his brain too much to touch off the symptoms."

Mr. Bergeron said he wasn't on the ice when the Cooke hit occurred but hopped over the boards to watch trainers tend to a motionless Mr. Savard. Mr. Bergeron noticed his former Olympic teammate, Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, was skating nearby.

"There's not much to say and I didn't really feel like talking much either," Mr. Bergeron said. "But Sid didn't look like a guy who liked that [Cooke] gesture very much."

Mr. Savard had missed 24 games this season with a foot and knee injury but was being counted on to lead the Bruins in the playoffs. Last December, the team signed its top centreman to a seven-year contract that was to take him to the summer of 2014. That he would be considered so vital a component to the team spoke to his turnabout from defensively soft, one-way player to respected leader.

Friend and agent Larry Kelly insisted all Mr. Savard needed was time. "A lot of guys mature at … their own pace. He started off as an eight-year-old who was told he was too small, not fast enough and not going to make it [in hockey]" Mr. Kelly said. "I've watched him grow and I've seen the evolution of Marc Savard. You talk to the guys in Boston, they like him. He's a competitor and they appreciate that."

Mr. Savard grew up in Orleans, Ont., a suburb east of Ottawa, where his parents still live and his father Bob runs a handyman business. An ardent Toronto Maple Leafs fan as a child, Mr. Savard rose through the youth hockey ranks in east-end Ottawa - Mr. Julien was a family acquaintance back in those days - and once told a reporter his earliest hockey memory was scoring a triple-overtime penalty shot goal at Quebec City's international pee-wee tournament.

Mr. Savard eventually played junior B hockey with the Metcalfe Jets. Then it was off to the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, which he twice led in scoring.

Drafted by the New York Rangers, traded to the Calgary Flames, then to the Atlanta Thrashers, Mr. Savard earned a reputation for caring more about his statistics than winning. His critics have noted he's never been asked to play for Team Canada and wasn't invited to last summer's Olympic evaluation camp.

In Atlanta, the brash puck-handler found his purpose. In Boston, he found his goal to become a better teammate and complete player. And then came the hit that turned the NHL on its head and frightened a mother in Ottawa.

"I was watching the game at my parents' house and I saw a man lying on the ice and I said, 'Mom, that's Marc. I can tell by his skates,'" Mr. Savard's mother Rollande told the Ottawa Citizen. "It's just so hard to see that. I really thought he was dead …"

For days now, Mr. Savard has isolated himself from friends and teammates, all of whom have been telling him to go easy, stay calm, be patient. It's difficult, said his Boston coach, especially when everyone's emotions are raw and there's so much healing to be done.

"He can't be angry. … He's not well enough," Mr. Julien said. "He's just trying to recuperate from the headaches and the things you go through with a serious concussion. Right now he's not doing well at all, and I think he needs rest more than anything."

 

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