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rmacgregor@globeandmail.com

He is known by his number, 91, by the name on the back, Savard, and the crest on the front, Boston Bruins, but also by a tag that has proved tougher to shake off than shin-pad tape.

Marc Savard, selfish, lazy, not a team player ... coach killer.

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He has heard them all. His father, Bob, a handyman in Ottawa, has heard them all too, even offers up "coach killer" in case it had been missed.

Savard, as well as his father, would rather hear about the current Marc Savard, the slick-passing centre who regularly finishes in the top 10 in NHL scoring, the admittedly once defensively deficient forward who was seen diving to block shots in Boston's Round 1 romp over the Montreal Canadiens, the late bloomer (about to turn 32) who would dearly love, finally, to wear a Team Canada jersey in the coming 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

But will the reputation, however true or exaggerated, trip up the future hopes?

"You get tagged with these bad raps," Savard says, while his team readies to meet the Carolina Hurricanes in an Eastern Conference semi-final, "and there's not much you can do about it.

"I get along great with every guy on this team. It's just something they tagged on me and it's really unfortunate. But I don't let it faze me. I just keep playing."

He has played at a remarkably high level since the 2004-05 lockout season, which allowed him time to heal (knee and concussion) and then gave him a new game that rewarded speed and skill. Small by NHL standards (5 foot 10, 190 pounds), Savard has averaged more than a point a game since the Bruins signed the free agent to a four-year, $20-million (U.S.) contract three summers ago.

That's quite a payday for a player who was once traded by the Calgary Flames to the Atlanta Thrashers for Ruslan Zainullin, who never played a shift in the NHL.

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Savard had 96 points his first year with Boston and 78 last year, when he missed several games to injury. His 88 points this year (25 goals) were a major factor in Boston's surprising rise to the top of the Eastern Conference, making the once-dismissible Bruins an early favourite in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

His passing abilities are so impressive - "Some plays make you think he has a set of eyes in the back of his helmet," former Atlanta head coach Bob Hartley says - he has caused most Bruins fans to forget the playmaking centre he replaced, playoff-cursed Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks.

"His first instinct is always to pass," says 21-year-old Phil Kessel, who became Boston's top goal scorer this year with Savard on his line. "He's the kind of guy who's looking to pass, even if he's on a breakaway."

And yet, there it was once more, a player whose first instinct is always to give the puck to a teammate, being tagged as selfish.

"Somebody on TSN brought it up again," Savard says. "The same old thing that I'm a 'me-first' guy.

"It bothers me. But I just take it for what it's worth and just keep trying to prove every single day that that's not the way I am."

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Kessel has heard the raps against his generous centre and cannot comprehend how it happened. "I don't know how he got that," he says. "Who knows?"

Bob Savard thinks it happened in Calgary. He also thinks his son had some "growing up" to do before he would become the player he is today. Others close to him agree; he had a harder time getting around himself than opposing defenders.

Marc Savard had been a remarkably gifted player from virtually the first time he set out on skates in the little backyard rink. At six, the father says, other kids in tournaments were asking for his son's autograph. He played like his idol, Wayne Gretzky, and everyone said he was a sure thing to make it.

"I couldn't see it myself," the older Savard says. He had played a lot of hockey himself, but "I was a fighter, I had cement hands." He thought his son too small.

Size was a major factor. But it made the boy all the more determined. He cared nothing for school, only hockey and the chance to prove the naysayers wrong.

One friend thinks this is what gave Marc Savard "a bit of a chip on his shoulder" in the early days and may have put people off. Too small, yet he played Junior B at 15. Too small, yet he twice won the OHL scoring championship while playing for the Oshawa Generals.

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Size made him a late draft pick; the New York Rangers took him 91st overall in 1995. Then, the Rangers virtually gave him away to Calgary simply to move up a couple of slots in a subsequent draft.

It was in Calgary, Bob Savard says, that the tagging began. Though he scored points - 53 his first year, 66 his second - Marc Savard fell out of favour with coach Greg Gilbert. Gilbert stressed defensive hockey first, and defensive hockey, from childhood, was usually so far down Savard's list it didn't even have a number.

"I don't know what it was," Bob Savard says. "Maybe they thought he was always looking at his stats or something."

They thought he was a "whiner," perhaps hockey's worst insult. He thought he deserved more ice time; Gilbert thought not; player blamed coach, coach blamed player.

"There were some tough times for sure," Marc Savard says, "especially when I felt I could play in the league at the time. I had some tough situations there, you know, obviously the coach ..."

Calgary dealt him to the Thrashers in 2002, where a new coach, Bob Hartley, soon arrived and immediately had a profound effect on Savard.

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Player and coach lived on a golf course only five houses apart, and Hartley used "idle time" - pitching golf balls (Savard is a scratch player) and playing bubble hockey in Hartley's basement - to get through to the player no one else had been able to penetrate.

"If he would listen," Hartley says, "I told him I would be willing to trade quite a bit of ice time."

What Savard listened to was a series of lectures on how good he could be if he wanted to be.

"You're going to waste quite a talent," Hartley told him. "Your talent is a given, but the rest of it is not a gift, you have to make a choice. You have the talent to be a star, but your worst enemy is you.

"In Marc's mind, it was everybody's fault, but I give him credit. He took the plan and went with it."

The plan was simple. Work harder, check harder, be a team player. In return for a new work ethic, Hartley gave him ice time with rising stars Ilya Kovalchuk, Dany Heatley and Marian Hossa. It paid off handsomely for all.

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"[Hartley]was like a father figure to me," Savard says. "He really helped me out."

When it became clear to Savard and his agent, Ottawa-based Larry Kelly, that Atlanta wouldn't be able to afford the sort of money that might be available once the player became a free agent in 2006, the choice came down to Boston or, surprisingly, Calgary, where Savard's friend, team captain Jarome Iginla, was pressing hard for Savard to return. They chose Boston, in part because it was seen as a team on the rise, in part out of concern for Savard's experience in Calgary.

Boston coach Claude Julien has carried on where Hartley left off - exchanging ice time for a commitment by Savard to be "more accountable" - and those who may have once doubted his work ethic are now able to turn to YouTube.com for a clip of Savard throwing up on the bench after a shift.

"He's a money player," Hartley says, "a clutch performer. Give me a minute left in a game and he'll either score the goal or set it up.

"I just hope he gets a shot at the [2010]Olympics."

Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, says Savard's improved play has not gone unnoticed - "he deserves to be on the radar" - but Canada is deep at centre, beginning with Sidney Crosby.

"It's a thought in the back of my mind," Savard says. "It's something I think about, for sure, but I got business here right now.

"I think the better our team does this year, the better the chances I'd have to play in those kinds of events."

*****

BY THE NUMBERS

269 Assists by Marc Savard since the 2004-05 NHL lockout. Only Joe Thornton, with 316, has had more in the past four seasons.

359 Points by Savard since the lockout, sixth best overall. The only players with more the past four seasons are Thornton, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk and Dany Heatley.

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