Nary a week goes past that you don’t see someone lamenting the grave mistake the Montreal Canadiens made in 1980 when they passed on homegrown francophone Denis Savard to take Doug Wickenheiser in the NHL draft..
Savard went on to a Hall of Fame career while Wickenheiser, who passed away at age 37 from a rare form of cancer, never really hit his stride in Montreal, was traded to St. Louis during his fourth year in Montreal, and within a couple of seasons was a journeyman NHLer who couldn’t crack the 30-point mark.
Wickenheiser was just regaining his long-lost confidence in St. Louis and off to the best start of his five-year career with 43 points in 68 games in 1986 when he suffered a serious knee injury after being hit by a car outside a pizzeria in Eureka Mo. on March 13. Wickenheiser never regained full range of motion in his knee, and never hit the 40-point mark again and a career which once held so much promise soon faded.
“Doug Wickenheiser was on the verge of being a star in this league,” St. Louis coach Jacques Demers said about his center in an interview with United Press International in the spring of 1986 soon after wrecking his knee.
What he should have been, though, was a star in Montreal in the 1980’s, and the key piece that kept the Habs competitive with the Islanders and Oilers.
The Canadiens are often panned for passing on Savard to take Wickenheiser, but that is a textbook example of “hindsight is 20/20/”. Montreal’s scouting staff cannot be blamed in any regard for that selection…as there wasn’t a scout or team in the league that didn’t have Wickenheiser tabbed as a “can’t miss” future superstar and the top prospect in the 1980 draft.
As a teenaged subscriber to The Hockey News, it was rare for two weeks to go by without an article about the up-and-coming superstar in the late 1970’s…Wickenheiser was destined for stardom at the age of 16. I even suspect that Edmonton Oilers’ GM Glen Sather, if given the opportunity to trade Wayne Gretzky during the 1979-79 season for the rights to draft Wickenheiser, would have done so. Wickenheiser was the most highly-touted prospect since the Canadiens selected Guy Lafleur first overall in 1971, and the hockey world was bemoaning the fact that the powerhouse team that was just coming off of a four-year Stanley Cup run would be once again getting a superstar to continue their dominance well into the next decade.
There’s no question that if Chicago had held the first pick in 1980 that Wickenhesier would have been their choice. He was thought to be the superior prospect by everyone in the hockey world.
Savard put up great numbers for the Montreal Juniors, scoring 63 goals and 181 points in his draft year, but in a high-scoring league his point total didn’t even win the scoring title as Guy Carbonneau and JF Sauve finished with 183 and 187 points, respectively. Savard was 5-10 and slight, and far from an intimidating force defensively as he was not noted for his willingness to backcheck or play defensively with any veracity. He also failed to take Montreal past the second round of the QMJHL playoffs in the spring of 1980 even though the club boasted the famed “Trois Denis” line that consisted of three players from Verdun all born on the same day and all named Denis, one of which was also picked in the first round of the 1980 draft, Denis Cyr.
Wickenheiser, on the other hand, had 89 goals and 171 points in the much tighter WHL, winning the scoring title by 29 points as an 18-year-old, and scoring 23 more goals than the next best goal scorer. On top of that, Wickenheiser was 6-1, 200 pounds, played a solid two-way game and led Regina to the Memorial Cup before being eliminated in a since revamped format that saw Peterborough intentionally lose its last round-robin game to Cornwall so it wouldn’t have to face Wickenheiser in the Memorial Cup Final. He was THAT good.
Sam Pollock left Montreal’s new GM Irv Grundman with a pretty stocked cupboard. Pollock was ahead of other GM’s in his ability/propensity to stock the Canadiens with draft picks. No team could match Montreal’s depth, and it was often remarked that the Nova Scotia Voyageurs could beat many NHL teams. Pollock sent two of his Voyageurs – Ron Andruff and Sean Shanahan – along with the 19th overall pick in the 1977 draft to the Colorado Rockies in September of 1976 for the Rockies’ first-round pick in 1980.
It didn’t seem like a bad deal for the fledging Rockies at the time. After all, Andruff and Shanahan were in the Habs’ organization one rung below the Stanley Cup champs so it must have meant they’d be fine NHLers once given a chance, and with a top-20 pick thrown in for the upcoming draft and a very high pick sure to be coming their way for likely finishing at the bottom of the standings in 1977 (Colorado picked Barry Beck second overall) and perhaps for a year two more…management’s optimistic thinking was that surely by 1980 the club would be well on its way and nowhere near the bottom of the standings.
As usual, Pollock had guessed right. Colorado still sucked in 1979-80, and Grundman, in his first season as GM in Montreal as Pollock’s replacement, was gifted the right to pick the next NHL superstar in Wickenheiser.
The poor error in judgment was not made by Montreal’s scouting staff in June of 1980. Wickenheiser was the right guy to pick, and even St. Louis, selecting second overall, passed on Savard to take WHL defenceman Dave Babych, further proof that Savard was not considered the best prospect in NHL circles.
Where the mistake occurred was in Montreal’s upper management, as there was a certain amount of arrogance around the club and how young players were to be handled.
It was widely assumed by the club that such a young player could never be given a regular role right off the bat. After all, Lafleur joined Montreal at the age of 20 and still had to pay his dues playing on bottom lines for several seasons before blossoming in his fourth year. Surely no 19-year-old whippersnapper from western Canada could be good enough to play as an NHL regular for the sacred bleu blanc et rouge.
On the other hand, Wickenheiser had done all he could at the WHL level, setting a goal-scoring record and dominating the competition. Sending him back was thought to be a waste of time, so the club made the decision to keep him in Montreal and start the season with him in the stands as a healthy scratch.
In a 2000 interview with Wickenheiser’s last coach in Regina, the late Bryan Murray, the long-time NHL coach/GM insisted that Montreal was much more to blame for Wickenheiser never reaching his potential than the player himself.
“They ruined him,” said Murray, who was never known to mince words. “Here was a kid from a small town who was always the best at whatever he did. He was a natural athlete – the best ballplayer, the best hockey player by far, and suddenly he’s not even good enough to play. They sit him in the stands. They ruined his confidence..he got all mixed up…depressed, started drinking. He didn’t know how to handle it at such a young age, and it should have never happened. He was more than good enough to play right away, he was a superb hockey player. He should never have sat one game in the stands.”
Wickenheiser would be a healthy scratch for 30 games that first season, and the pressure grew as the criticisms escalated in the media. To make matters worse, Savard stepped into Chicago’s lineup, was handed a first-line role, scoring 75 points as a rookie, and whispers soon turned to shouts that the Habs had screwed up not selecting a French-speaking prospect who played right under their noses at the Montreal Forum the year before in junior. The pressure mounted, Wickenheiser kept getting sat and saw little ice time, his confidence was shattered…and a player who two seasons earlier had been the subject of countless articles in the Hockey News was well on his way to becoming a footnote in the history of former number one picks.
Wickenheiser was a prime example of where sometimes you don’t put the team before player. When you are handed a gift like him, you accept that gift and cherish it, not try to break it. Wickenheiser sitting in the stands to start his NHL career was the equivalent of the Oilers doing the same with Conor McDavid or the Leafs with Auston Matthews…simply unthinkable nowadays.
The Wickenheiser mistake was one which an NHL club has never repeated though…we often learn from our mistakes…and no team management since 1980 has been arrogant enough to pull such a move on a burgeoning superstar. Perhaps fittingly, the Canadiens have never had the opportunity to draft another true superstar either.