His biggest challenge

KEN FIDLIN

, Last Updated: 8:46 AM ET

The Chicago Blackhawks have a long and storied history, populated by some of the biggest names to play in the NHL. Denis Savard fits right in with that crowd, a tiny little waterbug of a superstar who could dance with the puck as well as anyone ever has.

He was a sure-fire Hall of Famer almost from the moment he stepped onto the old Chicago Stadium ice for the first time in 1980. Three years after he retired in 1997, right on schedule, Savard was inducted. For someone of his diminutive size, it was a spectacular achievement.

But not nearly as big as the challenge he faces now.

Three weeks ago, Savard became the 36th head coach in Blackhawks history and if he can make his mark in that capacity, it will be even more remarkable than his playing credentials.

How so?

Well, for starters, these are the Blackhawks. Of the 35 coaches who preceded him, only 10 have managed winning records. It's probably no coincidence either that, since Savard retired, the Hawks have made the Stanley Cup playoffs just once in nine years.

But there's another fascinating dimension to Savard's challenge. For lack of a better term, we'll call it the curse of the superstar. The plain truth is that, for the most part, superstar players make lousy coaches.

That's no reflection on Savard in particular. In fact, his first 11 games as the Hawks' coach have gone better than anyone could have expected.

Chicago won only seven of its first 21 games this year, leading to the dismissal of Trent Yawney. Since Savard was installed, they're a more-than-respectable 7-2-3 and playing some of their best hockey in years heading into tonight's game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The fact remains that Savard will have to overcome his handicap which, is, of course, his Hall of Fame status.

It's not impossible, just rare. We know there have been a few great players who became well-respected coaches; people like Toe Blake in Montreal, Sid Abel in Detroit and Milt Schmidt in Boston. But in the last 40 years there have only been a handful of star players who have even tried coaching, let alone found success.

The obvious example is Wayne Gretzky, but he's only in his second year with the Coyotes and the jury is very much out on him as a coach. Jacques Lemaire, who starred on the great Canadiens' teams of the 1970s, is probably the best combination of player and coach of the current crop of coaches. Larry Robinson is a Hall of Fame defenceman who had mixed success as a coach, but did win a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2000 as a late-season replacement for Robbie Ftorek, who was fired with eight games left in the regular season.

More often than not, though, the best coaches never played in the NHL or were, at best, lesser lights. Scotty Bowman, considered by many the best coach ever, never played in the NHL. Same for Fred Shero, Bob Johnson and Ken Hitchcock. Indeed you could name dozens of coaches from the group of "never-weres" as players.

Nobody can say they know definitively why this is, but the obvious answer is that the superstar player plays a game that is unfamiliar to the rest of the plumbers on their teams. As coaches, these elite players have difficulty relating to the trials and tribulations of lesser talents because much of what they did came naturally.

What sets Savard apart from so many premier players who try their hand at coaching after they hang up their skates is that he has spent nearly a decade learning his new craft as an assistant coach with the Blackhawks. Since he joined the Hawks' coaching staff partway through the 1997-98 season, he has worked with no less than seven head coaches.

Few superstars have the patience to spend so many years out of the spotlight. And few care to take the time to learn the game from a new perspective.

"I've always wanted to be a head coach," said Savard on the day he got the job.

Now, at long last, he is one. How long it lasts is up to him.


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