“All of the kids were, I have to say, quite natural. They had natural sport talent.”
For anyone who experienced the Sudbury sports scene of the 1970s or 1980s, the fact that the above quote is attributed to John Savage should hardly be shocking.
Mike, the eldest of the three boys in the family and a gentleman that we lost far too early to the ravages of cancer at the tender age of 42, was a 30 goal scorer with the Belleville Bulls, a year or two after being drafted by the Winnipeg Jets. His long jump leap of 6.71 metres still stands as the junior standard in the retired SDSSAA track & field record book.
A physical education teacher in California for more than 25 years, Dave accepted a track & field scholarship to attend the University of New Mexico not long after registering a double gold medal performance in the 1983 Ontario Summer Games in Sudbury, capturing both the 1500m (3:54.01) and 800m (1:53.07) distances.
Walking away from AAA hockey as he entered grade nine at Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School, Brian would throw himself into basketball, track and other pursuits, returning to the ice to suit up in grade 12 with the Knights, before signing on with the Sudbury Cubs in grade 13. Yet that was still enough to earn a hockey scholarship to Miami of Ohio, his NCAA career leading to some 674 games and 192 goals at the NHL level.
A provincial champion in rhythmic gymnastics at the age of 11, Cheryl would expand her athletic repertoire to include figure skating, track & field, golf, a little hockey and some alpine skiing. “I would try any sport if you asked me to,” she suggested, mirroring what was clearly a deeply rooted family belief.
It was a belief built on an athletic foundation for which John is quick to share the credit.
“I’ve always felt that the genes, mainly, for my athletic children came from my wife’s side,” he said. “Sharon (Hillman) was a very good athlete.” More than a tad competent in track and with a provincial softball championship to her credit, Mrs Savage was also a sibling to both Larry and Wayne, the Kirkland Lake tandem combining to play almost 1500 NHL games.
Yep, life in their little neck of the woods would often revolve around sport.
"My first real experience with sport would have been playing hockey, maybe in grade four, playing on a flyweight team (up to ten years old),” recalled John Savage, comfortably retired with his wife on their long-time Manitoulin Island property following years of teaching math in Sudbury. “Every public school and every separate school had a team back then.”
“We never had practices or anything. When it was time to play, we went out and played. We would play shinny all the time on the outdoor rink; that’s where the skill level developed. Half the time when we went home for supper, we would never even take our skates off. We could skate on the roads.”
“The roads were not all ice, but they were that hard packed snow, and we didn’t have sand or salt on the roads in those days.”
Pickup football and softball would occupy the summers, along with a little track towards the tail-end of the school year. By the time Savage began his high-school studies at Kirkland Lake Collegiate & Vocational Institute, he was making a name for himself with the Holy Name Irish, a hockey dynasty in those parts that would last nearly a half century or so.
His prowess in hockey would see him finish grade 13 down south, playing a couple of years with the Hamilton Red Wings. Thankfully, by this time, a wonderful sense of perspective was well ingrained in the young man who could handle himself as well in the classroom as he could on the ice or the track.
“I registered at McMaster, in the science program, and I also got married, so by November, I realized that something had to go,” said Savage. “In Hamilton, we had guys like Pit Martin, Paul Henderson, a lot of guys who played NHL hockey. I could compare myself to them. I was a decent hockey player, but I wasn’t in their category.”
“I could see a better future by getting my degree than trying to make it in hockey.”
Still, for as much as Savage studied Applied Math and Theoretical Physics, he understood where things stood in the pecking order. Even within the classroom, he had established himself as that third line grinder. “I was a bit like Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, in that I took Theoretical Physics - but I understood it about the same as Penny,” he said with a laugh.
“Even though I graduated with honours, I didn’t really understand what I was doing. I was able to write exams, memorize stuff and get through it, but I knew that there was no way that I could go out into the world of Theoretical Physics and survive.”
That ability to remain grounded surely served him well as he and Sharon would make their way to Sudbury, raising a brood of athletic little ones who could match up well against any sports minded family in the history of our fair nickel city. Even as he began a career that he had never envisioned - “I had no thoughts of teaching until I got a phone call from the principal at Lo-Ellen Park” (thanks to his brother, Bob) - trepidation was evident.
“I had a wife and two children and I had no idea how I was going to support them.”
But support them he would, though his coaching involvement with the kids was actually quite limited. “I was so busy with the teaching, there was no real effort to push the kids,” he said. “They just wanted to do everything. All of the sports that came along, they got involved.”
And they would do everything well, as John and Sharon enjoyed the ride.
For as much as he was a much better than average athlete, John Savage certainly did not view coaching as the means of developing the most talented single family track relay team the city has ever seen (not that the four Savage offspring ever ran a race together).
“I did a little track coaching at Lasalle with Terry McKinty,” he said, referencing the Northland Athletic Club mentor who so shaped the pathway that Dave would carve out. “I coached long jump, but with very little real knowledge of what I was doing. No one had ever really taught me to long jump properly.”
Even as he stepped on the ice with legendary Laurentian hockey coach Jack Porter, taking a lead role in a skills school that would bear the name of his friend and co-hort, Savage was not consumed by the lure of professional hockey.
“After grade nine, Brian gave his skates away to his best friend - he really didn’t skate for two years,” noted his father. By this time, both the youngest Savage boy and golf-mate Vince Palladino had begun establishing their reputation on the links. In fact, scholarship possibilities in golf for the future NHLer seemed far more likely than in his eventual sport of choice.
But for a chance encounter at a local bingo hall between Winnie Hillman (Sharon’s mom) and Jim Pappin’s mother, the hockey door for Brian may not have been opened. On the advice of Lo-Ellen teacher Bryan Slywchuk and with a bit of good luck, Savage would make his way to Miami of Ohio, though he never played golf there - contrary to many a local myth.
That said, John did confirm another tale that often makes the rounds. “Brian was heading to NOSSA track in North Bay and picked up his shoes downstairs, but he grabbed one of his shoes and one of David’s,” explained Savage. Unfortunately, David’s foot size was roughly two to three sizes smaller than his younger brother.
“Brian would win the race and may have set a record,” noted his father.
Genetics, indeed - shared on both sides of the family tree.