Savard had led the Bruins in both assists (63) and points (88) in the 2008-2009 season.
Savard has missed 98 regular season games over the past two seasons due to concussion issues stemming from a brutal elbow-to-head collision with Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The play occurred on March 7, 2010 in Pittsburgh. Savard had carried the puck into the offensive zone and prepared to take a shot. As he was getting ready to fire the puck at the Pittsburgh net, Cooke approached from behind, but slightly further up ice.
Cooke then stuck out his left elbow and made contact with the right side of Savard's head, sending the Bruins' skater down to the ice unconscious. Savard was on the ice for five minutes before being taken off on a stretcher.
Cooke was neither penalized nor suspended for the play, which replays showed him violently elbowing Savard.
This past season, Savard missed the first 23 games with post-concussion symptoms before finally playing. He played for just two months of the season, from December through January.
Then the concussion issues returned, due to two hard hits against the boards.
The first was in a game against Pittsburgh on January 15, 2011. Savard entered the offensive zone and turned himself facing away from the goal, with the boards along his left.
After he made a pass, Deryk Engelland shoved him from the side, causing Savard to initially hit the glass with his head before dropping down.
Play was stopped as Savard lay on the ice in obvious pain.
Unfortunately, his shoulder-to-shoulder contact caused Savard's head to slam into the boards, resulting in the latest concussion.
Though both the Engelland and Hunwick incidents were hard hits, it's unlikely Savard would have his career in jeopardy had it not been for the Cooke elbow.
Additionally, both the Engelland and Hunwick checks were clean hockey hits. Neither was from behind or done with an elbow.
After the McDonagh hit, Cooke was suspended through the first round of the NHL playoffs. Cooke's long history of blatantly dirty plays is paired with even more borderline-dangerous incidents that may or may not be direct attempts to injure.
Hockey is a physical sport that is at its absolute best when the intensity of action creates hard hits and passionate rivalries. However, there is a clear difference between rough play and cheap shots.
No player who takes unnecessary actions that could easily result in injuries belongs in a respectable hockey league.
There is a difference between a hard hockey check that results in an injury and an illegal move that is not only unfair, but incredibly dangerous and disrespectful.
What Cooke has done with each of his hits is lower the likelihood that anyone will care if he is injured.
What's to stop a player from elbowing a guy in the head who has made a career out of elbowing guys in the head?
This is why many hockey fans rejoiced the moment Evander Kane knocked Matt Cooke out. Cooke's reckless playing style does not generate an outpouring of sympathy.
Even the Pittsburgh Penguins' General Manager was fed up with Cooke.
After the hit on McDonagh, Ray Shero said of Cooke, "We've told Matt in no uncertain terms that this kind of action on the ice is unacceptable and cannot happen."
Could that mean Cooke would be out of a job if he does not change?
Fortunately for the NHL, Cooke may already be on his way to becoming a different player. He claimed he will be changing his "approach" to hitting this upcoming season, saying:
"I've got this chance, and I need to look at it as an opportunity to show everybody that I can change my approach, that I can play within the rules. The rest of my career can be proving that it's possible to change. It has to be about that. There's no excuse for it not to be about that."
Is Matt Cooke a man of his word?
Regardless of how dangerous or disrespectful some of his actions on the ice have been, Cooke is not one to back down from facing circumstances like an honest man.
After the hit on Savard, Cooke accepted a challenge from the Boston Bruins' enforcer, Shawn Thornton, despite being at an evident physical disadvantage.
This past season, Cooke had an altercation with Mike Richards of the Philadelphia Flyers. In the very next game, he settled his business by dropping his gloves on the opening faceoff.
He may make mistakes, but is very willing to face the consequences.
Cooke's wife said after the McDonagh hit this season, "Matt was still upset for a couple of days after that hit...That was the difference I noticed. This bothered him."
If that bothered him, the news of Savard's potential injury-induced retirement will crush Cooke.
Though Cooke did not directly cause Savard's most recent concussion, it is hard to believe Savard would have any issues if it weren't for the initial incident in 2010.
Cooke's first comments on the Savard hit came in a locker room interview. "I just finished my check. I thought it was shoulder to shoulder but I don't know."
That harsh demeanor will likely change.
If Cooke was sincerely bothered by the McDonagh hit and actually wants to become a different player, the awful news of Savard's condition will be the final prod necessary for the Pittsburgh Penguins forward to become a safe hockey player.
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