When Jack Button looks at Reggie Savage, he doesn't see color. What he sees is one of the most precocious hockey players in the Washington Capitals' system.
When Robbie Laird looks at Reggie Savage, he doesn't find an attitude problem. What he finds is a gifted player with the determination to make a living in the high-risk area around the opposition goal mouth.
When Jean Guy Savage looks at Reggie Savage, he doesn't just feel familial pride. What he feels is the satisfaction of knowing he has helped his adopted son achieve something that otherwise would have seemed impossible.
These are snapshots of a 20-year-old prodigy, as seen by a not-so-coincidental cast of characters.
It was after Button's evaluation as director of player personnel that the Caps made Savage a first-round draft choice in 1988. It was under Laird's tutelage as coach of the Baltimore Skipjacks this season that Savage squashed the notion he was a prima donna. And it was through the love of Jean and Rita Savage that all this began to unfold 20 years ago.
Clearly, the Reggie Savage saga is no typical Canadian-boy-makes-good-in-hockey story.
Here is a young man who already has broken through racial barriers, not once, but twice in his lifetime. The son of a Haitian immigrant to Canada, Savage was taken in by a white, French-speaking family in Montreal when he was 1 month old. Now he is one of a handful of black athletes in a sport dominated by whites.
The improbability is not lost on Savage.
"I feel very lucky," he said. "If my parents didn't adopt me and give me the education I got, I would not be playing hockey right now. I was lucky to find great parents, and to have brothers and a sister who support me. That's why my whole life has been so good, why I have such a positive outlook."
It is hard to imagine a more unlikely beginning. Timing and fate were key elements when Reggie wound up with the Savage family in the spring of 1970.
"We were not looking to adopt," Jean Savage said. "We already had three children."
But there was a strike at the orphanage where Reggie's birth mother had placed him. The orphanage asked the Montreal community to absorb, temporarily, some of the 600 children in its care. Jean and Rita, having heard the plea over the radio, responded. A week later, they got Reggie.
It was an instant love match. "All the family loved him so much," Jean said. "There was never any problem. His brothers and sister adopted him in every sense of the word right at the beginning."
Instead of returning Reggie when the strike ended, the Savages asked to keep him. The birth mother, with obvious reluctance, said she wouldn't sign the legal documents until Reggie was 5.
TTC "It was a nervous five years," Jean said.
The long vigil ended on schedule, though, and Reggie officially became a Savage at age 5. It was also about that time that Rita put him on skates for the first time. She ran the family restaurant at a local ice rink and enrolled him in hockey school as much to occupy his time as to teach him to skate.
But then a marvelous thing happened. Reggie quickly moved to the head of his hockey class, and it didn't take long for everyone to see he had a future on ice.
To best serve that future, Jean Savage mapped out a careful course of action. The Savages enrolled Reggie in private school, a school where Jean was the director. They also rented private ice time for Reggie to improve his skating.
"I started to give him all the chances I could," Jean said. "I put him in the best school to learn English. I pushed him to give him the necessary tools."
Two other fatherly touches: Reggie was not allowed to use a slap shot before he turned 14 ("You can't control it at that age," Jean explained) and he was not permitted to weight train until then, either. Interestingly enough, Reggie does not now possess a dynamite slap shot.
From this controlled climate, Reggie evolved into an offensive terror, cultivating a feel for the net and a knack for hitting it. As for defense, "My coaches said just score goals, don't worry about defense," Savage remembered.
Savage had it all as a youngster. He was handsome and intelligent. He was a good athlete and popular in school. Being black in a white family had proved no problem at all. Neither has it proved to be a problem in hockey.
There were a few racial slurs during three seasons of junior hockey at Victoriaville, Quebec. "But it was never a big thing," he said. "I was a good player on my team. They wanted to get me off my game. It was nothing personal. For me it was a challenge."
He met the challenge. A center, he scored 68 goals in 68 games during the 1987-88 season. As the Caps' first-round pick in 1988, Savage totaled 58 goals in 54 games at Victoriaville.
Then came the first real hardship of his career. The Caps did not take him on a preseason trip to the Soviet Union a year ago. He felt slighted.
Back at Victoriaville because no one under 20 is allowed to play in the American Hockey League, Savage played lethargically. When a rumor surfaced that he might be traded, Savage snapped out of his funk and guided the team into first place. But the issue had been raised.
"Some people questioned if he had an attitude problem," Button said. "His peers may have questioned his attitude. I never questioned it, as far as him competing and wanting to be a player. He just had a tendency to put his foot in his mouth."
Said Savage: "I expected to make the Caps last year. I didn't go on the Russian trip and I was pretty mad about it. My mind was still in D.C. when I went back to Victoriaville. All of that was my fault."
This year the Caps moved him to right wing and told him he would spend the season learning the new position in Baltimore. Savage responded with 25 goals and 25 assists in 53 games with the Jacks.
On Feb. 4, he was called up by the Caps. On Feb. 5, he made his NHL debut in a 5-3 win over Vancouver, with his parents on hand at the Cap Centre. On Feb. 7, he was injured in a practice collision with Calle Johansson. He suffered a severe groin pull and slight muscle tear of the thigh. He has been out of action since.
The Caps hope Savage can return full-strength for the AHL playoffs in April. They feel he has had a good season. Better yet, he has removed the question of attitude.
"No doubt he has removed it and gone beyond," said Laird, the Skipjacks coach. "I feel Reggie is a real determined and focused individual. That's why he's considered a top prospect."
Although Laird concedes that Savage can improve his defense, he likes his willingness to go to the net.
"When he gets the puck around the net, he takes advantage of the opportunity," Laird said. "He shows a lot of courage. All his goals are in a 15-foot radius. You have to pay a price to stand in there. That's the danger zone."
At 5 feet 10 and 187 pounds, Savage is a little stronger, but perhaps not as quick as the Caps' Dino Ciccarelli, with whom he has been compared.
"The sense is that Reggie is getting very close to playing in the NHL," Button said. "He's playing a new position and he's adapted well. He's getting close, but I'm not prepared to say he's ready to play [with the Caps] right now. When he comes, he's going to be a regular. There's no sense in him being a fourth lineman.
"He's going to be a good player in the NHL.