- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- There's so much more behind the return of Marc Savard than most people can even fathom.
The veteran forward was back on the ice for the Boston Bruins on Thursday for the first time this season after dealing with a severe case of post-concussion syndrome. His teammates rewarded him with an 8-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and ironically, Savard, a top playmaker, did not register a point.
His name didn't appear on the score sheet, but his return gave the Bruins an emotional lift.
"I felt good," Savard said. "Obviously, there were some shifts where I was a little tired. It was great to be back. The fans were fantastic. I got a little emotional, and it was kind of tough to go out on that [first] shift. It was special."
Sure, there was a little bit of rust in Savard's game, but he played well (a total of 15 minutes, 45 seconds) for someone who hasn't played in an NHL game for six months.
It's been a long ordeal for him.
"It's been a long road, that's for sure," he said. "I owe a lot of thanks to a lot of people. Everybody has helped me out along the way, and they don't understand how much they've helped me. The fans, too. Just tonight, to top it all off, they're wonderful, and that's one of the reasons I chose to stay here. Hopefully we can reward them with a long playoff run."
Savard originally suffered a Grade 2 concussion on March 7 in Pittsburgh when he was on the receiving end of a blindside hit by the Penguins' Matt Cooke, who was not suspended for the hit.
Ever since Savard was taken off the ice completely immobilized, his quality of life and his career were in jeopardy.
Even though he battled back and was cleared to return to game action in time for the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia Flyers this past spring, the 33-year-old didn't realize the worst was still ahead of him.
During his offseason workout over the summer, Savard was preparing for September's training camp when he began to experience symptoms and was quickly diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. It became a complicated situation, as he also dealt with depression.
It was serious.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli announced at the start of camp that Savard would be out indefinitely. First and foremost, the Bruins wanted to make sure Savard could regain his quality of life. If he was able to achieve that, his hockey career would come second.
Before Savard began his rehab, the Bruins held a meeting with everyone who would be involved in the process, including management, coaches, doctors, therapists and the strength and conditioning coach.
The timeline for a possible return was long and steady. During the entire process, Savard always made it a point to thank Chiarelli, Julien, the team's medical and training staffs, but more importantly, the fans.
"You have to give credit to the medical staff for doing a good job with him," coach Claude Julien said on Thursday. "The strength and conditioning coach [John Whitesides] got him going in the right direction. Our coaching staff took over and really pushed him hard. He looked like a guy who is in really good shape and good stamina. I liked his game from start to finish."
Savard began skating on his own on Oct. 19 at Ristuccia Arena, the Bruins' practice facility in Wilmington, Mass. He started with brief 20-minute twirl the first day and steadily increased the volume of work both on and off the ice.
You could see him improve both physically and mentally on a weekly basis. During the entire process, he was under constant care, and when he was finally ready to undergo the exertion and neuro-psych tests, he knew he was close to returning.
The Bruins' medial staff performed all the necessary testing and deemed him ready for contact late last month. Still, the Bruins wanted to be absolutely positive Savard was ready, so he was sent to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and underwent another battery of tests performed by sports-related concussion specialist Dr. Michael Collins.
Savard was given clearance for contact on Nov. 23.
As a prequel to Savard's imminent return, Chiarelli needed to clear cap space, so he traded defenseman Matt Hunwick to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for defensive prospect Colby Cohen on Nov. 29.
At that point, it was only a matter of time before No. 91 was back playing in games.
Savard was finally given the go-ahead Thursday morning when Julien and Chiarelli informed him that he would be in the lineup against the Lightning at the Garden.
"They gave me the green light, and obviously I didn't sleep much today," Savard said. "I tried not to walk around the room when I got here, but I felt like I was flying around the room, burning energy that I didn't want to burn. I was just so excited and I felt like a little kid again. It was great."
As tradition goes, goaltender Tim Thomas led the Bruins onto the ice for the pregame warmup, but quickly stopped to allow Savard on the ice first. He took a solo twirl around the Bruins' zone before his teammates followed. It was a classy move by the Bruins players.
"I didn't even know what he was doing there," admitted Savard. "I didn't realize, I just thought he was stepping aside and I just kept skating. I looked over and no one was there. It was nice of the guys."
Thomas came up with the plan only a few minutes prior to the warmup, and meant it more as a joke to ease Savard's obvious jitters.
"Hopefully, it helped Savvy relax a little bit," Thomas said. "You're probably nervous after a long time like that."
On his first shift back, Savard was centering rookie Tyler Seguin and Michael Ryder when the 17,565 in attendance gave No. 91 a boisterous standing ovation. During a television timeout, a welcome back message was shown on the video board as the players stood and banged their sticks against the boards on the bench.
Savard waved to the fans.
AC/DC's "Back in Black" began to play over the sound system.
"It was great having him back," said Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron. "Savvy did a great job tonight. It is always great to have a guy like him coming back, especially for his health. We're just happy to have him back. He's a great player and a big addition to our team."
Savard's return was a culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of concerned and professional people connected with the Bruins organization. He will continue to be evaluated on a daily basis because of the severity of his injury.
Savard, the Bruins and everyone involved handled the situation perfectly.
"Yeah, it was handled perfectly," Savard said. "I felt no effects tonight. Everything was great. I really enjoyed myself tonight. I had a smile on the bench and had a lot of fun. It was great."
Joe McDonald covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.