Scott Savage stared in confusion. Then, he had to let out a laugh. It’s not every day you hear college hockey’s most legendary head coach call you his “terrific beacon of light.”
“What is that even supposed mean?” Savage said, still chuckling at the quote from his 71-year old skipper, Jerry York, after Boston College men’s hockey’s game against Connecticut on Jan. 24. And, when asked, York had trouble finding reason for why he described his senior defenseman in such terms.
“Well, that’s a hard phrase to put in the paper perfectly,” York said.
But it didn’t take long for him to decipher his own coded meanings.
“Every year, he’s gotten better,” York said. “Now, he’s an elite defenseman for us.”
So why has it taken four full seasons for everyone to notice?
For Savage, a man whose funky last name matches his tenacity and fire behind the blue line, his playing career is the story of being the underdog, the forgotten one. He’s one of the new breed of Southern California hockey players—a Lake Arrowhead native who moved to San Clemente when he was 4 years old. Savage picked up roller hockey because of the family from whom his parents bought the new house. They had sons who played roller hockey, so Savage did too.
Soon, he graduated to the ice. Though only dawdling in growth throughout the American Southwest—Savage recalled that only four or five high schools in the region hosted a team in his elementary school days—hockey was still his chosen path to stardom. He joined the Yorba Linda Blackhawks for squirt, before moving up to the L.A. Selects for midget and U16 hockey. The Selects, one of the state’s premier club programs, had a deal with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings, making that path even clearer. But, as part of a marketing deal with the Kings, the Selects moved their practice facility to Lakewood, Calif. That put practice an hour drive away from the Savage house, a trip they’d mae several times a week—and that doesn’t even take games into account. While he’d miss some of the typical perks of being a kid, Savage never let the dream stray from sight.
“I didn’t always get to do the things I wanted to, like friends’ birthdays or whatever it was when I was little,” Savage said. “But I always knew in the back of my mind that it would be worth it to play college hockey.”
Savage had 24 points in 31 games with the Selects. And his hard work didn’t go unnoticed. Savage caught the eye of the United States National Team Development Program, and packed his bags for Michigan in 2011-12 to join the U-17 team. There, he’d join former SoCal rivals and soon-to-be teammates Thatcher Demko and Steve Santini. Those two guys had shown their interest in BC, and Savage wanted to follow suit.
Fortunately for Savage, York and associate head coach Greg Brown wanted him, too. In Savage, York and Brown saw a puck-moving defenseman with good feet. He wasn’t one that showed off blazing speed, nor did he have superb lateral movement. But Savage accelerated and transitioned well, especially when helping out the forwards. And boy did he bring the physicality.
It helped that they saw a significant change in his game. According to Brown, Savage had already grown into a 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame by the time they scouted him as a 15-year-old. But as guys around Savage continued to get bigger—both taller and heavier—Brown wanted to see if the young recruit would adjust his playing style. Sure enough, that transition to becoming a player that relied on skills and smarts, along with some toughness sprinkled in, convinced York and Brown to take him on. And that ability to keep adjusting has continued to help him at the college level.
“He had to change his game to a cerebral game since he couldn’t overpower guys anymore,” Brown said. “He did a great job at figuring out that, when you’re 180 pounds at 15, you can play a lot different than when you’re 185 pounds at 20.”
Yet, over the beginning of his career at BC, Savage got lost in the shuffle. On the scoring chart, Savage put up numbers that contributed, but didn’t “wow.” He tallied four goals and 14 assists in his freshman year, before falling down to no goals and six assists in an injury-marred sophomore campaign. Savage rebounded to the 18-point mark he had in his freshman year (one goal, 17 assists) as a junior.
Even for his defensive skills, Savage didn’t stand among the nation’s best. There’s not many advanced college hockey statistics readily available that we can run by, so instead, we’ll rely on plus/minus among blue liners. As a sophomore, Savage didn’t appear in the top 100. In his freshman and junior campaigns, Savage finished at +13 and +14, good for 37th and 41st in the country, respectively. Yet those totals only finished fifth and sixth on BC, the latter of which he tied with Josh Couturier, who is no longer with the program.
The forgotten part isn’t entirely Savage’s own doing. During his first three seasons, the Eagles sported several premier defensemen who caught the eyes of the NHL. Guys like Santini, Ian McCoshen, Mike Matheson, and Noah Hanifin—all first or second-round picks—routinely destroyed Hockey East’s best forwards while dazzling with SportsCenter Top-10 Plays every night. Each induced ire from general managers toward scouts who didn’t wise up on the reports and suggest using a draft pick on one of BC’s best.
But now, those days of being overshadowed are over.
As a senior, Savage has elevated his play to an entirely new level. In only 28 games, Savage has matched his single-season best, notching five goals and 13 assists. He habitually inserts himself into the offensive gameplan, though he insists that he has no intention of being a “fifth forward.” Despite that, the results have come—Savage earned his first three-point game (two assists, one goal) in a win over Massachusetts on Jan. 20.
Defensively, there has been a jump, too. Among blue liners and as of Monday morning, Savage has a +19 plus/minus. That total is not just best among BC’s now-young defensive corps. That’s the best total in the nation.
Of course, there has been improvement in Savage’s play. Yet he now gets the spotlight all to himself. And his coaches are pleased that the country can see what they’ve seen since he got to Chestnut Hill.
“Early on, in his first couple of years … he was always very good for us, but his stuff went unappreciated because you saw something that, for example, Noah did, and you were like, oh my gosh,” Brown said. “Now, without those guys, it’s a more prominent role ice time wise, and you just notice what he does more.”
More importantly, Savage’s status as the elder statesman of BC’s defensive unit has elevated the play of those around him. He has more career games than BC’s other six primary defensemen combined. Though Savage has the help of two sophomores—Michael Kim and Casey Fitzgerald, the latter of whom is a Buffalo Sabres draftee—he primarily leads a raw group of freshmen, not to mention two tag-teaming in net. In fact, he’s paired with one—Luke McInnis—whom Savage believes is getting stronger every day. Though Savage doesn’t have a captaincy letter on his shirt, he has no shame in acting as a stoic leader for the younger guys.
To show how committed he is to helping his companions out there, Savage plays on the wrong side. This switch is partially due to necessity. York has five lefties and two righties to play with behind the blue line. To create three pairings of two, someone had to switch. And Savage stepped up. According to Brown, that has made him even better.
“Scotty’s very comfortable playing the off-side,” Brown said. “It’s not that easy for everyone.”
Savage attempts to impart his wisdom to BC’s young defensemen with a simple motto: Have A Purpose. It’s the mantra of a former teammate, Ian Jenkins. When he was 15 years old, Jenkins, a goaltender, tragically passed away in a car accident in Milan, Mich. He had just been drafted by the OHL’s London Knights, and, according to Savage, there was no doubt Jenkins would make it to the bigs one day.
Savage survives Jenkins’ fighting spirit in two ways. First, he, along with Demko and 20 other former teammates, are part of Athletes With A Purpose. This group is under the Big “E” Foundation, which supports amateur hockey leagues. These 22 players help by fundraising in an annual tournament every year back in Southern California. And if you look hard, you’ll be likely to find a “H.A.P. #35” sticker somewhere on Savage’s uniform.
The second, and more inspiring, way Savage reminds himself of Jenkins’ message is living every moment as he would, and telling his teammates to do the same.
“I try not to waste any days, whether on the ice or in the rink,” Savage said of his teammate. “I want to complete every day like he would’ve.”
So maybe there’s no simple way to define what York means when he breaks out one of his hilarious York-isms to describe Savage. But one thing is for certain: the Eagles wouldn’t be where they are without him.
“Everyone is surprised where we are in the league at this juncture,” York said. “When you look at the reasons why, Scotty’s right up there at the top.”
There’s plenty of hockey left to play in the 2016-17 season, and Savage is ready to savor all of it. He’s fortunate that he’ll have his SoCal parents in attendance to see most of it: the Savages are renting an apartment near the vaunted Mike’s Pastry to catch the final two months of his BC career. It’s likely not the end of his hockey career. Though Savage isn’t drafted, there’s no doubt that some NHL scout is keeping tabs on him—perhaps one that struck out on McCoshen, Santini, Matheson, or Hanifin earlier. But with trophy season beginning Monday night with the Beanpot opener, Savage is hungry to hold another one at center ice.
And, to add another trophy to their overly-crowded shelf, the Eagles will need Savage—York’s terrific beacon of light—just as much as he needs them, to shine brighter than ever.
Featured Image by Lizzy Barrett / Heights Editor