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Reggie Savage has always stood out from the crowd.
As a youngster, the Toledo Storm left winger was the star of his hockey and soccer teams. In class, he was the smart one who the other kids turned to when they had a question.
The attention intensified for the Montreal native when he joined Victoriaville of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League as a promising 17-year-old. But at an age when many youngsters are playing card games on the weekend, the future first-round National Hockey League draft pick was dealt another kind of card.
"I'm the only black kid on the team," Savage said. "The only black kid in the league. We went to Chicoutimi, Drummondville; people have got monkeys, people throw bananas at me. They used the 'N word' all over the place. That was the worst.
"It was not as rough to me as it was to my mom and dad and my brothers and sisters. To them it was very personal."
For Savage, there is no white, no black. Goodness is color blind.
It's what he learned at home.
John Savage was a salesman for a trucking company who worked odd jobs on the side. His wife, Rita, stayed home with their three kids.
One day, John heard on the radio that a local orphanage was asking for help; a labor strike at the facility was pending, and volunteers were needed to temporarily house the children.
Reggie had just been handed over to the foster facility by his birth mother, an unwed Haitian who came to Montreal to live with her sister.
"By the luck of the draw, the first kid they hand out is a black kid," Savage said. "It's me."
When the labor dispute ended a few weeks later, the orphanage called, asking if John and Rita would like to return the baby boy.
The answer was no. One strike and 2-month-old Reggie Savage was out.
"My mom and dad, my brothers and sisters are all white," Savage said. "I'm a black child, but I am their child."
Savage, now 34, has seen his birth mother once, when he was 5. John hired a private detective to locate the woman to make the adoption official. Reggie doesn't even know her name.
"My hometown is 99.9 percent white," said Savage, whose Storm team opens ECHL play against Wheeling at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow in the Sports Arena. "There was never any reference about race. My dad would say, 'Go in and do your best and people will be open-minded about you.' "
Overcoming the abuse he faced in some major junior cities - something he hasn't seen since moving to the pros - Savage did well enough to be the 15th player selected overall in the 1988 NHL draft.
"At 1:15 p.m., June 11, 1988, the Washington Capitals went to the podium and announced my name [at the Montreal Forum]," said Savage, who received a $100,000 signing bonus. "That was the highlight of my career so far."
Now in his 14th pro season, the former Capitals and Quebec Nordiques player, who has a home in Daytona Beach, has seen many changes. One is in demographic makeup. For many years black players were like penalty shots - both were rarely seen in the game of hockey.
Savage hopes the recent success of the likes of Jarome Iginla, Anson Carter and Georges Laraque will influence other black players and increase the participation base.
"In basketball the superstars are on TV all the time," Savage said. "You've got to do the same thing for hockey, so the younger generation can say, 'Hey, we can do this too.'●"
Toledo has had other black hockey players. Nathan Robinson starred during a short stint with the Storm two years ago, and spent part of last season with the Detroit Red Wings. Perhaps the best known was Dirk Graham, who parlayed two breakout years with the Goaldiggers in the early 1980s into a lengthy staywith the Blackhawks.
These days, Savage wants to focus on another race - the championship of the ECHL's North Division. His output will be crucial for a team that's not loaded with goal scorers.
"I'm expecting Reggie to score a minimum of 30 goals this year," Storm coach Nick Vitucci said. "And I expect him to be one of the main leaders in this locker room, as he has been so far."
A fan favorite on most of the teams for which he has played, Savage said that although there are exceptions, hockey's boosters are, in his opinion, the most color blind of all sports enthusiasts.
"Hockey fans are there to get entertained," he said. "It doesn't matter the color of your skin. They want to see effort, hard work, good body checks and scoring chances. It doesn't matter if the guy is black, white or yellow."
It's a commentary too, he notes, that should extend outside of the rink and a dressing room of 20 players.
"When you deal with people, it's not about color. It's never about color. It's always about the individual."
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