After spending his entire 13 year NHL career with the Canadiens, Saku Koivu now departs Montreal for the sunny skies of Anaheim, California. A class act throughout his time with the Canadiens, Koivu will be remembered as much for his exploits on the ice as he will be for his battle with cancer off the ice. In the long and storied history of the Habs franchise, Koivu will also be recognized as being the first European captain in the history of the Montreal Canadiens.
Despite the fact that Koivu was unable to lead the Habs to a Stanley Cup, he will still be remembered for the positive figure he was to the city of Montreal. In a city where hockey players are treated like icons, one can expect nothing less than a lengthy standing ovation for Koivu when he makes his return to the Bell Centre in Montreal. After signing a one year deal at $3.25 million with Anaheim, Koivu decided to pass up an opportunity to play alongside his younger brother Mikko of the Minnesota Wild.
Saku Koivu quickly became entrenched in the history of the Habs shortly after beginning his NHL career. In his first season with the Canadiens in 1995-96, Koivu was on hand to witness the media attention surrounding both the trading of Patrick Roy and the closing of the Montreal Forum. As Koivu was on hand for the last ever hockey game played at the Forum, he and his teammates became witness to the importance of the hockey shrine to the city of Montreal.
The evening was characterized by a number of former Habs captains like Bob Gainey, Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau and others appearing in front of the sold out crowd at the Forum. The biggest ovation however was reserved for Maurice “Rocket” Richard who stood in silence as the Montreal faithful gave him a standing ovation that was characteristic of the heroic status that fans of the Canadiens place upon their hockey legends. Years later, following a battle with a form of a cancer known as non-Hodgkins lymphoma, Koivu would receive an ovation similar to that of the Rocket.
After being named captain of the Canadiens in 1999, Koivu would have a serious battle on his hands as two years later he would be diagnosed with cancer. The images of Koivu’s battle with the disease became visible with his declining weight and his obvious loss of hair.
After successfully overcoming his battle with cancer, Koivu made his return to the Habs on the night of April 9, 2002 in a game against the Senators at the Bell Centre. As Koivu skated on the ice prior to the Canadian anthem, the Montreal faithful once again showed why they are some of the best hockey fans in the entire world. The crowd of 21,000 fans were heard chanting Koivu’s name throughout an impressive four-minute long standing ovation. The evening would mark the return of Koivu to the Habs after a successful fight against cancer. For Montreal fans, the focus would now shift back to Koivu’s play on the ice rather than the battles he was dealing with off the ice.
There were many ups and downs in the playing career of Koivu as a Hab. Like most Canadian cities, anything but winning the Stanley Cup is unacceptable and the case is no different in Montreal. Koivu does not have a trophy case full of individual awards during his time as a Hab, but he nonetheless gave it all he had night in and night out.
Koivu always battled and was not afraid to go to the net and take some punishment to get there. You could see it when he played that he was doing whatever he could to give his team a chance to win. Whether it was battling for a loose puck in the corner or taking a hit to make a play, one thing you could never question about Koivu was his desire to win on the ice. In 791 games in Montreal, Koivu would amass 641 points.
His point totals in the playoffs on the other hand were fairly impressive as Koivu would have 16 goals and 32 assists for 48 points in 56 games. Throughout his tenure as a member of the Habs, the club would never make it beyond the second round of the playoffs. It is hard to blame Koivu for the Habs not bringing a 25th Stanley Cup to Montreal though as the criticism he received is simply part of the job description.
The organization suffered through some sad moments such as the trade demands of Patrick Roy and a low Canadian dollar that made it difficult for Montreal to pursue top free agents in a non cap era. While the playoff sweep at the hands of the Bruins last year may still sting a little bit for Montreal fans, Koivu was still able to be part of the historic Montreal and Boston rivalry in the playoffs. On three occasions as a Canadien, Koivu was able to be an integral part of the Habs beating the Boston Bruins in the post season. While Koivu displayed a lot of success on the ice, it was also his actions away from the rink to where Koivu should also be embraced.
Throughout the years, players like Curtis Joseph, Jarome Iginla and others have all used the financial gain they have achieved as NHLers to support those who are in need. Saku Koivu is no stranger to this group either as he has made significant charitable contributions to many people both inside and outside of the Montreal area.
Via the creation of the Saku Koivu Foundation in 2002, the organization created awareness about the need for a PET/CT scanner in Montreal hospitals in order to help those who are diagnosed with cancer. Through the financial contributions of both himself and his foundation, Koivu would eventually get the expensive PET/CT scanner placed at the Montreal General Hospital in association with the McGill University Health Centre. Despite his numerous contributions however, as captain of the Canadiens it was common sense that Koivu would still have his share of critics.
Being a part of one of the most historic franchises in the history of hockey can be a pressure filled situation for many players. During his time in Montreal, Koivu had to deal with issues such as going to an organization with the most Stanley Cups in hockey history and being the first European captain ever for the Habs. There was one occasion where Koivu was even criticized for not being fluent in French, despite his willingness to handle endless amounts of media requests that were directed his way.
While Koivu was a great player throughout his time in Montreal, he was not a superstar like that of a Jean Beliveau or a Patrick Roy. For that reason alone, it will be surprising if Koivu’s name hangs in the rafters of the Bell Centre alongside some of the legends who have worn the Canadiens jersey in the past.
Who knows what the future of Saku Koivu will dictate in the hockey world. Koivu is only signed for one year in Anaheim and at the age of the 34, Koivu likely has some more years left in the game of hockey. The former Habs captain will be remembered as much for his battle with cancer as he will be for his hockey career in Montreal.
Koivu’s strength and courage in beating the deadly disease is no doubt an inspiration to many. As captain of the Canadiens, Koivu took his responsibility very seriously by constantly taking the brunt of criticism when the team was not playing well. There is clearly a changing of the guard with the Canadiens as the names of Koivu, Kovalev and Komisarek are now being replaced by Gomez, Cammalleri and Spacek.
By joining his friend Teemu Selanne in Anaheim, Koivu could have one of his best opportunities ever at winning the Stanley Cup. Even with the absence of Chris Pronger, the Ducks still present a formidable roster of young players like Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry who should help make Anaheim a team to watch out for in the Western Conference. It will be interesting to see how Koivu reacts to a change of scenery for the first time in his hockey career as he makes the transition to Southern California.
One aspect of the Canadiens franchise that you have to admire is the way that both the organization and the fans honor those who have worn the Montreal uniform. Upon his return to Montreal, Koivu can expect a warm reception from the crowd at the Bell Centre and hopefully the organization will honor him as well in giving him a video tribute of sorts.
Some people will remember Koivu for a great goal he scored in the playoffs or perhaps a great pass that he made. However, for many people who continually embark on the fight against cancer, the lasting legacy of Koivu in Montreal will be those who benefit from his contributions in bringing a PET/CT scanner to the Mcgill University Health Centre. Simply put, Saku Koivu is a survivor.
Koivu’s charitable work to the city of Montreal will allow others to become survivors in the years and years to come and that is how fans in Montreal should come to remember the first ever European captain in Canadiens history.