Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Saku Koivu: The MIGHTY Duck

Tomorrow night, Saku Koivu returns to Montreal for only the second time since leaving the team in 2009.

The only other time Koivu played in Montreal, it wasn't exactly a banner night for him. He had zero points, took three penalties - including 2 which resulted in goals, and the team needed a shootout to pull out a victory. The Montreal faithful, voted Koivu the games first star, however, because the game was decided in extra time, the games first star automatically goes to the player who scored the winning goal. Saku Koivu was relegated to second star. That garnered the former Captain his second ovation of the night.

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Saku Koivu. I can't hide it. His name often comes up in HABS-TOWN features and I wrote full feature about him a few years ago. The numbers for Koivu don't lie, he will go down as one of the all-time greats to play for one of the most storied franchises in all of pro-sports. Had Koivu accomplished all he did here - on and off the ice - with any other team, his jersey would be retired.

When Koivu had to leave Montreal in the summer of 2009, Mitch Melnick called for people to write in emails that those at the station would then forward along to Saku. I raced to my computer and wrote something as quickly as I could:

I can remember the summer of 1994. I was 13 years old and was only starting to be interested in sports. I had followed the Canadiens cup run in '93 and watched much of the next season, I was of course excited but what I saw, but really didn't understand the game the way I do now. I was saddened the day my favorite player - Kirk Muller - was traded away - but I would soon find a new #11 to cheer for. So enamored with Captain Kirk was I, that I started to wear #11 on my jersey in every sport I've played since - however much as I tell that story, noone believes it. Everyone believes I wear #11 for Saku Koivu.

I can remember that summer of 1994, I had no idea who Saku Koivu was. My friend Lee however told me that there was this little Finnish guy named Koivu who was going to be the next great player for the Habs. I can remember us walking along Decarie to the old Sports Cards Colisseum shop (in the even older Snowdon Theatre building) and both of us buying Saku Koivu "debut cards". Saku had yet to play a game in the NHL, so in the picture on the card, he's of course wearing Finnish colours. In the picture, Saku's in the middle of his famous "Tiger Jump" (as coined by Pierre Mcguire) - a move that any Habs fan would recognize instantly.

Saku Koivu made his debut in 1995, and I can remember during the 0-5 start that got Jaques Demers fired one clear moment that defined Saku Koivu for me, at instantly made him my newest favorite Hab. The tiny little Koivu in only his 3rd or 4th game in the league levelled the much larger Eric Lindros into the boards. Lindros fell over and Saku skated off with the puck. In my memory Saku crushed Lindros even harder than Scott Stevens eventually would. Perhaps my memory has embellished the story a little bit - but I prefer it this way.

Saku played with the heart of a lion. He was never afraid of guys that were bigger or stronger then him. He faced the toughest defense and the toughest checkers every night, and still he excelled. Some would say he was never a true first line Center, I say he never had first line wingers to play with. (Mark Recchi aside). When Mike Ribiero had his one breakout year with Montreal, and when The Kostitsyn - Plekanec - Kovalev line was really running 2 seasons ago, "experts" and fans would claim that Saku had been relegated to the 2nd line, I would disagree. Saku's minutes never dipped down, and he always had the other teams best defensive pairing shadowing his line - so no matter what people here may have said - to the rest of the league whichever line had Saku Koivu on it was always the Canadiens most dangerous.

I vividly remember watching Hockey Night in Canada that night in December of 96 when the Habs played the Hawks and everything changed for the "next big star". Saku was leading the National Hockey League in scoring when a knee on knee hit changed the next 3 years. Saku showed everyone the courage and dedication to this team he had by always foregoing surgery on the knee - since with rehab he could get back to playing faster. Each time he would come back, look great, and re-injure the knee. People called him "injury-prone" - ignoring that it was the same injury over and over - I call him a fierce competitor.

I remember the Cancer diagnosis. This was just after Saku had finally had surgery to repair his knee. He was finally going to be healthy. He would finally become dominant again, but it was not to be - at least on the ice. Off of the ice however, Saku dominated the disease that riddled his body. He beat all the best predictions and came back to play phenomenal hockey in a magical playoff run that was cut short by the stubborness of the coach at the time. Saku looked like he hadn't missed a beat on the ice.

When the press conference was held to announce that Saku was cancer-free and he would be attempting to make a comeback before the season's end I followed intently and listened to every sound byte possible to make certain I would be at that game. I paid full face value to sit in the Air-Canada club and free food be damned, I was at that game, and it was the greatest moment I have ever been a part of. The Canadiens won their 7th straight game, clinched a playoff spot for the first time in 4 years, and SAKU! SAKU! SAKU! was back. I will NEVER forget that moment.

I believe the Canadiens management should be ashamed at how they have handled this. Saku Koivu was not only a phenomenal person on the ice, but off the ice as well. Saku can be measured by his success on the ice (he currently sits 10th on the Canadiens all-time scoring list where there is NOONE from his generation anywhere close), but most importantly he can be measured by his worth as a man. The Saku Koivu foundation is a phenomenal lasting legacy that I hope will continue it's fantastic work. I hope it will not be forgotten by the people of Montreal - the same way I doubt Saku Koivu ever will.

My Koivu #11 Ducks t-shirt is already on order, and I plan on wearing it proudly (the only time I will ever wear a visiting team's logo at the Bell Centre) when Saku and the Ducks visit this year.

Saku, you've been an inspiration to everyone in the city of Montreal whether they realize it or not, they will one day. I can only hope that others follow your path as a man, and try to do good the way you have in the face of adversity.

Thanks for the memories, good luck with your new team, and here's hoping to see you one day once again in the bleu - blanc - rouge.

I have no idea if Saku Koivu ever read what I wrote, but I think it's of little consequence. Towards the end of his tenure in Montreal, some here had soured on him, preferring instead to campaign for an enigmatic Russian to be re-signed while letting the longest tenured Captain in the history of the franchise go out with a whimper.

Hab fans remembered Saku fondly when he returned in 2011, and I am sure they will do the same again tomorrow night. Let's just hope it's not for the last time - maybe just the final time as a visitor.

For more on Saku Koivu the hockey player: "Saku Koivu: By the numbers"

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