In 2002, when Canadiens captain Saku Koivu battled a stomach cancer that not only threatened his career, but his life, the hockey world was captivated by his courageous fight and eventual return to the game.
I'd guess that if you are reading this, you recall the events leading up to April 9, 2002, and remember even more vividly, the game the Canadiens played that night upon Saku's return. If you did not live through that swell of emotions, chances are, as a Habs, you have heard or read about that legendary night, and game, at the rink that was then known as the Molson Centre.
The night Koivu returned that season, is known in Canadiens' lore as the evening the Molson (Bell) Centre found its heart. What you will read below, will explain in great detail, why that is.
If you happen to be a Canadiens fan who does not live within the immediate one hour circumference of the city, it is unlikely that you were fortunate enough to experience the in - depth coverage that Koivu's battle with cancer received. Much was written concerning the player's prognosis early on, but the media greatly respected his demand for privacy during the entire ordeal as it evolved. When the terrible news began having some upside, an entire city waited with baited breath on the most trivial of details concerning Koivu's hoped - for comeback. Much of what became public discussion then, arrived in newspapers via the lips of players interviewed on the subject.
I am bringing all of this up, simply because, if you were not within the Montreal news zone at that particular time, it would have been difficult to grasp what Koivu's comeback meant, in larger magnified terms.
The Canadiens media has a reputation for upturning the scum on a scoundrel, but it rarely receives due credit for covering great human interest and feel - good stories when they arise. In the spring of 2002 - in that regard - Koivu kept their keyboards humming.
It is now a little more than seven years ago, when Koivu's battle won became front page, world wide news. For those who were not able to become immersed in the local coverage of it the first time around, the following read may serve as an eye opener of sorts, in a variety of ways.
I'll not veil my reasoning or intent for digging up an old newspaper from my basement and posting all of this at this particular moment in Habs time. Koivu, as a 34 year old, soon to unrestricted free agent, looks to have, by all perceptions, played his last game as a member of the Montreal Canadiens this past April 22nd. It is my personal opinion only, but I think it would be a big slip up for Koivu to end his NHL career in any other jersey than that of the Canadiens.
Koivu means too much to this team, looking back - as he defines so much of the past Habs decade going forward - that his experiences are practically irreplacable on the team, going forward. A quick glance back through the Canadiens organization to ten years ago - to the 1999 season - reveals that there is no one other than Koivu who remains on the Habs scene to provide that link across time, as a testimony of sorts to where the club is coming from, and to help it get to where it wants to be.
Yes, Koivu's tenure with the team coincides with some of the club's bleakest seasons. If you are of sound enough perspective not to lay all of those season's failures at Koivu's feet, then you may undertsand the reasoning behind wanting him back.
In the Canadiens series against Boston, Koivu was still giving it everything he had, despite the bleak scenario the team found itself in. The effort fell short, but the lasting image I have, is of Koivu constantly throwing himself at Bruins skyscraper Zdeno Chara like few others around him dared. Just a week before the season ended, we all had a brief glimpse at how Koivu would have looked, when surrounded by player's whose talent equalled his grit, conviction and heart.
During a four game spell, on a line that featured Alex Kovalev on the right side and Alex Tanguay on the left, the trio burned up the scoresheet, especially when accompanied by Andrei Markov and Mathieu Schneider on defense. The Koivu we all saw at that time, reminded many of the small dominant center who began the 1996-97 season on a tear. An injury knocked Koivu out of the lineup in a mid season game against Chicago, when he was leading the NHL scoring race, in only his second campaign. The knee injury that hampered Koivu that season, the resulting battle with cancer in 2002, and an eye injury suffered two years later, all failed to shut the player down for good.
This past season, Koivu posted numbers equal to his career points per game ratio, despite once again being slowed by an injury that cost him 17 games. An injury to Robert Lang and a dismal campaign by fellow centerman Tomas Plekanec, lead to Koivu finishing the year as the club's top pointing pivot one more time.
In 2002, on April 10, the day after Koivu heroically made a return to the team, Le Journal de Montreal ran eight pages of articles on the magical night. I have taken scans of these pages and presented them here, along with the articles that accompanied them. Some articles have direct translations into english and others have been expounded upon and further interpreted for the benefit of a fuller picture of the player and the meaning of that evening.
From Calgary, Brian Savage Will Keep A Close Eye On His Good Friend Saku
- Yvon Pedneault
Brian Savage would have much prefered to by his best friend Saku's side yesterday at the Molson Centre. If he had his wish, they would have driven into town together from their west island homes to the arena, and shared the usual laughs along the way. They would have appreciated every second of that drive to the game last night where theunthinkable occured.
The two men have shared difficult times together. Koivu, on one hand, suffering through his illness, and Savage, his best buddy, on the other, continuously trying to come up with the encouragement and words to support his friend hit by a terrible sickness.
Brian Savage and his wife showed a great generosity of spirit in the hardest of times for Saku and his fiancee Hanna. The Savage family were living across the street from the Koivus, and each day Brian would stop by, often before trips into the Molson Centre.
"Often Hanna would cross the street, coming over simply to find some refuge, when she could no longer hide her sorrow. There were times when she just could not hold back her tears", said Savage, as his new team, the Coyotes, prepared to face the Flames in calgary on Monday.
"Hanna did not want her man to see her in such a state. She did not want him to see her in moments of anxiety and doubt."
Savage understood her emotions very well. He had been there himself - on the verge of being consumed by his worries.
On mornings when he would accompany Koivu to the hospital for his chemotherapy treatments, Savage would look to keep the conversations away from what was on Saku's mind the most.
"I wanted him to think of other things. We'd play games, and we'd find ways so that it wasn't continuously on his mind. Sometimes I succeeded in that area, other times...."
"I saw to which extent his cancer could be viscious, unfair, terrible...."
For Savage, he never lost hope, because he knew Saku better than anyone. He watched every step of the way as Koivu battled the uncompromising adversary that is cancer. He has seen Saku defy it with the determination that has always been a trait of his character. He has seen Koivu manage each stage of the illness, grimacing, crying, raging, and cussing. Savage had seen it at its worst, as Koivu looked as frail as a dead man walking. Brian Savage would have liked to be at Koivu's side last night.
"We're playing the Flames tonight", said Savage from Calgary on Monday, "and hopefully I'll have ample time to watch the game on televison."
That would likely be Savage's time to look for a quiet place alone, to shed some tears.
"All of us - Hanna, Saku, my wife and I - spent a few days down south during the Olympic break. Saku was talking about coming back then. You could just see his conviction."
"There was such a determination emerging from him, that you couldn't help but subscribe to everything he was telling us....the scenario that he had in his mind.
Along Koivu's path to recovery, Savage observed his friend's progression by television in recent weeks. Brian called yesterday to offer his encouragement. The captain thanked him, wishing he could have been there with him.
"It's Saku's time to share this moment with Hanna, his fans, and his team mates. We'll have plenty of time down the road, and we'll share some laughs for sure."
A few months back, no one dared plan anything for 2002, except for Hanna, who busied herself with wedding arrangements.
In the meantime, Saku put his skates on and played a game, because he needed to know. He had to find out that he could still play hockey and compete at the highest level. No one was going to refuse him this first step towards the unknown.
There was but one way for Koivu to answer the question: Play!
There was no one who could have denied him the right he'd earned.
It Surpasses Everything I've Seen - Dr. David Mulder
- Bertrand Raymond
"The miracle isn't that Saku is alive, it's that he is already back playing."
The words, are those of Canadiens chief physician and Montreal General Hospital chief surgeon Dr. David Mulder. Doctors today, when asked, often hesitate to term a victory over a cancer as a miracle. With advances made, more and more people are finding ways to defeat various illnesses. Additionally, it is never known whether if such terrible illnesses will return.
Having stated such, the respected surgeon did not mince emotions when he presented himself at the General last September, following a harried call by Koivu's fiancee Hanna. The player arrived in a lamentable state, and Mulder was immediately, gravely concerned.
We understand better now why Mulder and Dr. Vincent Lacroix initially met the press with long faces and misty eyes when they first informed the media of the enormous misfortune that had struck the Canadiens top player.
"We feared that he would not survive it", admits Mulder."In cases as serious as this, we'll often turn to statistics. In this case, the numbers confirmed that 50% of the people stricken with this particular type live less than five years."
Even worse, five years ago, virtually no one survived it. What is good news in this case, is that once a patient reaches a certain stage in his recouperation, he enters a whole other level of prognosis. Koivu has already come so far in his progression that he has already surpassed the more frightening stages and reached a level that is extremely favourable.
"We must limit ourselves to speaking in terms of a remission, as it is neccessary to wait five years before calling it a complete victory. However, we can believe that Saku will be completely cured. At this rate, after one year, the chance of a relapse is very small."
It is an incredible story - Holly wood could make a movie of it. The national hero of European country, becomes a team's first round draft choice, then the captain of the most decorated club in hockey before he is hit by a viscious cancer that he valliantly defeats.
During an interesting interview held between two operating wings of the hospital, Mulder repeated many times to which point he was impressed by his patient over the past seven months.
"The draconian regime which he imposed on himself in order to make it back and play surpasses everything I've ever seen."
Mulder asked that this part of the story be kept quiet, but permit me this indiscretion, as it wholly demonstrates all that went on, including the temperment of the battler that is Koivu. As the captain had a fixed goal of returning to play before the end of the regular season, it was his doctor's opinion that he'd best aim for next fall. In order to assure that Koivu would not be able to return any sooner, Mulder set all the objectives to be reached at higher levels and tougher standards than normal.
"In each case, I set the bar higher than I normally would", Mulder said, with a sly trickster's grin.
Koivu, in order to return to the ice, had to meet the following obligations:
1 - He had to reach his regular playing weight.
2 - During chemotherapy, protein ratios normally drop by up to 15%. Koivu would not play until all his protein ratios returned to normal.
3 - In submitting himself to intensive workouts, it had to be determined that Koivu's energy levels would be replenished in short order.
4 - His blood test levels had to come out completely normal, which Koivu finally achieved just hours before stepping on the ice.
"What can I say. He met every expectation I purposely set out of reach for him!", Mulder said, smilling. "The guy is incredible. His capacity for training hard is superior to anything I've seen up till then. He is an incredibly motivated individual."
Mulder offers an amusing anecdote. Koivu's fiancee Hanna told him on Monday that had Saku's blood tests not be conclusive that morning, that he was intent on retaking the tests that same afternoon.
"I had to make him understand that it would not have made any difference in that time span", Mulder chuckled.
Koivu's recouperation period was predicted by doctors for twelve weeks. He achieved it in ten. Their calculations were thwarted by a man who just didn't want to hear anything about their expectations.
What gives this accomplishment of Koivu's additional merit, is the fact that he met all the requirements without the assistance of any drugs that normally would have been injected into him in order to stimulate the spinal cord weakened during the course of intensive chimo. Had the Canadiens not made the playoffs, Koivu would have insisted to play for Finland in the World Championships. Koivu would not have been eligible to partake in the tournament, as the drugs required by his rehabilitation are prohibited by the international tournament.
Koivu runs no risks by returning to play sooner than expected. Tests show that physical efforts do not deplete the immune system - they reinforce it.
While it is of no doubt that Koivu was extremely well taken care of, this memorable night of hockey would not have happened without Koivu's profound determination and courage. Doctors in charge of taking care of Saku are stunned by his accomplishments.
"You have to recognize all the credit he deserves", Mulder said. "Saku is a little bulldog. All throughout his sickness, he's remained the same competitive guy. He's always played tough."
"During the course of his cancer, we've often had to calm him, and incite him to play things safe. Progress never came quickly enough for him. Nothing came fast enough for him."
One day, the doctor had to sit Koivu down for a talk.
"You know, Saku, you have to look beyond the game of hockey. My job is to assure that you can get married next summer and go on to have children."
Koivu's answer ended the discussion.
"Right now, doctor, I want to be a hockey player."
"People who beat this illness are extremely positive" - Demers
- Marc De Foy
When he is not seated at his commentators chair in the RDS booth, Jacques Demers prefers to take in game from the comfort of his own living room. Last night, like everyone else, Demers had to be there in person to see Saku Koivu's return to the Molson Centre.
Without a doubt, like many other who have witnessed a loved one batlling cancer, Demers has realized once more, how strong such people are.
Demers' mother passed away from cancer in the prime years of her life, while the former coach's wife Debbie is a survivor, having won a long arduous battle.
"After having seen all that they went through, I have nothing but admiration for them. People who beat this illness are extremely positive people. My wife continues to work out, even after all she has been through."
Demers was Koivu's coach for his first training camp and first four NHL games, seven seasons ago. Even in that short time, he had seen enough to gather than Koivu was a race apart.
"Serge Savard and I travelled to Finland to watch him play in the World Junior Championships during the 1994 lockout. When we asked him if he thought he could make the Canadiens the following season, his answer displayed absolute certainty in his abilities."
Even though Koivu had just arrived from Finland and was a newcomer on the Canadiens, he was one of the first to call and thank Demers upon his firing just a week into the season.
"Normally, it is the veterans of the team that call in those situations, but Saku wanted to thank me for giving him his first shot in the NHL. Those are things a coach doesn't forget."
Demers fully understands the emotions that Michel Therrien and his players are living through this season, in regards to Koivu's absense, because he experienced a similar happening with John Cullen in Tampa Bay. Cullen missed all of the 1997-98 season, when afflicted with non - Hodgkins Lymphona. Cullen's cancer was in an advanced stage, and in addition to chemotherapy, the illness required an operation. His return to league play was a short, but the important thing is that Cullen is alive to live a normal life today.
"Everyone in the Lightning dressing room was very touched when I announced to Cullen that he had made the team at the end of training camp in 1999. It was quite a comeback, because at a certain time, he had looked death in the eye. His return didn't have the same impact in Tampa as Koivu's has here, but we had our largest crowd of the season that evening. Cullen was in the starting lineup that night, and fans gave him a standing ovation, while players on both clubs rapped their sticks on the ice."
Sounds like a familiar scene.
Koivu And Cullen: Small In Size, Big In Heart
- Marc De Foy
Jacques Demers brings up several similarities regarding Saku Koivu and John Cullen, who he coached in Tampa Bay after he had survived the exact same cancer that the Canadiens captain suffered from.
"To start with, both players are exactly the same height and weight - 5' 10'' and 182 pounds", Demers points out."In both cases, their small stature is surpassed by their strength of character. Ironically, both have Mark Recchi as their best friend."
Cullen only played four NHL games after defeating his illness. Demers, who was both coach and GM of the Lightning at the time, sent him down to the minors, with the IHL's Cleveland Lumberjacks.
"John was nearing the end of his career, when he fell ill. He was 33. I offered him a job as assistant coach with the Lightning, but he did not want to stop playing. He went down to Cleveland, where he scored 6 points in one game. After a time, he called me back to take me up on the offer."
Cullen finished out the year alongside Demers behind the Tampa bench. Since that time, Cullen has operated several car dealerships, having grown a family business that began in Ontario and now includes several dealerships in the United States. After marrying a girl from Boston, Cullen lives in Atlanta, with a brother nearby.
"Nothing is more important than life!" - Koivu
- Mario Leclerc
We haven't seen this kind of scene very often in Canadiens history. Check that...make that never!
Saku Koivu left the Canadiens press conference room in the midst of a standing ovation....from the press!
That's proof enough that the Habs captain has won the respect of a most irreducible group.
"I had a lot of fun", began Koivu, breaking into a big grin. "I'm proud that I was able to come back this quickly after having cancer. The night was special, for everyone, and especially for me. It was great that my family were all here to see."
"I was nervous in the first period, but fine after that. By the third period, with a tight score, I simply watched my team mates from the bench. I was happy to hear the siren at the end, because the win helped our team achieve its goal of making the playoffs."
In hockey terms, I felt comfortable, but I'm not yet in top shape. I feel good, and there's no reason to assume I won't feel just as good tomorrow. I'm going to make the trip to New Jersey and play in the final two regular season games."
"I feel fully capable to lead a normal life, but in terms of play, I have a ways to go. I'll approach hockey differently, I think. I see it as no less important, just differently. In fact, nothing is more important than life."
Koivu conceded that many people, especially children, will be inspired by his trials.
"That is quite possible, and I wish them all the best."
Finally, Koivu had some kind words for the Ottawa Senators, who saluted his return with great sportsmanship.
"They congratulated me before the game, and kept away from the dirt stuff during it. I was hit like I normally would be, but that's hockey. And I'd best get used to it, as the playoffs are around the corner. I have two games to be ready."
Koivu then answered questions from a throng of Finish media, crossing the seas especially for this momentous event.
Juneau: "We had to win this game"
- Marc de Foy
Canadiens players gathered after this memorable game were unanimous: They considered themselves fortunate, lucky and blessed to have taken part on the night, in a celebration of life, with their captain Saku Koivu.
Joe Juneau, who had asked team mates to put the pedal to the metal a few weeks back, in order to make Saku's dream of playing in the playoffs come true, was at a loss for words as journalists asked him to describe what he felt and what he'd just seen.
"I'll never see anything like that again", said the veteran centerman. "I've played games in the Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, where people come just to be loud. Tonight, the fans came to show their appreciation for player who has come a long way in his fight. That's what made it so special."
The decibel meter rose, instead of dropping, each time public address man Michel Lacroix attempted to welcome Nadya Blanchette singing "O Canada".
"It was as though folks didn't want the game to start", Juneau added. "This game was dedcated to Saku, to whom we have dedicated our entire season to, as well as Jose Theodore, who helped us get this far by giving us a chance to win each night, and to Andre Savard, who assembled this group by getting players. Saku came back to help us. We had to win this game."
Patrice Brisebois, for his part, was the most euphoric player after the game, in a dressing room shrunken by the mass of media and cameramen.
"Saku spoke to us before the game", Brisebois offered, "He was nervous, which is totally normal. He went around encouraging everyone. He played one heck of a game. That ovation he received - I'm very sensitive when it comes to that stuff. Saku earned every once of it. What a great night!"
The veteran defenseman didn't hold back his joy, screaming his guts out, happy to finally be back in the playoffs. He could be heard from all corners of the room.
Jose Theodore also confessed to living through some vivid emotions.
"It was a beautiful night. I had a lump in my throat during the pre - game warmup."
Therrien: "What a magical night!"
- Mario Leclerc
"I am proud of my players, from the first to the last", exclaimed Michel Therrien after the game. What a magical night! Who could have imagined such a scenario. Talk about an ending to the game - typical of our season!"
"Our captain returns to play, and wetake advantage of the situation and make the playoffs. The credit goes to all these men. They believed it could be done right from training camp. It is quite an accomplishment considering all the adversity we have dealth with since the start of the season. This is a big step, but it's just one."
"The ovation Saku received from the crowd, I can't even describe that in words. He has greatly impressed me, and the crowd was fantastic."
A Celebration Of Courage
- Serge Vleminckx
After having stared death in the eye, one man of small stature, but big in heart, was swallowed up in love, last night.
Who ever said that the Molson Centre was a lifeless building? 21,173 fans rolled up into one gigantic ball of emotions in greeting the return of Saku Koivu to the playing surface.
It was an emotional reunion between fans and a wayward friend, that began from the pre - game warmup. Already - and earlier than usual - an increased number of fans could be spotted in their seats. As the Canadiens players hit the ice to loosen up and shoot some pucks, Koivu was the last to set foot. He received a three minute ovation - a sign of things to come!
Once the game was set to start, the real love - in began. The second that Michel Lacroix intoned, "Acceuillons vos Canadiens!", a virtual sonic boom hit the rafters. An explosion of joy manifested itself upon number 11 setting skate to ice.
Cheers, screams, whistling, mangled with chants of "Saku, Saku, Saku" swept the building, and did not let up.
As both clubs took their place on the blueline for "O, Canada", the intonation of the crowd did not dip one decibel. The Habs fans had refound their captain, and their glee was not about to let up.
Unpredictably, but as though on cue, players from both starting lineups, left their positions on the blueline to return to their respective bench, leaving by himself as the sound barrier inside the Molson Centre was tested to the breaking point.
The cheering just would not stop. On three occasions, Lacroix attempted to proceed with the festivities, and was greated with louder acclamations of joyousness each time. Finally, a signal seemed to have been passed to soloist Nadya Blanchette, but few heard L'hymne nationale - her voice drowned in the sonic waves of fans thrilled by Koivu's return.
To the memory of anyone present, the Canadian national anthem has never been sung at a Montreal hockey game to anything other than hushed chatter. It seemed that the only way to start this game, would be to start the game.
The ovation and outpourring for Koivu had lasted close to six minutes when players from the Senators skated across the red line to Koivu, for a quick tapping of sticks on shin pads. Referee Dan Marouelli, skating up to Koivu - who had embarrassingly saluted the crowd with a raised stick and glove palm on several occasions - and had a brief word with him. Judging by Marouelli's gestures, Saku must have said, "Please drop the puck, now!"
As Marouelli skated to the center ice dot, Lacroix quickly rifled off the names of the starting lineup, modifying the usual sequence to end with Koivu, which caused one more surge of exclamation from the crowd. Marouelli backed off for a moment, clapping his hands for the Habs captain as well, before moving to center ice to begin the faceoff.
One sign that pre - told that this would be a night like no other. The Senators Shawn McEachern, a six season Ottawa veteran who wore the number 15 jersey, wore number 11 on his headgear for this one game.
In the end, it was told that Koivu's ovation lasted eight minutes long. The length does not matter. It is the moment of the Canadiens brave warrior that will be remembered.
- Mario Leclerc
In a win which allowed the Canadiens to finally return after a three year drought to their customary post season place, the Montreal public were treated to quite an event - one with a happy ending despite, a few cold sweats nearing the game's close.
In fact, history will note than on April 9, 2002 two impossible missions were fullfilled.
For starters, with the Canadiens seventh consecutive victory - a 4-3 over the Ottawa Senators - they clinched a post season berth for the first time since 1997-98.
More importantly, the game marked the return to competition for the Canadiens valuable captain Saku Koivu. And what a gritty game than fan's favorite played in his comeback!
Right from the warmup, there was the sense that something special was in the air, and that this would be a night like few others before it. When Koivu first hit the Molson Centre ice, he received a delirious ovation from a feverish crowd amazed by his simple presense. All eyes in the building were fixated on Koivu, spying his every gesture with great admiration.
Roars of acclamation that came in crescendos throughout the game manifested themselves most strongly at the beginning and end of the game. Koivu took the opening faceoff, and that was that was needed to get 21, 273 fans on their feet in unison, rising in one large wave to greet the hero of the day.
As the game played on, each of Koivu's shifts were greeted by a swell of support and encouragement from the masses.
Another delirious show of love came at the game's end, when public address man Michel Lacroix announced Koivu as the game's first star. It didn't take much for the won - over crowd to stand and show its appreciation once more. The reception Koivu received was surely one of the most moving moments in Canadiens history.
Only moments prior, it had been announced to the crowd that the Canadiens win placed the team in the post season, and that news combined to boost the atmosphere in the building to frenzied proportions.
Koivu took 13 shifts, for a combined 8:22 of icetime. After the game, the 27 year old center was beaming while meeting with reporters.
"I imagined I would receive a nice reception, but never anything as strong and intense as that. It was incredible!"
"At first, I could understand the fans reaction, but the longer it went on, it made me a bit embarrassed. I didn't want my team mates to be distracted. This was an important game for us."
"As for being named first star, I surely wasn't close to being near the best player on the ice, but I understand the situation."
The Canadiens now have 87 points after 80 games, and no longer have to concern themselves with the wins or losses of the Capitals and Sabres. All signs point to the Canadiens being in Boston on April 18 for the first game of round one.