The initial report was that he was the best player not currently playing in the NHL. He had excelled on the world stage for Finland as a junior and gained particular notice for the backbone he displayed when matched up head to head with Eric Lindros. The Montreal Canadiens were basking in the glow of their fairytale march to the Cup, when they selected Saku Koivu 21st overall in the '93 entry draft.
Almost immediately Don Cherry weighed in, slamming the Canadiens for choosing the diminutive Finn over Cherry's preference; a rugged, tough CANADIAN. Someone in the mold of Turner Stevenson or Chad Kilger or Chris Gratton or Todd Bertuzzi. Koivu entered his professional career as the NHL shifted gears. The arms race had begun. With Eric Lindros about to dominate the next 20 years of hockey, the race was on to find the biggest, toughest players on the planet. The bigger, the better.
When I remember Saku Koivu, I see the grainy pre-HD images flicker through my mind. His first goal, a snapshot blistered by the LA Kings goalie. I see him beating 2 Boston Bruins to score a huge goal on a 5-on-3 penalty kill as a rookie late in a play-off drive. I see him announcing his future as he danced around the Rangers in the '96 play-offs. I see the scoring leaders in '96-97 and Koivu plainly leading the list. I see an innocuous hit along the boards against Chicago and I see the Finn limp off for the first time.
It would become a pattern. Koivu leading, scoring, checking, inspiring his team, only to face another injury, another adversity. He would tantalize Habs fans. Five, ten, 15 games at a time, Koivu would set the pace for the Habs only to find a shoulder or a knee could not carry the weight of his heart and his convictions.
Koivu was a courageous player. He did not shy away from the tough areas of the ice. He was a tenacious checker. He was a gifted playmaker and on Canadiens teams that featured Hoglunds and Rucinskys and Dackalls and Perraults and Zedniks, he was often the best and sometimes the only reason to watch. This was certainly not vintage Montreal Canadiens' hockey. Lafleur, Robinson and Gainey had walked out the door and they weren't coming back.
I watched Saku Koivu for over 10 years and don't remember him taking a shift off, never mind a game. Those Habs teams, teams he captained, were life and death for the play-offs. They had an inept G.M with dwindling money, forced to sell low on what few assets they had. It was a dark time to cheer for the Montreal Canadiens. Every year, like clockwork, their best player would shine in stretches before succumbing to another freak injury. It was so bad that fans and media began to wonder whether the Molson centre was cursed, perhaps built on ancient Native burial grounds.
Friends of mine, good hockey players, pro's, would argue with me about Koivu all the time." He is overrated. If he wasn't a Hab, no one would know his name" they would say. They would argue, ironically, "if his name was John Smith, or maybe even Steve Sullivan, he wouldn't be on the first line, on the power play". As if a Finn, shy to speak French, becoming the Captain of the legendary Montreal Canadiens was not testament to his value. But Koivu was not a player , particularly as his injuries accumulated, who would inspire instant awe. He was a player you had to watch for a week, a month, 10 games in a row. Only then, could you see the cumulative effects of his presence. A player who truly played bigger than his size. Always hard on the puck, capable of playing physical, making the right play, making the key play. Setting the tone. A Captain.
The image I carry most in my mind is Koivu standing, raising his stick to acknowledge the fans, as cheers cascade down like waves down from the rafters of the Bell centre. It is April 9th 2002 and Koivu is set to return from cancer treatments. There is a game to play, but Montreal fans are having none of that. Koivu enters the rink to a standing ovation. The players take off their helmets to prepare for the national anthem. We see Koivu, no helmet, no hair, fresh from his battle with cancer. The effects are real, he has lost his hair. He is now standing on the blue line. He will take the opening face-off.
The fans cheer loudly. That is wrong. They cheer with a hand splitting, ear piercing roar. The applause comes down in waves. It crests towards a crescendo, threatens die down before gaining momentum to continue on. Louder. More insistent. Refusing to die down. This is not applause, it comes from somewhere deeper. This is their moment to share, to tell Koivu what he means to them and how they feel. And. They. Won't. Stop. Two minutes stretches to five. We are into Rocket Richard levels of ovations." Madames et Messieurs..". The Public Announcer is calling for a cease to the applause. The fans cheer louder. The game will wait, they are not finished. A full 8 minutes later, the game begins.
The Canadiens will go on a run that spring. They will beat the hated Bruins. The goal I see over and over is Koivu, with a slick toe drag around Byron Dafoe, depositing the puck from his backhand into an empty net. A beauty. The only question is whether the fans will actually blow the roof off the Bell Centre.
Saku Koivu did not win a Stanley Cup. In the new 30 team NHL, that is no longer the birthright of the Captain of the Montréal Canadiens. There is no longer a note from the mayor each spring explaining that the Stanley Cup parade will follow its usual route. Koivu was a good, but not legendary player. He averaged just under a point per game over his time with Montreal. His jersey will never rise to the rafters of the Bell Centre. The teams he captained never made it past the 2nd round of the play-offs. They had their signature wins and moments, but could never summon greatness.
Koivu's legacy, however, goes beyond points or wins or losses. Bob Gainey had this to say about Koivu, "He thinks like a champ, he trains like a champ, he eats like a champ, and one day he’ll be a champ". Gainey was wrong about that. Koivu was a champ from the day he arrived in Montreal. He played like a champ, he carried himself like a champ and he inspired others to follow his lead. Koivu did not need the Stanley Cup to cement his legacy. He did not need a Stanley Cup ring to prove that he was a champion. He was a champion to begin with. Montreal was lucky to have him don the Habs jersey for 14 seasons. He added to the fabric of the Sainte Flanelle.
Saku Koivu will be greeted warmly every time he returns to Montreal. He will be welcomed back as a returning son. A Finn native to Montreal. One day, when he is older and greyer, he will appear before a play-off game in Montreal . He will carry out the torch out and the crowd will rise to greet him again. Fathers will tell their sons about his battles, how he played and that he beat cancer. They will tell their sons about that time when the fans cheered for 8 full minutes, holding up the game, to salute their Captain, who had once again defied adversity.