MONTREAL -- It's not easy to be considered an iconic hockey figure in Montreal, but Saku Koivu comes pretty close despite lacking most of the mandatory criteria.
There are 24 Stanley Cup banners that hang from the rafters of Bell Centre, and Koivu was not associated with a single one of them. There are 62 players who once donned the CH in Montreal who are honored members of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and Koivu probably won't be joining that group either.
In his 792 games with the Canadiens over 14 years in Montreal, a record-tying 10 of them as team captain, Koivu had 641 points, ranking him 10th on the all-time franchise list.
But when he takes the ice Thursday with his Anaheim Ducks to face the Canadiens for his second career game as a visitor at Bell Centre, Koivu will, in all likelihood, be received as a hero.
His relationship with the city is special and unprecedented, in a way, for a franchise so accustomed to excellence that went through perhaps its worst period in history while Koivu was captain.
But the people of Montreal watched as Koivu dazzled fans with his offensive talents early in his career, only to be derailed time and again by injuries. They watched as he always saved his best hockey for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with 48 points in 54 postseason games with the Canadiens. They watched as he overcame a battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma to come back and not only play, but lead the Canadiens to a first-round upset of the Boston Bruins in the 2002 playoffs. They watched as he created a foundation that raised the funds necessary to purchase a PET scan at Montreal General Hospital, and which continues its philanthropic efforts in the city four years after Koivu's departure.
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said Wednesday that being behind the bench for Koivu's return from cancer April 9, 2002 and witnessing the eight-minute standing ovation he received is one of the greatest moments of his coaching career. Koivu himself says he has only seen the video from that game two or three times, but it is now part of the montage that plays at Bell Centre during the singing of the Canadian national anthem, so Koivu will see it again prior to the game.
Because of all those different factors, the relationship between Koivu and Montreal stands alone, and it will be recognized for perhaps the last time Thursday.
"When I arrived [Wednesday] there were a lot of people at the hotel, a lot of people I've never met before, and they are thanking you for all the years," Koivu said Thursday morning. "It's a really good feeling. It's overwhelming. A lot of that goes with what happened with the cancer and giving back to the community with the foundation.
"I've always felt there was a special bond between me and Montreal and the people here. It's really, really unique. When I first got here I never expected that something like this could happen, but I'm proud of that."
Koivu will turn 39 on Nov. 23, but he's not ready to say definitively that this game will be his final one in Montreal. Coach Bruce Boudreau has turned Koivu into his top checking-line center, a new role for a player who once was one of the game's most gifted offensive players, but whose numbers were limited by a rash of injuries throughout the prime of his career.
If he looks next to him in the Ducks' dressing room, Koivu will see proof that he could continue to play long enough to have a few more visits to Montreal in his career. But he said not to expect him to follow the path of his Finnish countryman Teemu Selanne.
"I won't be playing until I'm 43," Koivu said. "That I can guarantee you."
Koivu's transformation into a checker is somewhat reflected in his numbers; he has two goals and one assist in nine games this season. However, Boudreau said not to judge his play this season based on that alone.
"He's been playing very well for us," Boudreau said. "He's out there killing penalties and that checking line has done a great job against everyone they've been playing against."
Koivu's first game as a visitor in Montreal, Jan. 22, 2011, was a big event, one he admits he had trouble dealing with. The emotions from the reception he received threw off his focus on the game and Koivu wound up taking three minor penalties, including one that allowed Montreal's Max Pacioretty to tie the game with 13 seconds left in regulation before the Ducks won in a shootout.
Koivu hopes things will be a little more normal this time around and he'll be able to fly under the radar a little bit.
"For myself, I hope it's going to be a little easier to get in the game and keep my focus on the game," Koivu said. "I'm hoping to have a great reaction from the fans; they've been behind me from Day 1. … Hopefully the game ends the way it did last time, when we got two points. That would make it that much sweeter for me."
But if Canadiens fans decide not to take a chance and give Koivu his farewell ovation Thursday, will it throw him it off his game?
"Well," he said, "it did last time."
If Canadiens fans needed another excuse to give Koivu an ovation, that may have clinched it.
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