Profile in Courage
Shorthanded, Saku Koivu stickhandles down the right wing with Colorado defenseman Adam Foote obstructing the path between the Canadiens' 5-foot-10 pivot and goalie Patrick Roy. Montreal winger Mariusz Czerkawski shadows Koivu. You process his options. Drop pass, you figure.
Instead, Koivu darts to the outside on Foote, four inches and 33 pounds his superior. Once gaining the edge – meaning one zig to the right of the 12-year veteran – Koivu zags left, a fraction of a second later zipping a wrist shot past Foote and between Roy and the near post.
It is a Saturday night during the preseason, and the Canadiens, now leading 3-1, are in Quebec City for a nostalgic dance with the Avalanche at Le Colisee, their first return trip since moving to Colorado in 1995. Earlier, the sellout crowd of 15,339 stood, united in jeering first sight of the blue-blanc-et-rouge. "These fans have been waiting seven years to boo the Canadiens," Florida scout Ron Harris, a former Nordiques' assistant, had remarked.
Now, the same fans stand and applauded. Not so much with vigor as with respect and admiration.
How could they boo a man – even if his line of work is captaining Montreal – who withstood eight rounds of chemotherapy last winter to beat abdominal cancer? Who last spring with only three games of regular-season conditioning withstood the rigors of a six-game playoff series to not only play every night, but contribute as Montreal beat Boston.
Through six games of that series and a six-game loss to Carolina, Koivu finished tied with Doug Gilmour and Donald Audette for the team high in playoff points. The high-scoring forward finished with 10 points off four goals and six assists, which was also tied for tops on the Habs.
"Would we have done the same without him?" teammate Joe Juneau said. "Probably not."
Koivu's offensive outburst – none more dramatic than a go-ahead third-period goal that shifted the series momentum in Game 3 vs. the Bruins – solidified the 27-year-old Finn as a Montreal legend. Simply returning made him an international icon.
A season later, it is clear that Koivu's bout with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma – ironically often abbreviated NHL – makes one thing impossible, both for opposing fans and Koivu's teammates.
"We try to look at Saku like nothing ever happened to him," Juneau said.
"I'm sure there is some different perspective and the guys think of me differently," Koivu said earlier that day following a morning skate. "But like I said last year, when I put the skates on and come into this room and play with the Canadiens, I am one of the guys."
On paper, he may be. Simply one of 25, the lone Finn among 16 Canadians, two Czechs, two Russians, two Americans, a Swede and a Pole. In reality, Koivu is the impeccable centerpiece of a proud franchise.
In the dressing room, he is intelligent, well spoken and affable, making him a natural leader and the go-to source for beat writers. On the ice, he is nothing short of Montreal's best skater (a locked-in Jose Theodore being its best player). Koivu skates on a still-evolving first line, on the power play and shorthanded. On Oct. 19, in a 2-2 tie versus Toronto, Koivu logged 20:31 – second only among forwards to Juneau – and finished plus-1.
During the third period, Koivu nearly hooked up with Richard Zednik, a speedy 26-year-old who totaled a career-high 44 points last season and is poised to up that playing with Koivu, an adept passer (0.54 assists per game career). Parked behind the Leaf cage, Koivu chipped a pass to Zednik, who just missed beating Ed Belfour. The end result drew the crowd's attention, underscoring the reality that few in the game can pass as well through the air in limited space as Koivu.