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Celebrating a leader

by Staff Writer / Montréal Canadiens

BROSSARD – When Saku Koivu is presented to the Bell Centre faithful on Thursday night, the 18-year NHL veteran will undoubtedly receive a grand ovation.

After announcing his retirement in early September, the Canadiens will honor Koivu’s storied career in a pre-game ceremony prior to the tilt against the Anaheim Ducks. It will be a chance for the organization and the fans to thank a man who not only served as team captain for 10 of his 14 seasons with the Habs, but also to pay tribute to Koivu for making a significant mark in the community during his time in La Belle Province and in the years since his departure.

Former teammates like Andrei Markov have also been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to be reunited with the Finnish star.

“Everybody has good memories of Saku. He was a true leader for our team. There are so many things you could say about him, so many good things,” offered Markov, who played alongside Koivu for eight seasons in Montreal before the four-time Olympian was dealt to the Ducks in July 2009. “He always led by example. He was a hard-working guy. He gave 100 percent every night. He was a great, great team guy. Everything he did was always for the sake of the team. He was the best example for everyone.”

Markov was in the building on April 9, 2002, the night Koivu returned to active duty after winning a lengthy battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that cost him nearly the entire 2001-02 campaign. Twelve-plus years later, the veteran rearguard still has vivid memories of the occasion.

“It was tough for Saku to battle through those things. The moment when he came back on the ice was incredible. The fans gave him such a great applause. That was something special, and it’s something that will stay with me for the rest of my life,” mentioned Markov, who clearly has a great deal of respect for what Koivu managed to accomplish both on and off the ice. “It was a special night for him, and it was a special night for the whole team and the fans.”

Michel Therrien was in the Bell Centre on that particularly emotional night, too, coaching the Canadiens to a 4-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators in the 80th game of the regular season, one that also secured a coveted spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I’ll always remember the ovation he got when we put him in the starting lineup for his comeback. There was a lot of emotion in the air. I remember that we’d even stayed in the dressing room just to contain ourselves. It was just so emotional that I couldn’t even go behind the bench,” recalled Therrien, who is pleased to be able to share another special moment with Koivu in person. “Over the years, I got to know a man who demonstrated extraordinary courage. He taught us what the word “courage” really meant. He made us better people. He made us a better team. It was a pleasure to coach a guy like Saku.”

And, according to the veteran bench boss, Koivu also exhibited the quintessential characteristics required to assume any leadership role.

“He was my captain. I had the pleasure of getting to know him. I appreciated what Saku brought to the table as a leader,” stressed Therrien. “Whether it was in terms of his determination, his work ethic or his actions, he was just a great leader. That’s what you want from a captain. He’s exactly what every organization looks for. He had an extraordinary career.”

Unlike Markov and Therrien, Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau never had the privilege of donning the same jersey as the now 40-year-old father of two, but he’s very much aware of what Koivu achieved while representing the CH with great class and dignity for well over a decade.

“In my eyes, Saku Koivu was simply the best player on the team. When I was growing up in the late 1990's and early 2000's, he came on board. I was here in Montreal at the time. I was watching him play every day. He was one of my favorite players,” offered Parenteau. “He accomplished a lot for this team. He’s still ranked 10th in scoring in team history, which is something that isn’t easy to do given the number of talented players that have come through the Canadiens over the years. He really deserves this special honor.”

Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.

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