MONTREAL – On Saturday afternoon at the Bell Centre, members of The First Line got the chance to grill former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu during the team’s second Q&A session of the season.
How did you feel during Thursday’s [December 18] on-ice tribute?
SAKU KOIVU: It was emotional. In fact, the whole week was emotional and I had been asking myself how everything would go. It was my first time back in Montreal with my entire family since we left for California. I was ready for an emotional evening, but the fans reminded me once again how incredible the ambiance is in this building. It’s an energy that goes straight to the heart. The last two days have felt like a homecoming. We’ve met old friends as well as people who have left their mark on our lives. For my mother, my father, my wife and my children, it was an evening full of emotions and memories.
What impact did signing with Anaheim in 2009 have on your career?
SAKU KOIVU: I was ready to leave. While at the airport on our way to Finland that summer, I told my wife that it would probably be our last time in the city. Despite all the love we have for Montreal and the passion of its fans, hockey remains a business. I felt that on both my part and that of the Canadiens, it was time to go our separate ways. I needed a spark, something new in my life. Getting to change teams was exciting in a certain sense, but I’ll admit that getting to retire as a member of the Montreal Canadiens was dream of mine.
I know it must be difficult for you to pick the most memorable moment from your career, be it in the NHL or at the international level, but is there one goal or event that stands out among the rest?
SAKU KOIVU: Obviously after 19 years, lots of good moments come to mind. Winning the World Championship with Finland in 1995 was something incredible not just for my hockey career, but also my country. My first goal in the old Forum against the Kings is another moment I’ll never forget. It was during the final game at the Forum that I realized how important hockey is to this city, and how big the Canadiens are. I was surrounded by hockey legends and fans were crying in the stands. I’ll never forget that night. Obviously there’s also the night that I returned from my battle with cancer, during which we also clinched a playoff spot. Or the game-winning goal I scored against Boston during that same spring. As a member of the Ducks, my first game back at the Bell Centre was very moving. I had no idea how the crowd would react, but from warm-ups onwards, the response from the fans was very touching. Of course, Thursday’s ceremony was also memorable. I had my wife, my kids and my parents on the ice with me, and I got to show them what it means to be welcomed by the crowd in Montreal.
What was your reaction to being drafted by the Canadiens?
SAKU KOIVU: I remember it was during the summer of 1993. I was in Finland and my cell phone started ringing. Cell phone reception wasn’t very good back then. One of my teammates who played with me in Finland was in the U.S. at the time. He was watching the draft on TV and called me once I was selected. He told me, “you were picked in the first round…” I was waiting for him to tell me which team picked me but the call cut out! I kept asking him, “by who? Tell me which team, please!” Finally, I heard “the Montreal Canadiens” before the call dropped for good. I didn’t know much about Montreal at the time, except that they had just won the Stanley Cup. I started doing some research about the city and eventually learned that it was a huge hockey market. Two years later, when I finally made the trip overseas, I realized it was a city unlike any other when I saw all the journalists and cameramen waiting at the airport. It wasn’t the kind of thing I had ever seen in Finland!
What are your memories of that incredible comeback win against the Rangers after trailing 5-0?
SAKU KOIVU: That was an amazing game. That was probably the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of, but I think the psychological factor was in our favor. If you asked anyone in the crowd that night whether they thought we would come back to win the game, they surely would have said no. But we started with one goal, then two, and soon we could feel the incredible energy coming from the fans. It felt like the roof was going to blow off. You can never predict how a shootout is going to end, but I knew I was going to score. It was Finland versus Sweden, me versus Lundqvist. There was magic in the air. The feeling of coming back from a five-goal deficit and scoring the winner in the shootout was incredible. It was the kind of game you never forget.
Do you have any regrets, or is there anything you wish you could have done differently with the Canadiens?
SAKU KOIVU: I don’t know if there’s anything that I regret. In terms of hockey, it’s hard to have regrets because it’s a team sport and success rarely hinges on one person. In terms of being a professional athlete, obviously I wish I could have won every game here and had the opportunity to make a deep playoff push. I also wish I had learned to speak French. That would have surely allowed me to connect better with the fans here in Quebec. When you arrive in the NHL, you never know what’s going to happen in two, five, or ten years. In my case, I wanted to start by feeling comfortable in English and concentrating on hockey. Now, at 40, I feel as though learning a new language is something I would have really enjoyed.