MONTREAL – Saku Koivu and his family might reside in Southern California, but the longtime Habs captain insists Montreal will always be home.
Hours before taking part in a pre-game ceremony being held to honor his on and off-ice achievements over the course of an 18-year NHL playing career, the recently retired Koivu reminisced about returning to a city that embraced him for well over a decade until his departure for Anaheim in July 2009.
“It’s really, really great to be back here. It’s more emotional than probably ever before. It was always easier to focus on the game. You had your teammates, so you weren’t by yourself. I know there’s a game, but the focus is on me. In some ways, I don’t feel comfortable with that,” confided Koivu, who will surely be given a remarkable ovation when he’s presented to the fans on Thursday night prior to the tilt between the Canadiens and the Anaheim Ducks at the Bell Centre. “For some reason, this feels right that I get to see you at least one more time as an ex-player. I went through most of my career here in Montreal. Most of the great memories and the tough memories I have are from here, so it all makes sense.”
It marks the third time Koivu has returned to his old stomping grounds since making the move to Orange County, but the 40-year-old father of two knows full well that this visit will be particularly unique in nature.
“It’s an amazing honor. I feel so privileged that they’re going to have a night like that for me. It’s really humbling, not just for me, but for my family and my parents. I was here twice as a member of the visiting team after I left, and the reaction I got from the fans was just something remarkable. It really feels good,” offered Koivu, who sported the “C” for 10 of his 14 seasons with the Canadiens. “I’m really thankful to the organization and the Molson family. I know that it doesn’t happen often, which makes it even more special.”
Thursday night will also provide Koivu with the perfect opportunity to re-connect with a fan base that adopted him as one of their own over the years, especially during his lengthy battle with non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma which spanned nearly the entire length of the 2001-02 campaign.
“They always made me feel that I was respected as a player and the way I played the game. What also makes me feel really humble is that I felt that I was loved. Sometimes, you think about why it happened and why they took me in. Sometimes, you can’t explain it, but there has been a really unique bond between the fans in Montreal and myself,” explained Koivu, who registered 191 goals and 641 points in 791 career regular-season games in a Habs uniform. “The fans have shown their passion and their love and support throughout the years and it’s been amazing.”
While more than five years have passed since the former Bill Masterton and King Clancy Trophy winner left town, the legacy Koivu left behind in his former hockey home is still very much on his mind.
“I hope that fans and everybody in Montreal and Quebec remember me as a great person and as a player who gave it his all and who wore the “C” on his jersey proudly for 10 years. The way my time here went, it wasn’t all about hockey, so maybe now that I’m retired, you kind of put things in a different perspective and you see life in different ways. Beating cancer, getting the PET-scan machine [at the Montreal General Hospital], helping people that way probably means the most,” stressed Koivu. “I was also here for hockey, though, so I also hope people remember me as a player that, even though we went through some tough times early in my career, fought until the end in every game.”
It’s that trademark tenacity, courage and relentlessness that undoubtedly endeared the Turku native to Montrealers, who saw a young Koivu grow up before their very eyes. If the fans learned a lot from the four-time Olympian during his tenure as captain, it’s safe to say he learned many valuable lessons in return.
“I think you learn through experiences. I learned to deal under pressure. I was able to kind of separate the personal Saku Koivu and the player because of the media attention that we had in Montreal. After, because of the cancer, I learned to enjoy life more, let myself forget the bad day and the bad game and let myself smile about everything,” offered Koivu. “When you get married and have kids, all of those things change you and they change your perspective on life. But, my time in Montreal really made me what I am today. I think I see and the world through better eyes. It was a city that we really loved.”
One of Koivu’s early mentors in Montreal was Mr. Jean Béliveau, who taught him the importance of staying true to oneself. That’s a message Koivu would give to any up-and-coming leader in the game today.
“When I first became captain here, Monsieur Béliveau came to me and said: ‘You’re going to be fine. You don’t have to change. You were selected because of who you are’,” recalled Koivu. “Certain players and personalities fit that role and they’re comfortable with it. Whoever will be the next captain here, I would say that you have to be yourself. In a team sport, you have to care for your teammates and care for the staff. When you show that, you’re going to be o.k.”
That’s exactly what Koivu did with the bleu-blanc-rouge, and the community remains grateful for his efforts to this day.
“When we first landed on Wednesday night, and on the way from the airport to the hotel, everything was so familiar. It was a bit of a surprise when we came from California. We walked in the streets and people recognize you. You kind of forget that,” concluded Koivu. “The fans and the people here have really welcomed us warmly, wishing us all the best and saying good luck. It’s like coming home.”
Matt Cudzinowski is a writer for canadiens.com.
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