BROSSARD - Talk about an easy decision.
When Artturi Lehkonen was asked to select which player he'd like to represent during the upcoming Captains' Reunion on December 3, Saku Koivu was unquestionably atop his list.
The 24-year-old Finnish left-winger's wish was granted, meaning he'll be sporting a special warmup jersey bearing Koivu's name and number 11 ahead of the game against the New York Islanders at the Bell Centre.
"Saku's from my hometown in Turku. I've been following him since I was a kid. Back then, he was Finland's captain, basically, so it was a pretty obvious choice," said Lehkonen, on the rather unique tribute to one of his hockey heroes. "He was also the first European-born captain of the Canadiens, so it's going to be an honor to wear his jersey."
Lehkonen has been anticipating this event since mid-October. That's when he learned that Koivu would be travelling to Montreal to help celebrate the franchise's 110th birthday.
It was Koivu's father, Jukka, who shared the news when the Canadiens were in Minnesota where Koivu's brother, Mikko, serves as captain of the Wild.
Admittedly, Lehkonen has always held his countryman in the highest regard for his accomplishments both on and off the ice.
"As a player, he was pretty resilient. He basically wouldn't take no for an answer. I've definitely done some research on him and checked him out, and I've seen all of his highlight-reels," praised Lehkonen, before citing one of Koivu's international performances, in particular, he believes stood out from the rest. "I still remember the Winter Olympics in Torino. That was pretty awesome to follow. We didn't win, but we made it to the gold-medal game. They had such a great team."
Koivu's extraordinary comeback from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, though, will always be his favorite moment involving the longest tenured captain in Canadiens history alongside Hall of Famer, Jean Beliveau. They wore the coveted "C" for 10 seasons each, of course.
Lehkonen was just six years old when Koivu returned to active duty on April 9, 2002 against the Ottawa Senators after missing the first 79 games of the season. He didn't see the events unfold in real time, but he watched all of the footage in the years since and it still leaves him speechless.
Video: Saku Koivu's 9 minute ovation upon return from cancer
"It was pretty outstanding," remarked Lehkonen, regarding the nine-minute ovation Koivu received from the Habs' faithful. "He went through so much adversity. I've heard the stories, too, and I know it wasn't easy. It's pretty unreal. He came back and made a heck of a career out of it."
Lehkonen is also quite proud of the legacy the Bill Masterton and King Clancy winner left behind in his former hockey community as well.
The Saku Koivu Foundation, in collaboration with the Montreal General Hospital (MGH) Foundation, helped launch a public campaign to raise funds to purchase a PET/CT scanner, which helps to detect cancer in the early stages and more effectively manage patient treatment.
And the Foundation continues to raise money in support of cancer and trauma care at the MGH to this day.
"When you come over here, you start to understand the kind of impact he had on the whole city," praised Lehkonen, who is currently in his fourth season with the Canadiens. "I've heard a lot about the work he did, and it's pretty cool that people still talk about it and appreciate him for it."
It goes without saying that Lehkonen fully expects the fans to show Koivu some serious love next Tuesday night, and he'll be cheering right along with them to mark the occasion.
"It's going to give me goosebumps," concluded Lehkonen. "I know it's going to be awesome."
Fans are invited to be in their seats by 6:45 p.m. for the pregame ceremony, which will feature 11 of the team's 12 retired captains - plus current captain Shea Weber. Henri Richard won't be in attendance due to health issues, but will be honored during the festivities.
Tickets are still available for this historic evening and can be purchased HERE.
The jerseys will be auctioned off and all proceeds will be donated to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation in support of the 11th annual #ourGOALtoASSIST RadioTéléDON, which will take place during the game.