MONTREAL - Five years after his storied career was honored by the Canadiens, Saku Koivu made a triumphant return to the Bell Centre on Tuesday night.
One of 11 retired captains taking part in the Captains' Reunion, the 45-year-old Finn was graciously welcomed back with a tremendous applause during his introduction.
It was a special moment for a player who proudly sported the "C" for 10 seasons with the Habs, tying him with Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau as the longest tenured captains in franchise history.
There's no denying that Montrealers still love Koivu, and he loves them right back. That will never change.
"Coming back right now, and seeing the fans and the people in the street, and seeing that passion, the way they talk, the way they feel about this team, I find it amazing," stated Koivu, before watching his former club secure a 4-2 win over the New York Islanders. "I've always said that this is not the easiest place to play, but I wish that every NHL player would experience playing in Montreal for one day or one week. They would feel the excitement, they would feel the difference here. I don't think you can create the intensity anywhere else."
Returning to his old stomping grounds was a real trip down memory lane for Koivu, and seeing some familiar faces made him smile.
The chance to reconnect with former teammates made attending the franchise's 110th anniversary celebration even more extraordinary.
"Walking in the room and looking around, seeing all the big names and the Hall of Famers, you really felt the history and the years behind. And then you look at the pictures on the wall, it kind of made me realize once again what a special place it is and what an accomplishment it was to be a captain here," mentioned Koivu. "You felt the history in the room in a way. It was fun. There are a lot of players you haven't seen in a long, long time. Mike Keane, my first captain, Pierre [Turgeon], Vincent [Damphousse], and then catching up and seeing where everyone is right now and where they live. It was good."
Video: NYI@MTL: Canadiens honor past captains pregame
With so much Finnish content on the roster these days, Koivu has some added incentive to follow the squad from across the pond.
It goes without saying that the veteran of 1,124 NHL games between Montreal and Anaheim is a hero to countrymen Joel Armia, Artturi Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, along with call-up Otto Leskinen.
"As a Finn, that makes me proud to see all these players playing now and doing well. Obviously Artturi being from my hometown [in Turku], I see him every summertime when they skate. He skates with my brother [Minnesota Wild captain Mikko Koivu], so I go once in a while to watch their practice," noted Koivu. "In Finland, we're doing something right. A lot of young kids are coming up and they're ready to make that jump as an 18-year-old. That's pretty amazing."
Equally astonishing is that two decades have already passed since Koivu was named the club's 27th captain on September 30, 1999.
All these years later, though, he still remembers the words of wisdom that were passed along to him when his captaincy began.
"I think everybody has to experience it and feel their own way. Talking with a lot of players that played here before, it was always just be yourself. There's a reason why you were selected to become a captain, and you can't change who you are," recalled Koivu. "Like we all know, when a team's in a winning streak, it's not about one player. The same goes when the team is not doing well, you can't take it all on yourself and feel the responsibility. It's more just to be honest and don't try to fake it."
Koivu clearly received some sound advice, and it helped him earn the respect and admiration of his peers - and the fans - with every passing season.
Photo Credit: Olivier Samson Arcand