Ducks Radio Analyst
MONTREAL – Ducks center Saku Koivu
will never forget the 14 years he spent with the Montreal Canadiens, 11 of them as captain of the most storied franchise in NHL history.
|“This is going to be a game, a weekend that I will remember probably for the rest of my life," Koivu said. "There are a lot of feelings involved.” |
He doesn’t expect to forget this weekend, either.
Saturday night’s Ducks-Canadiens matchup at the Bell Centre will mark Koivu’s first appearance in Montreal since the Canadiens opted not to re-sign him following the 2008-09 season. Koivu subsequently signed a one-year, free-agent contract with the Ducks, and then re-upped for two more seasons after a 19-goal, 52-point campaign in 2009-10.
All week, with the Ducks having posted a 2-1, shootout victory Tuesday at Ottawa and dropped a 5-2 decision Thursday in Toronto, Koivu has been inundated with media requests, most of them from Canadian outlets.
“I know it’s a special night for me, and I know that I haven’t been in Montreal since I left after the playoffs two years ago,” Koivu said. “I understand that there’s a lot of people wanting to talk to me and find out the feelings and all that, but at the same time, on a hockey team, you don’t want to make a big thing about you going somewhere and too much of a fuss. I would like to keep it low-key and just get this game over with.
“There is a lot of excitement and a lot of emotions involved, but at the end of the day, it’s two points that are really big for us. Hopefully, this is not going to have too much of a distraction.”
The Canadiens’ 2009 decision to re-tool their roster and cut ties with Koivu was not necessarily greeted with open arms in Montreal. After all, Koivu had matched the legendary Jean Beliveau as the longest-serving captain in team history, and had pretty much been the face of the franchise for more than a decade.
It was Koivu’s dramatic return from a lengthy battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma near the end of the 2001-02 season that cemented his status as a Canadiens icon. After he had missed the first 79 games that season, a Bell Centre sellout crowd greeted Koivu with an eight-minute standing ovation upon his return.
“It’s a very special day,” Koivu said, looking ahead to once again playing in front of the passionate Montreal fans. “Obviously, it was home for us for 14 years. We fell in love with the city. It was a great place for us. We experienced a lot, some good things and some bad things, or unfortunate things. There are a lot of emotional things that happened.
|“Obviously, it was home for us for 14 years," said Koivu of Montreal. "We fell in love with the city. It was a great place for us. We experienced a lot, some good things and some bad things, or unfortunate things. There are a lot of emotional things that happened." |
“This is going to be a game, a weekend that I will remember probably for the rest of my life. There are a lot of feelings involved.”
While the one regret Koivu acknowledged is not having brought the Canadiens a Stanley Cup championship, he left something far more tangible in Montreal. The creation of the Saku Koivu
Foundation raised $8 million for the purchase of a PET Scan machine, a high-tech piece of equipment vital in the early detection and treatment of cancer, at Montreal General Hospital.
“At the end of the day, when you’re done playing hockey, the goals and the assists and the wins, they don’t really make a difference,” Koivu said. “They don’t matter afterwards. Obviously, as long as you play, you want to win and you’re trying to win that Stanley Cup, but we’re still talking about the game of hockey. When you start talking about cancer, you kind of bring it to a new level. It’s a matter of fighting for your life. The stakes are so much higher.
“Getting the foundation going and being able to raise money for the PET Scan, there are thousands of people of Montreal that have been benefiting from the machine. That really is making a difference. That makes me proud. I’m thankful to so many people that helped us raise money, and the people at the hospital. That’s kind of a legacy that I hope people are going to remember me for.”
Koivu, like Ducks linemates Teemu Selanne
and Jason Blake
, also a cancer survivor, is a past winner of the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually by the Professional Hockey Writers Association to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, perseverance and dedication to hockey.
“I was lucky enough and fortunate enough to be able to beat cancer, and continue to live my life, see my kids grow up,” Koivu said. “And with all that we went through, a lot of positive things and good things have happened since.”
As a hockey player, I wanted to kind of get a lifestyle and an environment where it’s easier to breathe and kind of a live a normal life, in the sense of not being in the spotlight. At the same time, I’m really lucky and happy that I had all those years in Montreal. - Saku Koivu
While it wasn’t easy for Koivu, his wife, Hanna, and their two young children to leave Montreal, it was time.
“We were there for so long,” Koivu said. “It became a home for us, but at the same time, as a hockey player, I felt that I needed a new challenge and kind of a new chapter in my life, in our lives. We felt as a family, and I don’t know where we got that feeling, but we felt that it was a time to kind of go and experience something new and something different.”
And after having been under the constant and immense scrutiny of playing for the Canadiens, let alone being captain, Koivu has enjoyed the lower-key hockey atmosphere in Orange County.
“That was one of the things that we felt, as a family,” Koivu said. “As a hockey player, I wanted to kind of get a lifestyle and an environment where it’s easier to breathe and kind of a live a normal life, in the sense of not being in the spotlight. At the same time, I’m really lucky and happy that I had all those years in Montreal.
“Every hockey player should experience that excitement and the atmosphere that you go through when you put on that jersey and you’re playing in front of those fans. But at this time of my career and my life, it does feel good that the pressure kind of comes inside of the team and within your teammates. That’s the way it should be.”