MONTREAL -- Saku Koivu is well aware of the mysteries of fate, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma prior to the 2001-02 season.
On Thursday, Koivu's courage and determination in his life off the ice as well as on it was celebrated by the Montreal Canadiens. Chants of "Saku! Saku! Saku!" filled Bell Centre during a ceremony prior to Montreal's game against the Anaheim Ducks.
Koivu, who spent his first 13 NHL seasons with the Canadiens from 1995-2009, retired on Sept. 10 after five seasons with Anaheim.
"As we all know I had certain challenges in my time here, the biggest, the fight with cancer," said Koivu, who thanked Drs. Blair Whittemore and David Mulder and the staff of the Montreal General Hospital. "Thank you for giving me a second chance. I am forever grateful for that."
A six-minute video of greetings from fans and former Canadiens teammates, among others, preceded Koivu's introduction. Michel Therrien was in his first tenure as Montreal's coach when Koivu battled cancer throughout the 2001-02 season.
"I truly understand at that time what courage and determination means," Therrien said in his greeting.
"Ole! Ole!" was sung by the capacity crowd three minutes into the standing ovation that began as Koivu walked on a red carpet to center ice wearing his No. 11 Canadiens jersey with the captain's "C.".
Plagued by injuries early in his career, Koivu's reputation as a gamer was never questioned after he conquered cancer. On April 2, 2002, Koivu was accorded a momentous ovation when he returned to the Canadiens with three games left in the regular season
"What you gave me that night was one of the biggest gifts I've ever been given," said Koivu, who helped lead Montreal to victory in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Boston Bruins. The Canadiens, who lost their next series to the Carolina Hurricanes in six games, had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the previous three seasons. Koivu had four goals and 10 points in 12 playoff games in 2002.
Koivu thanked members of each of his former teams, singling out former Montreal teammates Mark Recchi, Brian Savage, Craig Rivet and Sheldon Souray in particular for their support.
Goaltender Carey Price and alternate captains Andrei Markov, Tomas Plekanec and Max Pacioretty presented Koivu with a painting of scenes from his career in Montreal. Koivu shook hands with the rest of the Canadiens before the Ducks, most of whom were his teammates last season, lined up for their turn.
The ceremony took place eight days after the funeral of Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau, who passed away on Dec. 2 at the age of 83. The Hall of Fame center lay in state at Bell Centre for two days prior to an emotional pregame ceremony in his memory on Dec. 9.
"He was the ultimate captain to me," Koivu said. "I feel so honored and privileged to have served nine years as captain of the Montreal Canadiens."
Named to that role at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season, Koivu is the Canadiens' longest-serving captain other than Beliveau, who reassured him at the outset of his tenure.
"When I first became captain here, Monsieur Beliveau came to me and said, 'You're going to be fine. You don't have to change, you got selected because of who you are’," Koivu said at a press conference earlier Thursday.
Selected in the first round (No. 21) of the 1993 NHL Draft, weeks after the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the 24th and most recent time, Koivu debuted with Montreal at the beginning of the 1995-96 season.
As a rookie, he experienced general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers getting fired after the Canadiens lost their first four games. Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in early December along with captain Mike Keane.
"Yeah, well that first few months, and then having also the last game at the Forum and the first game at the Bell Centre in that first year, I pretty much saw everything that can happen throughout that year," Koivu said. "And I realized fairly quickly how big of a thing hockey really is in this city and in this province."
Koivu had 191 goals and 450 assists for 641 points in 792 games during his 13 seasons in Montreal. He had 48 points in 54 playoff games with the Canadiens.
"I always felt that I was respected as a player and the way I played the game, but also which really makes me feel very humble, is that I felt that I was loved by the fans," Koivu said. "Sometimes you think about why it happened, why they took me in as their own. Sometimes you can't explain it, but there has been a really unique bond between the fans in Montreal and myself, and when I came here twice as an Anaheim Duck, as a visiting team and the reaction that I got, I didn't know what to expect but they've shown their passion and their love and support throughout the years and really it's been amazing."
The Saku Koivu Foundation spearheaded a fundraising campaign that raised $3.5 million towards the purchase of a PET-scan machine for the Montreal General Hospital.
Koivu said his legacy in Montreal is a tough question.
"I hope that you guys, the fans, everybody in Quebec remembers me as a great person, as a player who gave it all, who wore the 'C' letter on his jersey proudly for nine years," Koivu said. "And obviously, 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, so maybe the winning the cancer, getting the PET machine, helping people that way probably means the most.
"But obviously I was here because of hockey so I also hope that people remember me as a player that, even though we went through some tough times, especially early in my career, not making the playoffs, that I fought until the end in every game."