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Canadiens to honor former captain Koivu

by Sean Farrell

MONTREAL -- Saku Koivu has reassuring advice for the next captain of the Montreal Canadiens that he himself received from Jean Beliveau.

Named to that role at the beginning of the 1999-00 season, Koivu was the Canadiens' captain for 10 years, matching the team record set from 1961-71 by Beliveau, who passed away on Dec. 2 at the age of 83.

"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 at Bell Centre on Thursday. "And certain players and personalities fit that role and they're comfortable with that, and whoever's going to be captain here, I would say that just you have to be yourself.

"And one thing, obviously, in a team sport is to care for teammates and care for the staff, and when you show that, they're going to show you the respect and you're going to be O.K."

Koivu, who spent his first 13 NHL seasons with Montreal from 1995-2009, retired on Sept. 10 after five seasons with the Anaheim Ducks.

The Canadiens, who do not have a captain this season, will honor Koivu prior to their game against Anaheim on Thursday, eight days after Beliveau's funeral, which was preceded by the Montreal icon lying in state at Bell Centre for two days, and an emotional pregame ceremony in his memory on Dec. 9.

"I think we're all sad [about] what happened and he's going to be greatly missed," Koivu said. "I think that he was the perfect ambassador for the game of hockey and the timing now that it's only about a week after his funeral, you know, there was a celebration about his life and now under different circumstances, but sometimes you can't explain why things happen in a certain way, at a certain time."

Koivu is well aware of the mysteries of fate, having been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma prior to the 2001-02 season. His ceremony will be as much in honor of his courageous battle with, and victory over cancer, as it will be a celebration of his career with the Canadiens.

"It's an amazing honor," said Koivu, whose family is on hand for the ceremony. "I feel so privileged that they're going to have a night like that tonight for me and it's really humbling, not just for me but also for my family, my parents, and you know I was here twice as a visiting team after I left and the reaction that I got from the fans was just something remarkable.

"It really feels good so I'm really thankful for the Canadiens organization and the Molson family that we're having a night like that tonight. I know it doesn't happen very often and it makes it even more special."

Selected in the first round (No. 21) of the 1993 NHL Draft, mere 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."

Plagued by injuries early in his career, Koivu's reputation as a gamer was never questioned after he battled cancer throughout the 2001-02 season.

Accorded a momentous ovation when he returned to the Canadiens with two games left in the regular season, Koivu helped lead Montreal to an Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series win against the Boston Bruins.

The Canadiens, who lost their next series in six games to the Carolina Hurricanes, had missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs each of the previous three seasons. Koivu had four goals and 10 points in 12 playoff games in 2002.

"I really think that there is no better place to be as a hockey player than in Montreal and at playoff time,"Koivu said. "We had some amazing series, especially as an eighth-seed and knocking [off] Boston, who dominated in the regular season. You see the passion, you see the emotions, and being a part of that, it's hard to describe how phenomenal it feels.

"Obviously that year, the lows that I went through and then being able to come back and being a factor in that series, and it was like a dream coming true and the whole story was written before."

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. "You know 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."

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