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Canadiens to honor Koivu for work on, off ice

by Arpon Basu

MONTREAL -- The similarities are striking, albeit unmentionable.

A week after the Montreal Canadiens did a masterful job celebrating the life of the franchise's greatest ambassador and captain, they will attempt to do it again Thursday for another giant figure in Canadiens history prior to their game at Bell Centre against the Anaheim Ducks.

No, Saku Koivu cannot be compared to Jean Beliveau. Nobody can.

But if there is one Canadiens player who has come close since Beliveau's retirement as a player in 1971, or as close as can be reasonably expected of a human being, a strong argument could be made that it is Koivu.

Beliveau and Koivu captained the Canadiens for 10 years and was the best player on his respective team for a number of those years.

But the biggest legacy in the cases of each man is his spirit of generosity, involvement in the community, and genuine desire to make a difference in people’s lives.

"I think [Koivu] was a great captain," said Dr. David Mulder, the Canadiens' longtime chief surgeon who had unique relationships with Koivu and Beliveau. "I think there was only one Jean Beliveau."

Of course there was, and Koivu would be the first to say there is no comparison to be made. But Koivu's special place in the hearts of Montreal residents, whether they are hockey fans or not, is unique.

Much of it stems from Koivu’s battle with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2001, a fight that put the entire city behind Koivu like few athletes before him and changed his relationship with Montreal forever.

While Koivu went through aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, the Canadiens were flooded with letters from well-wishers and other cancer patients who looked to him for inspiration.

"He became a symbol for people that you can get past this, you can win this battle against cancer," said Geneviève Paquette, the executive director of the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation. "We responded systematically to every cancer patient who wrote us, and he would personally sign every single response. It was important to him to know the background and that person's story."

There, again, is a similarity to Beliveau, who was renowned for his insistence of sending handwritten notes and autographed photos in response to every piece of fan mail he received, something he did long after his playing career was over.

Koivu was a great help to Paquette during his time with the Canadiens, responding to nearly every request she made of him in the affirmative.

"Every time we needed him, he was always ready to help," Paquette said. "It's something that became stronger in him after his fight with cancer. He felt the need to help people because he got so much support himself from the fans and so many notes of encouragement."

That is something else that was heard often last week when people praised Beliveau in the wake of his death Dec. 2, that he had trouble refusing any request for help, whether it was through a public appearance or otherwise.

However, Paquette, like Mulder, was uncomfortable drawing that comparison, mentioning other past players who were heavily involved in charitable work, like Jose Theodore and Alex Kovalev.

"Jean Beliveau," she said, "was in a class of his own."

Of course he was, and no one should suggest otherwise.

Koivu made his biggest contribution to Montreal once he received the news that he was cancer-free, news he needed to drive two hours east to Sherbrooke, Quebec to receive because Montreal did not have a PET-scan machine at the time.

"After the last PET scan I got a call from Saku on the way home, and he gave me the good news that he was found to be cleared," Mulder said. "Then he said, 'Doc, why don't we have a PET scan at the Montreal General?'"

That summer, after he helped the Canadiens to an upset of the Boston Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, further strengthening his bond with the city, Koivu got married to Hanna Norio in their hometown of Turku, Finland.

Mulder attended with his colleague, Dr. Blair Whittemore, who was instrumental in Koivu's recovery from cancer.

"At the dinner he came to me and Dr. Whittemore with his agent, Don Baizley, who has died since but was a great agent," Mulder said. "Saku said he would like to buy us a PET scan, or raise the funds to buy a PET scan. I said, 'That's marvelous but they're very expensive.' The whole project was over $7 million. So he said, 'I'm going to do it.' That's how it happened."

That was the birth of the Saku Koivu Foundation, which spearheaded one of the most extraordinary fundraising campaigns Mulder has seen.

"All of a sudden the funds began to pour in," Mulder said. "I think on one day $100,000 came in, and it was ranging from donations of $1,000 to little girls sending in their lemonade-stand proceeds.

"It was an amazing thing."

Within two years, Montreal General Hospital had a PET-scan machine, with $3.5 million raised by Koivu's foundation and the rest of the estimated $8 million covered by the hospital and various levels of government.

The machine treats anywhere between 2,500 and 3,000 patients per year, running at least 18 hours a day, with each scan taking approximately one hour. Mulder estimates it would have taken Montreal General Hospital three to four years longer to acquire its own PET-scan machine were it not for Koivu. That means approximately 10,000 people benefited from the machine being there that much sooner.

Each of the patients who uses the machine sees a distinct reminder of why it is there, with Koivu's autograph permanently displayed on the PET scan.

Beliveau's autograph, in many ways, came to define who he was. He always made sure it was legible so that people could read it, much like Beliveau himself always was perfectly dressed. He also gave it out to whoever asked for it, an example of Beliveau's generosity with his time and his understanding of his role as a public figure.

In a similar way, Koivu's autograph on that PET-scan machine at Montreal General Hospital defines his legacy in Montreal, a permanent reminder of how he wanted to give back what he received during his time of need, and how he has done that many times over.

This is why the Canadiens are honoring Koivu on Thursday, as a way to say thank you for everything he did in Montreal, on the ice but mostly off.

No, Saku Koivu is not in the same class as Jean Beliveau. Koivu likely never will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, his name is not found in the NHL record books, and it is not etched on the Stanley Cup.

To compare the two would be a gigantic stretch.

But when Beliveau passed the torch to those that followed him, setting the bar at a level that practically was unattainable, Koivu grasped it and held that torch as high as he could.

That's what made him special.

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