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Captain Koivu created lasting legacy in Montreal

by Arpon Basu

Establishing Saku Koivu's legacy in the NHL is a tricky endeavor. It is not simply defined by goals and assists, or championships.

Koivu, who announced his retirement Wednesday after 18 NHL seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and the Anaheim Ducks, leaves the game as one of its most highly respected players, yet one that never reached truly elite status in the League, nor does he have his name on the Stanley Cup.

But he created as rich a legacy as any NHL player in recent history, especially in Montreal.

In a sense, it is unfortunate that Koivu will always be most remembered for the courageous battle he fought, and won, against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma during the 2001-02 season. Koivu did so much more than beat cancer over the course of his career.

Koivu discusses retirement

Former Anaheim Ducks and Montreal Canadiens center Saku Koivu spoke about his decision to retire from the NHL after 18 seasons:

I've always been the type of person that, when there is a big decision in front of me, I take a lot of time and look at things from different angles and different perspectives. Sometimes I feel like I keep it too much and maybe try to come up with answers that aren't there.


But in another sense, that difficult episode in his life is a perfect representation of Koivu's career as a whole. He overcame a debilitating illness in much the same fashion he overcame a perceived lack of size to be a top-flight center in the NHL, through determination and sheer will fueled by a competitive spirit that was revered by anyone he ever played with.

Koivu's return to play in the 80th game of the 2001-02 regular season, a 4-3 Canadiens win against the Ottawa Senators that clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, remains one of the most emotional moments in team history. The fans serenaded Koivu with chants of "Saku! Saku! Saku!" during an eight-minute standing ovation that began before he hit the ice, picked up steam when he removed his helmet to expose his stubbly hair for the national anthem, continued through the singing of O Canada and ended only after Koivu implored referee Dan Marouelli to drop the puck for the opening faceoff.

And that illness exposed the kindness and generosity of Koivu. The foundation bearing his name he began shortly after his diagnosis spearheaded a fundraising campaign to raise $8 million to purchase a PET scanner for the Montreal General Hospital, a machine Koivu needed when he was first diagnosed but which the city he had adopted as his second home did not have.

It does now, and Koivu is the reason why.

He has often said that above and beyond anything he did on the ice, Koivu wants to be most remembered for that PET scanner which has helped thousands of people since it arrived in 2002.

But what Koivu accomplished on the ice deserves some recognition as well, and it is often overshadowed by his courageous battle with cancer.

His return in 2002 exemplified Koivu's incredible competitive spirit and ability to raise his game when it mattered most. After playing in the final three games of the 2001-02 regular season, Koivu had two goals and five assists to lead the Canadiens to a six-game upset victory against the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs before the team bowed out in the second round against the Carolina Hurricanes.

In 54 playoff games played with the Canadiens, Koivu had 48 points, a 10-percent increase over his regular season point-per-game average with Montreal.

Koivu's excellence on the ice was hardly limited to Montreal, however; some of the best hockey of his career was played representing his native Finland, where he is a larger-than-life figure. He won four Olympic medals for Finland and nine total on the international stage, where he always seemed to excel playing alongside his Ducks teammate Teemu Selanne.

Koivu had 120 points in 102 games playing for Finland, almost always as captain, in the Olympics, World Cup, IIHF World Championships and IIHF World Junior Championships.

Selanne and Jari Kurri are the two Finnish players with more career points in the NHL than the 832 Koivu compiled in 1,124 career regular season games. But what might be Koivu's greatest accomplishment could be his time as Canadiens captain, with his retirement coinciding with a time where his former job is currently vacant.

Koivu was Canadiens captain for 10 years, tying him with Hockey Hall of Fame member Jean Beliveau for the longest tenure in club history. There is a potential asterisk to be added to that, however; Koivu captained the Canadiens for nine seasons from 1999-2009, missing one because of the 2004 NHL work stoppage.

Koivu was the first European-born captain in team history, but his time as captain also ran during the driest spell in Canadiens history in terms of Stanley Cup victories.

Koivu was drafted one month after the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the 24th time in 1993, and they haven't won another one since. His career began a few months before the Canadiens traded away Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy to the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, a move that set the franchise back for years. In Koivu's nine seasons as captain, the Canadiens failed to reach the playoffs four times and lost in the first round twice.

It was a difficult era for the Canadiens as a franchise, and it just so happened to fall during Koivu's time as captain, one where he was often subject to criticism for his inability to speak French to Montreal's majority Francophone fan base.

Yes, the team did not succeed with Koivu as captain, but that lack of success is what made his job far more difficult, and what made his performance doing that job more admirable. Koivu probably had to answer for more losses than any captain in franchise history, but he was always there to do so, waiting at his stall as the media throng entered the Canadiens dressing room. Often times, he was one of the only players there.

Koivu was also beset by injuries throughout the early part of his career, most notably a knee injury in his second season that came at a time he was leading the NHL in scoring with 38 points in 30 games. He finished the 1996-97 season with 56 points in 50 games, but that injury was a sign of things to come. After playing all 82 games as a rookie in 1995-96, Koivu would reach that mark once more over the final 17 seasons of his career.

When healthy, Koivu was one of the most effective forwards in the NHL, a two-way threat who defended as well as he created plays offensively. The problem was he was seldom healthy.

When Koivu moved on to Anaheim as a free agent in 2009, he still missed time due to occasional injuries. But he showed an ability to adapt his game to become one of the top checkers for Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.

So how can we evaluate Koivu's time in the NHL, and more particularly Montreal?

He sits 10th on the Canadiens' all-time scoring list with 641 points, and if he played for just about any other franchise Koivu would likely be revered as a legend, one that would see his number hanging from the rafters.

But the standard for having your number retired by the Canadiens is a lofty one, and without his name on the Stanley Cup or likely to be called at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Koivu doesn't meet the standard criteria.

But he's not a standard candidate either.

Aside from the lasting legacy he left at the Montreal General Hospital, Koivu was the face of the Canadiens for a generation of fans, those who were young children at the start of his career and who have never experienced their team winning the Stanley Cup.

For many of them, Koivu was the Canadiens.

And even if his No. 11 never hangs from the Bell Centre rafters, his impact on that generation of Canadiens fans will still live on forever.

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