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Classy Koivu bids fond farewell to Canadiens

by Adam Kimelman
Saku Koivu spent 10 years as captain of the Montreal Canadiens, tying him with Hockey Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau for the club record of longevity in the position.

And with a Beliveau-like stroke of class, on the same day he signed a one-year contract with the Anaheim Ducks, Koivu assembled a special conference call with Montreal media members to say farewell to a town in which he spent 14 years.

"The man, husband and human being I am today are because of the experiences I had in Montreal," said Koivu. "I enjoyed every moment there. It's a great city, great place to play hockey. Not an easy place always, but an interesting place."

Koivu had 191 goals and 641 points in 792 games with the Canadiens, plus another 16 goals and 48 points in 54 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Koivu's impact, however, is found in more than just statistics. He will be remembered for his grit and tenacity on and off the ice, and for his many charitable endeavors in the Montreal area.

He established the Saku Koivu Foundation in 2002, and through it purchased a PET-scan machine he purchased for Montreal General Hospital in 2004. PET scans are used to treat a variety of medical conditions, including cancer and heart disease.

"I hope the people remember me as a player who loved the city, who was extremely proud to wear the CH for such a long time," said Koivu. "I'm extremely proud of the years I was the captain. I hope they remember me as a player and a human being who didn't want to quit, who gave it all every night, and I think my relationship was beyond hockey because of the cancer. The one thing I said was that even though I played in Montreal, the legacy I wanted to leave was the PET machine at the hospital and being able to help people for years to come. That's something not one can take away from me."

Koivu's bond with the Montreal fans was cemented through their support of him after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in September 2001.

"I have a special thanks for all the Montreal Canadiens fans and the province of Quebec," he said. "I want to thank them for the support I got from them, especially the year I went through my cancer treatments. ... I know I'm a better person after these years. I've learned a lot form Montreal and I'll never forget the years I spent there."

Koivu said he had a feeling his time in Montreal was at an end following a conversation with GM Bob Gainey just before last month's Entry Draft.

"(Gainey) explained the plan Montreal had and they're going to see what happens during the draft and then they're going to get back to us a day or two before July 1," said Koivu. "That's when we found out Montreal was going to go in a different direction. It was something that we expected a little bit; but, obviously, it was a shock when you hear that. You go through in your head in a short time what's happened in 14 years.

"Montreal was a second home for us for many years, we loved the city. It was not easy news to receive, but after a while we got over it and we started thinking about the future and the new challenges. At this point in my career I look at the positive and maybe that's going to bring something new to my game, new excitement and new kind of lifestyle."

That lifestyle couldn't be any different -- from the fish bowl of Montreal to laid-back Southern California. Koivu said he didn't think one was definitively better than the other, just different.

"I'm extremely excited about the new challenge," he said. "I've heard a lot about what it's like to play somewhere else. In one way it's going to be easier in a place like Anaheim. But Montreal is a place that can be an extremely attractive and a great place, but at other times it can be tough and you don't have these extreme moments we've had in Montreal."

One of the more extreme positions in hockey is captain of the Canadiens. It's a position that is constantly under the microscope of the ultra-intense Montreal media. Koivu was criticized for a number of things, most of all for never learning to speak French.

"In an ideal world I would have loved to speak French fluently, and for myself it would have been an unbelievable gift," said Koivu. "I think sometimes the criticism went too far with it. I came to Montreal to play hockey and the things I achieved and things I did, I'm very proud of. I haven't taken personally the criticism I've gotten, the only thing is it's been an unfortunate issue we've had to battle over the years, but I'm not bitter about it one bit."
Koivu was asked if he had any advice for the next man to take the captaincy in Montreal.

"You have to be yourself," he said. "Don't pretend to be something you're not. Don't be a fake because people will recognize that very quickly. Doesn't matter how you handle your everyday life, there will be people or members of the media that don't like it. As long as you can be honest about what you've done, that's enough."
"I hope the people remember me as a player who loved the city, who was extremely proud to wear the CH for such a long time.  I'm extremely proud of the years I was the captain. I hope they remember me as a player and a human being who didn't want to quit, who gave it all every night, and I think my relationship was beyond hockey because of the cancer. The one thing I said was that even though I played in Montreal, the legacy I wanted to leave was the PET machine at the hospital and being able to help people for years to come. That's something not one can take away from me." -- Saku Koivu
Koivu also was honest about why he bypassed a chance to play with his brother, Mikko, in Minnesota. Koivu said the fact that both play center was a big reason.

"I think that was the main reason, not that they would compare our game but that we would compete for the same ice time, for the same role," said Koivu. "I just felt, at least at this point, it was not a fit for us and specifically for me."

Instead, he chose the Ducks, partly to play with friend Teemu Selanne.

"Teemu obviously played a role," said Koivu. "I've played with him in the Olympics, at the World Championships for Team Finland, and we've had a lot of success. I know the chemistry is there. Anaheim was looking for a second-line center, a spot which fit very readily for myself. More than Teemu, what we were looking for was a team that at this point has a legitimate chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. At the same time we wanted to see something else, a different aspect of hockey after all these years in Montreal."

Koivu also was asked what it would feel like to come to Montreal as a visiting player for the first time in his NHL career.

"There's a few moments in the last 14 years that stand out as emotional games and days, and the first time I'm going to go there and play is something I won't forget," said Koivu. "I hope that the fans and the people in Montreal and province of Quebec ... I'm hoping on that particular night they'll show that respect to me for the job I did for the Canadiens."

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com.


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