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Ducks' Koivu preparing for return to Montreal

by Arpon Basu /
MONTREAL -- Saku Koivu had more than his share of emotional moments at the Bell Centre, none more so than his triumphant return from cancer to play for the Montreal Canadiens at the end of the 2001-02 season, only seven months after the hockey world was shocked to learn he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

But Friday afternoon, the Anaheim Ducks center touched down in the city and walked into the building again for the first time since he left for the beaches of California as a free agent after the 2008-09 season -- and Koivu came as close as he's come to breaking down emotionally in public.

"It's a really unique and special bond between me and the city of Montreal and the people here," Koivu said to close an opening statement to a room packed with reporters. "That doesn't happen very often. The way they made us feel and what they gave us here, we'll never forget that. I want to thank the people here for that. That was really amazing."

As those final words left his lips, Koivu's voice was shaking. He was having trouble getting them out. The emotion was palpable.

And that was just a press conference.

The emotions that will be coursing through Koivu's veins Saturday as he makes the strange trip toward the visiting dressing room, pulls on his Ducks jersey and steps out in front of 21,273 fans who have waited a year and a half to express how much he meant to this city may very well overwhelm him.

"It's going to be an emotional night, one I won't forget for the rest of my life," Koivu said. "It will be like I'm playing on home ice in a home arena, but I'll be wearing a Ducks jersey."

Koivu, 36, played 13 years in Montreal and served as the Canadiens captain for 10 of them, tying him with the iconic Jean Beliveau for longevity in that role.

But more importantly, Koivu was a giving resident of the city of Montreal.

He created the Saku Koivu Foundation that purchased a PET scan for the Montreal General Hospital, largely because the city didn't have one when he needed it in 2002 while being treated.

"I really believe that the goals and the points and the assists and the wins, when you're done you're done, and they kind of disappear," Koivu said. "The one legacy I've always wanted and that I'm really proud of is the foundation, the PET scan that thousands of people have gone through. They are benefitting from it, and that's making a difference and that's what really matters."

With Koivu's sudden departure in the summer of 2009 after a somewhat humiliating first-round sweep out of the playoffs at the hands of the Boston Bruins, Saturday night will be the city's first opportunity to say thank you.

There is little doubt they will do just that, just as they did back in 2002 when a bald-headed and somewhat frail Koivu stood on the blue line at the Bell Centre and awkwardly waited for an eight-minute standing ovation to end, though it appeared it never would.

But Koivu wishes there was some way for him to return the favor.

"The way they treated me and the support I got, I feel I should be the one standing on the red line and applauding for them and giving a standing ovation for the fans," he said. "They've surprised me often over the years, so to get an overwhelmingly positive reaction tomorrow night obviously would feel good."

Athletes will often talk about situations like this and try to downplay it, referring to the two points at stake and how that is more important than anything else. But for this one time, Koivu was big enough to admit it's not quite that simple.

"I'd love to win the game, don't get me wrong, and those two points are very crucial for our team as of right now," Koivu said. "But for me, this weekend and the whole day tomorrow and the whole game, it's a lot more. It's to come back here. It's a weekend I will never forget, and hopefully it will be a great experience."

Koivu's playing legacy in Montreal - his societal one is secured - is difficult to quantify, if only because the Canadiens have such a storied history with their 24 Stanley Cups and 44 Hall of Fame players.

Koivu is 10th in franchise history in points with 641 in 792 career games played for the Canadiens. The fact he is tied with Beliveau for being the longest-serving captain would seemingly be enough to make him one of the greats.

But Koivu was somewhat cursed that his tenure coincided with the darkest period in Canadiens history in terms of championships -- he arrived in 1995, two years after Montreal's last Stanley Cup win, and played through the franchise's longest drought ever.

Because of the history of success in Montreal, that weighs heavily on Koivu's place in that history -- and he knows it.

"The only thing in my mind that I regret is not having more success in the playoffs, not winning the Cup," Koivu said. "I felt what it's like to be here in a playoff series, and to win a series, how excited people get and how passionate they are about it."

At the same time, an entire generation of Canadiens fans grew up with Koivu as the face of the franchise, the first generation in team history that has lived its entire life without fully experiencing a Stanley Cup victory.

That generation is now the team's most rabid fans, people in their twenties who hope to one day taste the success that previous generations practically took for granted.

Many of them have voiced their opinion that Koivu's No. 11 should be retired, and their outrage when Scott Gomez - the player who replaced him - took the number prior to this season.

Even Koivu admitted it was somewhat strange to see his number on someone else's back.

"Now that Scott Gomez is wearing it, it doesn't matter in a way. It's just a number," he said. "But I was watching one of their games early in the season and I didn't know about it, and it looked weird."

As far as his number joining the 17 banners that hang in the Bell Centre rafters - all multiple Stanley Cup champions and Hall of Famers - Koivu doesn't feel it would be appropriate.

"I feel that I don't belong there," he said. "It's overwhelming to hear people even consider that. But when you look at the legends on the roof there and what they've done for this team, I can't consider myself to be in the same class."

Still, Koivu does hope that he is remembered in Montreal, even if it's not by way of a number retirement. He knows he will be for his contributions to the Montreal community, for the way the city was shocked by his cancer and uplifted by his courageous battle to beat it, and for the way he gave everything he had whenever he pulled on a Canadiens uniform.

But he wanted to make sure to say that every minute he spent in Montreal was a cherished one.

"It's tough to put yourself in the same group as the legends that have played here and won all the Cups, but I hope people remember me as a captain and as a player and as a person who never gave up. Especially when the future didn't look that good for us in the late 90's and the team wasn't as competitive as it should have been, that we wanted to be here and we wanted to turn things around," Koivu said. "I loved playing for this team."

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