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Saku Koivu feels Max Pacioretty's pain

Former Canadiens captain knows what kind of heat current Montreal leader is taking

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- Saku Koivu knows a thing or two about the pressures of being captain of the Montreal Canadiens.

So Koivu, 41, a native of Turku, Finland, knows what current captain Max Pacioretty is going through these days, the latter being criticized by the media and Montreal's fan base for a perceived lack of leadership on a Canadiens team that failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

"It's not easy, but obviously you have to kind of keep the focus on what you're doing and not let the nonsense have an effect on you," said Koivu, who has been at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 as an advisor to Team Finland. "It's not easy when you read these types of (negative) things, but people who work in the hockey business, and the players, know they're not true."

Pacioretty was elected by teammates as the 29th captain in Canadiens history on the eve of last season's training camp, and now he finds himself in the same crosshairs that once were trained on Koivu.

The Canadiens won a season-opening, franchise-record nine straight games last season before injuries to goalie Carey Price and forward Brendan Gallagher derailed their season.

Many have claimed Pacioretty's lack of leadership was a large part of the reason the Canadiens skidded badly last season. And in recent days, a French-language radio commentator in Montreal claimed that he'd been told by a group of people, whom he would not identify, that Canadiens coach Michel Therrien had told them at a golf tournament that Pacioretty was the worst captain in Montreal's history.

Therrien angrily denied the claim this week at the Canadiens' annual charity golf tournament and said he has a good relationship with Pacioretty.

Pacioretty's life was made no easier at the World Cup when he was called out by Team USA coach John Tortorella for his pretournament performance, then had a turnover against Team Canada that resulted in a goal in a must-win game.

Koivu was no stranger to controversy during his time in Montreal. He played 792 regular-season games over 13 seasons for the Canadiens from 1995-2009, skating another 54 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Selected by Montreal in the first round (No. 21) of the 1993 NHL Draft, he would be elected Montreal's 27th captain by his teammates on the eve of the 1999-00 season.

Koivu, the first European to hold that honor, was captain for 563 games from 1999-2009 (interrupted by the 2004-05 lockout).

He signed with the Anaheim Ducks in the summer of 2009 and played his final five NHL seasons in California, retiring before the start of the 2014-15 season.

During his decade as captain of the Canadiens, Koivu regularly took heat from some in the media for the fact he didn't speak French, the official language of Quebec. And he was criticized at times for his leadership of an underachieving, often weakly built team that missed the playoffs four times during his decade as captain.

Yet he remains, to the vast majority, one of the most popular Canadiens in recent memory, having waged a successful public battle against non-Hodgkin's lymphoma from which he emerged to establish a foundation that raised the funds required to purchase a vital piece of cancer-treatment equipment for the Montreal General Hospital.

"I feel that you truly find who your friends and true supporters are when you go through some tough times and adversities," Koivu said when he retired two years ago. "When times were the toughest, that's when the fans were the loudest in Montreal."

And he believes that Pacioretty has and deserves support as captain of the Canadiens.

"Those are unfortunate things to hear about Max but I wouldn't waste any time on them," he said. "I've heard nothing but good things - great things - about him and the way he's handling himself as captain."

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