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Toughness defines Koivu's march to 1,000 games

by Curtis Zupke

Ten years ago, Saku Koivu wasn't concerned about his next game as much as his next breath.

In the middle of a workout, Koivu would bend over on his skates and feel the weakness, the air failing to fill his lungs. Later, after eight rounds of chemotherapy, he would look in the mirror and see someone bald and 20 pounds lighter.

The man that would serve as captain of the Montreal Canadiens for nearly a decade would struggle to make it through the day, let alone a practice or a game.

His 1,000th NHL game?

"You only have so many chances to play and enjoy it, especially being able to be around that long. It doesn't happen very often. And then what I went through, it makes it really, really special. I think it's one of the milestones that really means a lot to the players."
-- Saku Koivu

That's difficult to envision when it's time for another hospital visit, more needles and more looks of concern from your family.

"Honestly, I didn't think about hockey really at all or a comeback throughout the treatment," Koivu said. "The cycles were done and I started to feel better physically. The doctors said 'You're going to feel weak but every day you're going to get stronger and stronger.' So that's when the idea or the thought that I want to play again (occurred), but not before."

It's been more than a decade since Koivu, 37, was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his abdomen, which for a period of time made hockey an afterthought.

Koivu not only left cancer in his rear-view mirror but resumed his career long enough to reach the 1,000-game milestone Monday when the Anaheim Ducks play at Colorado (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2).

In 999 games spread across 16 seasons with the Canadiens and Ducks, Koivu has 236 goals and 534 assists.

"Afterward, every year you kind of think of it as a bonus," Koivu said. "You only have so many chances to play and enjoy it, especially being able to be around that long. It doesn't happen very often. And then what I went through, it makes it really, really special. I think it's one of the milestones that really means a lot to the players."

Teammate Jason Blake, 38, has a unique appreciation for the benchmark. Blake, like Koivu, is a Bill Masterton Trophy winner for dedication and perseverance to the game of hockey after he overcame a form of leukemia. He is older than Koivu, but because of injuries, would need to play at least two more seasons to reach 1,000 games.


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"It defines you as a person, it defines you as a hockey player," Blake said. "It's tough to put in words, but I think a thousand games is truly a milestone. … You look at the longevity of hockey players, the length of careers, it seems like it's been shortening, obviously, with the concussion talk."

Koivu quietly has provided sure footing in a tempest of a season for Anaheim. He leads a 12th-place team with a plus-15 rating, including a combined plus-8 rating in November and December when the Ducks went 5-16-5.

"Those are good numbers on the best team in the League, especially for a guy that doesn't score 40 goals," Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau said.

Koivu remains proficient at the faceoff dot with a 53.0 winning percentage, and he's fifth on the team with 32 points.

His main moment in the spotlight prior to Monday was Jan. 10, when he had his second NHL hat trick. His first came in 2002.

Otherwise, Koivu largely goes unsung as the Ducks' most consistent two-way forward. That role makes the 1,000-game mark more impressive considering he has faced much bigger forwards for this long at his listed 5-foot-10, 182 pounds.

Former Ducks center Todd Marchant, an undersized center in his day, used to marvel at Koivu. Blake does, too.

"I played against him for eight, nine years out east," Blake said. "He's a battler. He's competes. He's not afraid to go into a corner against, let's say (Zdeno) Chara.

"He's had a phenomenal career. It's a testament to who he is, his willingness and competitiveness to be successful."

Boudreau thinks he knows the secret to Koivu's durability.

"It's not that difficult when you're smart and you have the tenacity that he has," Boudreau said. "He's lived and played as captain in the hardest city in the universe to play in Montreal, so his mental strength must be incredible. His tenacity on a player when he gets him is really, really good. He's very good with leverage, so size isn't as big a factor as you would normally think."

Koivu said he's learned over the years how to take care of himself. He has been dogged by a groin injury sporadically the past two seasons and missed eight games earlier this season.

"When you go through 20 years -- I don't care where you play -- it's demanding and you get younger and younger guys coming in," he said. "Competition is pretty severe. There are hundreds of guys waiting to take your job. You kind of learn your body. You learn better and better over the years.  Nowadays it's really a year-round job where you kind of start your off-ice training.

"For me, as long as I can kind of maintain my skating and ability to be able to get up in the play, I think that's going to be the key for me. Over the years you kind of learn to play smarter and wait for everybody to get up offensively. It's like everything in life -- you get more experience and you see things differently and you play differently. You don't have to prove yourself again every night."

Koivu doesn't have to prove to Anaheim's front office that he's worth re-signing -- Ducks general manager Bob Murray said during the team's disastrous first half that Koivu and Selanne were their only untouchables. But Koivu, a bargain with a salary cap hit of $2.5 million, is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Koivu said he enjoys his anonymity in Anaheim. His hat trick was one of the few times this season he has held a media scrum. Off the ice, he sometimes takes his wife, Hanna, and their two daughters to poke around idyllic Laguna Beach unrecognized.

Koivu acknowledged that, while his focus is on a playoff push, he has thought about the near future.

"I feel like I still enjoy the game and I want to be around," he said. "But I take a year at a time. Right now I want to finish the season and see where it takes us and make plans for the next year and see if the team's plans fit mine and we can hopefully get something done."

Chronically deferential to individual accomplishment, Koivu said he will embrace Monday.

"That's a big milestone," he said. "You don't see that often. You look at the stats and you don't really pay attention if somebody has 600 games or 700 games. But when someone has 1,000 games -- it makes a difference. I think 1,000 games is something I'm really going to enjoy. I hope we get a win."

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