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Koivu preps for 1,000th game in only NHL home he's ever known

Team's captain is first player in team history to reach milestone entirely in a Wild sweater

by Dan Myers @mnwildscribe / Wild.com

The fact that Mikko Koivu will play in his 1,000th game with the Wild on Sunday is thanks in large part to a good poker face from many of the team's early decision makers.

Minnesota held the sixth pick in the 2001 NHL Draft in Sunrise, Florida, and from the get-go, the team had its sights on Koivu, a strong, two-way centerman from Finland who it wanted to make a franchise cornerstone.

The only problem was that it picked sixth, and there was no guarantee that Koivu would be available.

While the top two picks in the draft were pretty well decided, the Wild would have to sweat out the Tampa Bay Lightning, picking third, the hometown Florida Panthers at four and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim selecting fifth.

There was also the Montreal Canadiens, picking seventh, who made no bones about their desire to reunite Mikko with older brother Saku, who had been named the Canadiens' 27th captain in franchise history just two years prior. 

So Minnesota commenced perhaps the best smokescreen in franchise history.

The top of the draft went as expected, with Ilya Kovalchuk and Jason Spezza going first and second overall. Centermen Alex Svitov and Stephen Weiss went third and fourth, respectively. 

Which left the Ducks and a trade up by the Canadiens. 

The Wild's draft table was right next to that of the Canadiens, and the team's draft table was filled with plenty of former Habs, including then-Executive Vice President Doug Risebrough and head coach Jacques Lemaire. 

The group did what it could to disguise its interest in Koivu, talking up defenseman Mike Komisarek as well as goaltenders Pascal Leclaire and Dan Blackburn.

Koivu was the guy they were targeting all along, however. And the smokescreen worked.

"As the Florida group made its way down to the podium, Anaheim GM Pierre Gauthier smiled and turned to Doug and said 'It's going to be the little guy,'" former Wild GM Tom Lynn once wrote in his book, 'How to Bake an NHL Franchise From Scratch: The First Era of the Minnesota Wild.' 

"The little guy," in this case, was 5-foot-10 winger Stanislav Chistov. Which left the Wild on the clock and Koivu in their sights. 

The direction of the franchise had officially been changed forever.

"Fists slammed the table, French curse words were mumbled and glares were exchanged," Lynn wrote. "The Wild's ruse had worked and the Montreal staff was none too happy about it."

Rightfully so. 

The Canadiens would select Komisarek with the next pick, and while he would go on to have a stellar NHL career himself, playing 551 games with three different clubs over the course of the next decade, he hasn't made nearly the impact Koivu has on the Wild.

When he plays on Sunday, Koivu will become the first player in franchise history to skate in 1,000 games entirely with the team. He'll become just the 55th player in the 102-year history of the League, to play in his first 1,000 games with one team. 

And among Wild players all-time, Koivu ranks first in gamed played, assists (496), points (699), plus/minus (plus-70), shots on goal (2,241), power-play points (249), power-play assists (189), shorthanded points (25), shorthanded assists (15), multi-point games (150), faceoffs won (10,159) and faceoffs taken (18,929).

He's tied for first in overtime goals (five).

He's second in goals (203), power-play goals (60), shorthanded goals (10) and penalty minutes (572). 

He's third in game-winning goals (33).

He's also the first (and only) full-time captain in Wild history and one day will likely become the first player to ever have his number lifted to the rafters at Xcel Energy Center. 

But even more than the offensive stats which put him at or near the top of the team's record book in every category, is Koivu's defensive metrics, which continually rate him among the best two-way forwards in the NHL over the past decade-plus.

"He's one of the best [two-way] players, in my opinion, that I have seen play over the last 20 or 30 years," said former Wild captain and one-time teammate Wes Walz, himself a standout two-way player. "He plays against some of the best players in the world. There's a big reason why this Wild hockey club over the past 15 years, has been so good at home, and it's because we've had last change at home and whoever has been the coach here has decided to use Mikko against the best players in the world. That's why the record has been so good."

When Koivu reached the NHL in 2005 after the first lockout, Walz was nearing the end of a career that never really took off until he reached Minnesota as a member of the expansion Wild in 2000. 

Known for his offensive prowess as a junior player and in his first few seasons in the NHL, Walz would eventually flame out and spend four seasons in Switzerland, before Risebrough would offer him a deal to give the NHL one final shot.

At his first camp with Minnesota, Lemaire challenged Walz to be his shutdown centerman, a role that Walz would flourish in for 6 1/2 years. 

Koivu was issued a similar challenge by the legendary coach early on in his career and it was something that has remained with him ever since. 

"Without him I don't think I would be sitting here right now with this team or with the career that I had here," Koivu said. "I think he really taught me what it takes to play in this League. As a young kid I thought, 'Well, I got this. I'm where I want to be.' Not even close. He made me realize that. He was very hard every single day. I started to realize when I got a little bit older that he did it because he cared. I owe him a lot." 

When Walz retired midseason in 2007, Koivu would take over that title. Less than two years later, he was handed the captain's 'C' on a permanent basis and has never relinquished it.

Koivu's first-ever game in Minnesota actually came as a member of the club's minor league affiliate at the time, the Houston Aeros. 

During the NHL Lockout that cancelled the 2004-05 season, Koivu's first in North America, the Aeros played a game in downtown St. Paul in March of 2005. 

"I remember being at the St. Paul Hotel in the business center. We didn't have iPads and laptops back then. I remember going down there and calling home and I said, 'This really feels like home,'" Koivu said. "That was my first game here. I didn't play very well that game. But I could feel that right away."

With the lockout lifted the following season, Koivu would have his NHL debut delayed because of an injury. He would go on to play in 64 games that season, scoring six goals and 21 points. 

Following a 67-point season in 2008-09, Lemaire's final one as head coach of the Wild, Koivu added "permanent captain" to his resume, when he was handed the 'C' by then-coach Todd Richards on Oct. 20, 2009. 

Only Boston's Zdeno Chara (2006), Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (2007) and Chicago's Jonathan Toews (2008) have served longer tenures among active captains of their respective NHL teams. 

"I think when you say, 'Minnesota Wild,' the first thing that comes to everybody's mind in the hockey world is Mikko," said Wild goaltender Alex Stalock. "He's been here, he's had the 'C' on for years now, the No. 9. That's what you think of. 

"You know what you're going to get every single time he's on the ice. There's times I'm sure fans are like, 'well, what are we gonna get tonight from this guy,' and I think every night, when a fan turns the game on, they know exactly what they're gonna get out of Mikko. It's gonna be all-out effort, he's gonna leave everything on the ice and he's gonna compete on every single draw and every single play. 

"That's what you ask for out of a captain."

After playing against Koivu for years as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, Eric Staal has gotten an up-close look at Koivu the last 3 1/2 seasons since signing in Minnesota. 

Staal already respected Koivu as an opponent, but has gained a new appreciation for him as a teammate. 

"Great competitor," Staal said. "He's a guy that shows up to every game and every practice and just competes. That's what you want and that's why he's played for as long as he has and been as effective as he has."

Koivu's competitiveness is stuff of legend. There is hating to lose and then there is Koivu's hatred of losing.

"I sat across from Mikko in the locker room for a long time ... and that steely look in his eyes. He had that look in his eyes as soon as he walked into the locker room, even when he was a young kid," Walz said. "He's a very, very determined hockey player, a determined person and a very proud person. 

"That's the thing that I've always loved about Mikko. He doesn't care about all the noise going on outside. All that he cares about is the guys in [the dressing room], and that's a big reason why he's had that 'C' on his jersey for a long, long time."

Perhaps the most prideful part of reaching 1,000 games for Koivu is the fact that he's reached the milestone in a Wild uniform. 

No player in franchise history has taken more seriously the honor of wearing that crest, and few have taken to Minnesota like he has.

Whether it's a reminder of his home back in Finland, or a devotion to the team and its fans that took him in as a young man, Koivu is steadfastly loyal to the State of Hockey.

That he'll reach the milestone on Xcel Energy Center ice is both fitting, and appropriate.

"For me, especially that it's here, it means a lot to me," Koivu said. "Always so prideful for this team and this organization. Always will. It means a lot to me.

"What I learned. How I grew as a person. Not just as a player. There are so many people that you want to thank and you never get a chance. Hopefully they know what that means. There are so many good memories. Like I said before, my whole adult life I've pretty much lived here. It's a big part of my life. I had my three kids here in Minnesota. It really has become home."


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Video: Becoming Wild: Mikko Koivu  

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