There wasn’t a doubt in the minds of fans as to who should be the permanent captain of the Minnesota Wild. Since his arrival in St. Paul during the 2005-2006 season, we’ve seen all we’ve need to see out of number 9. His immense skill with the puck, his ability to always be in the right spot and his in-game demeanor are what leadership on the ice is all about.
Off the ice, the 26-year-old is polite, well spoken, funny, and most importantly, beloved and respected by his teammates.
“He’s a pretty open and honest guy,” said teammate, friend and countryman, Antti Miettinen. “He’s friends with everybody. I think he’s really easy to approach. But when there is something that needs to be said, he says it. There are a lot of good qualities in him.”
Head Coach Todd Richards hadn’t seen Koivu play as much as we have here in the State of Hockey, but the rookie head coach was well aware of Koivu’s reputation as a guy that loves hockey almost as much as he hates losing.
“I had heard that,” said Richards of Koivu’s propensity to take losses extremely hard. “But I didn’t realize he was so intense with that.”
Richards needed some time to see Koivu and his interaction with his teammates, but on Tuesday, he confirmed what we all suspected: Mikko Koivu
is the Wild’s captain, not for the month of October, but full-time.
“Mikko possesses all the qualities you want your leader to have,” explained Richards. “He is passionate, has a great work ethic and competes for everything. The way Mikko plays defines him as the leader of our team.”
“Obviously it’s a great honor,” said Koivu. “I’m proud of it. And I think what makes it special too is it’s the State of Hockey and with all the fans of hockey. With how big it is here, how people feel about it, that’s the thing that makes it even more special for me.”
Since the Turku, Finland native was drafted with the sixth overall pick by the Wild in the first round of the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, this day seemed predestined. The son of a Finnish coach and the taller, younger brother of an NHL All-Star and captain (Saku) just had the look of a star in waiting when he held up the Wild jersey for the first time. He stayed in Finland before playing with the Houston Aeros during the NHL lockout season of 2004-2005.
The youngster showed flashes of his potential in his rookie season, scoring his first NHL goal in his second game and dazzling in shootouts by converting four of six. Yet, he struggled toward the end, playing 45 straight games before finally lighting the lamp in Minnesota’s final game of the season in Dallas.
Despite struggles early in his career, Koivu was watching and learning from the leaders on that team. On Tuesday, he made special mention of one of them.
“When I first got to the League, probably the guy that helped me the most – and he probably doesn’t know it – was Brian Rolston,” he said. “He was the kind of guy that I admired the way he handled himself on the ice and in the locker room, with his family and everything.”
In three seasons since his rookie year, he’s posted 20 goals twice, including his breakout season last year when he led the team with 67 points on 20 goals and 47 assists. In between those seasons, he’s left many indelible images in the minds of Wild fans. There’s his nearly unstoppable backhand flip move in shootouts. There was the sight of him blasting a late go-ahead goal in the Wild’s Game Two win over the Colorado Avalanche in the 2008 playoffs. And, there was the anger on his face when he looked up at Vancouver’s Mattias Ohlund, who had taken a vicious slash at the back of Koivu’s leg, sidelining him for two months during the 2007-2008 season.
“He does it all for us,” said James Sheppard. “He’s out there on the power play, the penalty kill, when the game is on the line. He always seems to step up in key situations and that’s what you want in a captain.”
Koivu has worn the “C” before, including four times last season under Jacques Lemaire’s rotating captaincy policy.
While Richard’s permanent pick comes as no surprise, the Head Coach did have a fairly large pool of potential captains to pick from. With that in mind, he established a “leadership group” of three forwards – Martin Havlat, Andrew Brunette and Owen Nolan – and three defensemen – Kim Johnsson, Nick Schultz and Greg Zanon.
The alternate captain’s role will be rotated among these six throughout the season.
Koivu learned he would have the “C” sewn on his jersey earlier in the week, and he actually was given the choice to wear it, not that Richards expected him to turn the role down.
“I asked him if he wanted it,” said Richards. “I can’t imagine anybody saying ‘no’ to it. But you still have to make the choice. He was very respectful of the others in the leadership group. That shows you another quality of his.”
“The first thing for me was that I wanted to make sure that the older players like Owen Nolan and Andrew Brunette were fine with it,” explained Koivu. “They were behind it, and after that, I felt confident. That was the biggest thing for me to feel that they were behind me and supporting.”
Nobody in the locker room was taken aback when the team was informed before Tuesday’s practice.
“It didn’t surprise me at all,” said Miettinen. “There were a lot of good candidates, but he wasn’t a surprise selection in my mind. He’s a good leader, and a team player for us.”
The Wild now has its long-awaited “C”, but what it really needs is some notches in the “W” column. Koivu, who’s scored picked up two goals and three assists thus far, will have to be aware that the captain’s role doesn’t require him to do everything on the ice. He still has 22 teammates that must play a role in every game.
“He doesn’t have to do it all,” explained Richards. “He doesn’t have to feel the burden of the team on his shoulders. He just needs to be himself.”
For Koivu, that means a string of jokes poking fun at his teammates during the lighter moments, and stepping up when it’s crunch time. It’s the same thing he’s been doing since he got here.
“I don’t think it’s going to change me as a player, or as a person in the room,” said Koivu when asked how different his responsibility is now. It’s dealing with the refs more, and (the media) as well.”
“And that’s a good thing,” he cracked.
“He leads both by example and by being vocal,” said Sheppard. “He likes to have fun, but when it’s time to get serious, he is serious.”