This article was first published in the February 2nd edition of Main Street Magazine and is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by Main Street Week News to have a look at a great community newspaper or sign up and have Main Street Magazine delivered right to your inbox.
On January 22nd, fans of the Montreal Canadiens welcomed back a former player that won their hearts with his play on the ice and his actions away from the rink. For the first time, Saku Koivu returned to the ice at the Bell Centre as a visitor with the Anaheim Ducks. It was tremendous to hear the ovation he received but it was very strange to see him in a Ducks uniform. While the Canadiens may have chosen to go in a different direction a few season’s ago, it would have been nice to see Koivu retire in a Montreal uniform - he had earned that right.
A first round selection (21st overall) by the Canadiens in the 1993 NHL draft, Koivu arrived in Montreal for the start of the 1995-96 season after playing in his native Finland for three seasons. He made an immediate impact in his rookie season, scoring 20 goals and adding 25 assists. After two years in Montreal, he was named captain of the Habs, becoming the first and only European player to wear the “C” for the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. His nine seasons as captain is second only to one of the greatest captains in the entire sports world, Montreal Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau. Koivu played 792 games with the Canadiens, scoring 191 goals and adding 450 assists.
Koivu battled back from several injuries during his time in Montreal, but his courageous battle with cancer proved he has the heart of a champion. Feeling unwell, Koivu met with team doctors in the fall of 2001 and received the devastating news - he had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He battled the disease and won, and after missing 79 games, he returned to the ice to finish the season with his friends and teammates. The battle with cancer led Koivu to create the Saku Koivu Foundation, raising millions of dollars to purchase a PET/CT scan machine, an important piece of equipment vital to the early detection of cancer. Donated to the Montreal General Hospital, where Koivu was treated, there is no doubt that the machine has saved many lives.
In a recent interview with Calgary Flames legend Theo Fleury for my “Ask the Alumni” series at The Hockey Writers, a reader asked Fleury, if he was the General Manager in Calgary would he keep current captain Jarome Iginla on the Flames until he retired. In many ways, Fleury’s answer applies to the Koivu situation. He said, “I think it’s important that Iggy (Iginla) does retire as a Calgary Flame; it’s important for the league as well. You look at guys like Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman that had that opportunity to play for so many years for the same organization and have success - I think that is important.”
Some hockey columnists have speculated that Koivu was run out of Montreal because of his failure to learn French, while others claim the organization simply chose to go in another direction. Whatever the reason, from my perspective, Koivu should still be in Montreal with a “C” on his uniform.