Koivu Leaves Legacy On And Off The Ice
After 18 seasons and 1,124 games, Saku Koivu has called time on his storied career.
During that time he won four Olympic medals, gold at the World Championship and captained one of the game’s most illustrious teams for a decade. But his efforts away from the rink are as worthy of celebration as his life on it.
The recipient of two King Clancy Memorial Trophy and a Bill Masterton Trophy; Koivu not only inspired a generation of young Montreal fans, but helped countless more thanks to his charity work in the city.
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Drafted 21st overall in 1993, Koivu spent two further seasons with TPS in Finland before finally arriving in Quebec.
The 1995/96 season could not have been more controversial for the Canadiens, with the inexperienced duo of Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay replacing Serge Savard and Jacques Demers as General Manager and Head Coach respectively. Tremblay infamously left Patrick Roy in net for 9 goals in a 12-1 drubbing at the hands of Detroit, leading to the netminders departure that was the catalyst for a dramatic decline in fortunes for the franchise.
Despite the difficulties around him, Koivu still managed to score 20 goals and 45 points in his rookie season. He followed it up with 17 goals and 56 points the next year, but was sidelined for 28 games following knee surgery.
Koivu endured further injury problems over the next two seasons, but the Finn scored a further 28 goals and 101 points in 134 games before becoming Montreal’s first European Captain in 1999.
Yet more injuries followed, but it was his diagnosis with non-Hodgkin intra-abdominal lymphoma just before the 2001/02 season began that rocked the hockey world.
Remarkably, Koivu returned to the ice that season – providing the Bell Center with one of its most memorable moments.
The Turku native made a full return following season, playing all 82 games whilst recording a then career best 21 goals and 71 points – but he was unable to stop Montreal missing the play-offs for the fourth time in five years.
Koivu passed the 20 goal plateau for the second time in 2006/07, posting a career best 22 goals and 75 points; but again his efforts were insufficient to helps the Habs in to the post season.
In his 13 seasons with the club, Koivu never got past the second round and left for Anaheim in the summer of 2009, when the Canadiens under went a roster overhaul. His ten years as captain is tied with club legend Jean Beliveau for the longest in franchise history.
In five seasons with the Ducks, Koivu scored 64 goals and 191 points playing alongside fellow veteran Teemu Selanne. The Finn battled through further injuries in California, including a concussion last season, but kept coming back.
It was one of the traits that endeared him to so many. No matter what life threw at him, Koivu kept coming back time and time again. His determination and intensity made him a hero to legions of fans in Montreal and Orange County, and one of the most popular and respected players in either dressing room; with tributes from former team mates pouring in following his decision to retire.
Away from the rink, he founded The Saku Koivu Foundation, which helped to raise more than $8m to fund a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner for the Montreal General Hospital, who helped treat him 2001.
The foundation has helped support the hospital ever since, helping provide care to countless others and ensuring Koivu’s legacy in the city stretches beyond the years he gave to the Canadiens.
Had it not been for injury, he might have been another great on a club with a trail of star names throughout its history. But in a statement, released via the NHLPA, Koivu said he felt “truly blessed and fulfilled” after more than two decades as a pro.
Koivu now plans to spend some time with his family, though admitted a move in to coaching in the future held some interest.
Perhaps it is the humble way he reflected on his career that sums the forward up best:
“My first 4-5 years in the league, I had some unfortunate injuries with the shoulder and knees and then at 27, 28 years old going through the cancer and missing almost a complete year … to have played in 1,100-plus games and playing some 10-plus years after all that, it really feels amazing,” said Koivu. “I feel so fortunate about it. Had somebody told me that back then I would have said, `Absolutely no way that that’s possible.’ When I first told the doctor after my chemo that I wanted to come back and play that year, he said, `You’re insane. Maybe you’re never going to play because we don’t know how the treatments and everything will have an effect on you.’ Being here in 2014, it’s pretty amazing.”
Some sporting heroes are made in an instant – a goal in the final minute. A hail mary that comes off. An end to end run. Koivu became a hero because he embodied everything that is good and great in a sportsman, and a human being.