Saku Koivu played 792 games during the regular season and another 54 in the playoffs for the Montreal Canadiens, making him by far the longest-tenured Canadien player ever to not win a Stanley Cup.
And as Koivu prepares to step on the Bell Centre ice Saturday for the first time since he signed with the Anaheim Ducks two summers ago, that remains his only unfulfilled wish from his time in Montreal.
“The only regret that I have and the thing that I’m like, ‘Damn!’ is that we didn’t go far enough in the playoffs and we didn’t get a chance to win the Cup,” Koivu said, “and nothing else.”
And why would he have any other regrets? In reality, he was a terrific player and captain for the Canadiens and the fact he didn’t win a Stanley Cup there is more a statement on the organization and the realities of a 30-team NHL than on him. The Canadiens first-ever European captain was as gritty and resilient as they come and while he was by no means a star player, he had a penchant for scoring important goals and playing his best in meaningful games.
And, of course, he has a connection with the city that would rival that of many of his French Canadian contemporaries. Montreal was the place where Koivu started his career and played 13 NHL seasons, but, more importantly, it was the city where he battled and defeated cancer against some very lopsided odds. It is where the Saku Koivu Foundation still operates, a foundation that raised $2.5 million for a PET/CT scanner for the Montreal General Hospital that was used in Koivu’s final tests before he was declared cancer-free.
When Koivu stepped on the ice for his first game back after the treatments on April 9, 2002, he received an eight-minute standing ovation and forged a bond with the city and its fans that will never be broken.
And while Saturday’s return likely won’t rival the feeling he had that evening, Koivu acknowledged that he would be emotional about coming back to Montreal.
“In every game there are two points involved, but this one I marked a long time ago when the schedule came out and I’ve been expecting this and waiting for this game,” Koivu said. “There are going to be a lot of emotions involved. Seeing all the people I dealt with so many times throughout the years…I was there for so long as a member of the home team and the captain and to be there as an opponent, it’s going to be very different.”
Koivu joked that his only other regret was that he didn’t become fluent in French. It was an issue that surfaced time to time during his tenure as captain and, looking back, Koivu said he can understand people’s feelings about it. Playing in Montreal sometimes carries unbearable pressures, but it also has unique rewards, Koivu said.
“In Montreal, when we were successful and we were winning, it was so smooth and everything was so perfect,” Koivu said. “The media and fans are used to being part of a tradition of success and part of an organization that’s used to winning and being on top all the time. But that’s what makes it such a unique place - the expectations and the reactions that people get after a loss or after a win.”
The Canadiens are simply the classiest organization in the NHL, that much cannot be disputed. Most certainly, there will be some point in the proceedings where they will honor their former captain for everything he did there and it will likely be emotional without being overdone.
In reality, Koivu deserves it. If the Canadiens fans are as knowledgeable and passionate as they are portrayed, Koivu will get another extended standing ovation. This was, after all, not a mercenary who chased the money to California. He only signed with the Ducks because the Canadiens never made him a contract offer.
“I kind of hope that everything is going to be as low-key as possible because I don’t want there to be a big fuss about me going back there,” Koivu said. “When the national anthem, when the building is dark…that’s probably going to be a moment when there will be a lot of things going through my mind – a lot of great things and memories.”
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