So Long Saku: Koivu Retires a Hero

Today marks the end of illustrious NHL career. Arguably one of the most beloved Montreal Canadiens, Saku Koivu has made the decision to hang up his skates on his hockey-playing days.

While the former Habs captain never won a Cup in his 13 seasons with the Canadiens, the small forward left a huge hole in the character of the organization when he left for Anaheim in 2009. Scanning the discussion of his announcement today on social media, I came across several words describing the 18-year NHL veteran – leadership, classy, gutsy, a survivor – with many calling him an all-around gentleman.

Saku Koivu, Montreal Canadiens, Anaheim Ducks, NHL, Hockey
Saku Koivu left his mark in Montreal and will leave one on the NHL as he ends his career. (Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE)

Although many fans and players would’ve loved to see the former Hab retire in the red, white, and blue, his colours at the time of his retirement won’t really matter. You see, Saku Koivu will always be remembered for the mark that he left on the Montreal organization.

Third Star in a Losing Effort

His legacy in Montreal is one that very few players have with any given organization. As Elliotte Friedman explains, his contribution to the organization extends far outside the rink and into the community:

And while many may have overlooked his off-ice contributions, it was evident that the people of Montreal didn’t forget what he gave back both on and off the ice. While playing against his former club in October 2013, the crowd at the Bell Centre rose to their feet in appreciation of their former captain – while Koivu would be honoured as the third star of that game in a losing effort.

Saku Koivu: A Fearless Leader

Koivu spent 11 years as the leader of the Montreal Canadiens – at least in terms of the “C” stitched on the front of his jersey. But it says something about his leadership role that he would eventually don an “A” with the Ducks as well. What many don’t know, however, is that Koivu is tied with Jean Beliveau as the longest serving captains in Montreal franchise history – becoming the first European-born captain of the Canadiens.

He led the Canadiens in some of their best and worst moments. In one of the team’s greatest single-game comebacks, he even scored the shootout winner helping his team to a 6-5 win over the New York Rangers after being down 5-0.

But he didn’t just lead by the letters on his shirt, or what he may or may not have said in the dressing room. Koivu’s play spoke for itself. He played a competitive game, even when it came to opposing his younger brother Mikko, and it didn’t just last in one place. He carried that competitiveness with him not just in Montreal and Anaheim, but with his home country Finland as well.

But it was in the World Junior Hockey Championships where Koivu first showed his drive to be the most intense player on the ice. He played in two tournaments from 1992-1994 and recorded 18 points (4g-14a) in just 14 games. But it was his effort that got him noticed.

“While watching him during the World Juniors, it was obvious the kid would go places,” said Bruce Hollingdrake, The Hockey Writers’ editor-in-chief. “He had 10 times more grit than anyone else on the ice – it was really fun to watch.”

But Koivu’s fight for position – his grit that he showed on the ice – is exactly what allowed him to fulfill his long, successful NHL career.

The Hardest Battle

One of his most defining moments of his career was, as many people know, his return from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2002. After his diagnosis and throughout his battle, Koivu remained optimistic. He stepped out of the focal point of team – asking the media to allow him to focus on his fight and underwent treatment.

In April 2002, he completed his rehab and joined the Montreal Canadiens once again the following day. Many describe the atmosphere of the Bell Centre as the loudest they’ve ever heard an arena.

And so his career continued. He scored the game winning goal in Montreal’s first playoff game in four years only a week after his return to the Habs lineup and had his second best offensive output the year following his comeback, playing in all 82 games and recording 71 points (21g-50a).

He followed that up three seasons later by having his career year with les Habitants, recording 75 points (22g-53a) in 81 games. He would continue to produce – for the Habs and the Ducks – for the rest of his career.

The Praise of His Colleagues

As he leaves the game – at least as player – Koivu goes out to the figurative applause of his colleague. Having played with so many other great players, to have the kind of reception that has surrounded his announcement further proves his importance within the game.

Sheldon Souray

George Parros

Geoff Molson

Darcy Tucker

The Ottawa Senators

While he may not be a first-ballot shoe in for the Hall of Fame, nobody can question the way Koivu impacted the game and those that played with him and watched him throughout his career. It can almost be assumed that his number 11 will be honoured by the Montreal Canadiens in the near future.

Career Stats

Regular Season: 1,124GP, 255G, 577A, 832PTS, +10, 809PIM, 79PPG, 11SHG, 46GWG
Playoffs: 80 GP, 18G, 41A, 59PTS, +2, 62PIM, 7PPG, 1GWG

For more hockey news, follow Andrew on Twitter at @AndrewGForbes or his column at @Tape2TapeTHW.