It Hab-Ened Last Week: Koivu Returns; Habs Salvage Point

As a warning, yes, this post is going to mostly be about Saku Koivu and his return to Montreal. I apologize to those who have heard enough about the former captain, but he won't be coming back here very often, so humor me.

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In over 100 years of glorious history, I don't think there's a more polarizing figure for the Montreal Canadiens than former captain Saku Koivu.

No matter how much you talk about the greats, like the Beliveaus, the Richards, the Lafleurs, they were always beloved by all. No matter what they did or how they did it, some with more controversy than others (I'm looking at you, Flower), they were and will always be the greats of this team. They accomplished things on and off the ice for the Canadiens and for the city of Montreal in their times that will never be surpassed by anyone in sports, and they deserve all the glory that they have earned.

But Saku was different. Just a Finnish kid, drafted by the Habs in the 1st round in 2003 under a barrage of boos from a rival Quebec City crowd, where the draft was held that year, likely bitter over Montreal's cup win only weeks earlier, Koivu was always an underdog, from day one. It was a surprise when he was selected in the 1st round that faithful day in 1993. It was a surprise when he was named the first European captain of the Canadiens in 1999. It was a major surprise to everyone when he announced that he had cancer in 2001, and an even bigger surprise when he returned to the game less than a year later to play for the Canadiens in the 2002. And the surprises and upsets would keep piling on as Koivu's career continued.

But with each surprise came multiple disappointments. Koivu came to the Canadiens in 1996, and immediately made an impact, figuring among the top five rookies in scoring in his first year. Koivu would suffer no sophomore slump when his second season commenced, figuring amongst the NHL's top scorers through the first few months of action, but in December of 1996, Koivu would suffer the first of many injuries that would plague and put a damper on his career. And from the first knee injury, it would all kind of be downhill from there. He would miss time each of the next two years to knee injuries. In his first year as captain, he would dislocate his shoulder and miss half the season. He would then have to get two knee surgeries over the next calendar year, shortening his career even further.

Then, of course, came that faithful night in September of 2001, where Koivu would discover he had non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a type of cancer. I don't think it's fair for me to elaborate on the ordeal Koivu must have gone through, as not many of us can know what it feels like to go through what Koivu did. All we can do is attest the certain miracle of his return in April of the following year, and the fact that on that night where he returned to the ice to play for the Canadiens in the playoffs, Saku Koivu should have earned a place in the hearts of every fan of this team. Saku's eight minute standing ovation on April 6th, 2002 is by far my favorite memory as a fan of the Canadiens.

A few more knee injuries later, the second most tragic moment of Koivu's career would come in the quarter-finals of the 2006 playoffs, when Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams would nearly take Koivu's eye out, effectively ending Koivu's playoffs - many thought it could have ended his career - and ending the Canadiens chances against the Hurricanes, their best chance in the playoffs in years. If all of this wasn't enough, Saku would actually find a way to attract political turmoil in 2007, when a separatist lawyer would criticize Koivu for not speaking French. And that's all I'm going to say about that nonsense.

Koivu would compete for the Habs the next couple of seasons, including, arguably, the Canadiens' best season in recent memory, when they would finish first in the Eastern Conference in 2007-08. But his play had noticeably dropped off, as a result of the ridiculous beatings his body would have taken for over a decade. After the Canadiens were unceremoniously swept by the Boston Bruins in the 2009 playoffs, Koivu would depart the Canadiens as a free agent, when general manager Bob Gainey would decide that the team needed a 10-player makeover, probably as a Hail Mary for a job that he would step down from a few months later.

We all know the rest. Koivu would go on to play for the Anaheim Ducks, where he put up a respectable 52 points in 71 games last year, and around 25 points so far this year. The Canadiens would also move on, making the Eastern Conference finals in last year's playoffs, something they never did with Koivu, and naming a new captain in Brian Gionta before the start of this season.

Koivu is gone, and nothing we can say in these blogs will change that. And that's fine. I'm not a fan of how Koivu was dropped from this team, but it happened, and Koivu has moved on to a team where he can play with his countryman, Teemu Selanne, as well as some other former Habs in a team that embodies his never-give-up attitude in their style of play.

And I didn't go through 15 years of Saku Koivu history to bore anymore, or to make a statement about why or if he should still be here. All this was meant to be is a telling of what will be one hell of a career, dare I say a tragic career, when Koivu is long gone and his career will have been over. And frankly, it was the first chance anyone really got to say it. When Koivu left in 2009, everyone was too pre-occupied with the acquisitions of Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta and Mike Cammalleri, and by the time we got around to Koivu, he was already in Anaheim. Saturday night may have been Koivu's only chance to play in Montreal for the rest of his career, and he deserves every article and every mention of praise coming to him.

There's no denying that Koivu is a special player. He never really got to show it in the NHL, topping out at 75 points in 81 games 2006-07, but he came close so many times. In so many injury-riddled and shortened seasons, Koivu consistently put up near-point-per-game numbers. He has an incredible four Olympic Medals (a silver and three bronzes, including at this past year's Vancouver Olympics), and four more at World Championship events. The trio of Selanne-Koivu-Lehtinen has been one of the best lines in international hockey, and Koivu always shines on the international stage.

He was never really able to do that consistently in Montreal. Was it the injuries? Was it the real lack of depth the Canadiens had for most of his run? Was it just bad luck? It doesn't really matter anymore, but it deserves consideration.

Yes, Koivu doesn't have the numbers of some of the Canadiens greats, but he also didn't have the teammates that those greats had. But yet, in nearly 15 years as a Habs, Koivu showed as much resiliency, determination, and most importantly, class, as any of those players, and he did it with multiple handicaps. Whether it be the injuries, the cancer, the fact that he was always an outsider, a non-French-speaking European in a French-speaking province, every time Koivu would move forward an inch, he would be thrust back ten feet. But he would always crawl back, asking for more. And in my heart, as a Habs fan and a Montrealer, that puts him right up there next to Beliveau, next to Henri and Maurice Richard, next to Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson and Serve Savard and all the rest.

We can regurgitate stats all we want, and championships and accomplishments all day. Koivu may not have accumulated all of the ones he wanted to, but regardless of all of that, for the legacy he leaves in Montreal, at the Bell Centre, in the Habs organization, in the city of Montreal and in the hospitals that have benefited from his Foundation, Saku Koivu deserves to eventually have his jersey retired to the rafters of the Bell Centre and his name honored with all the other greats, because he's just as much a class act and a big part of this team's history as any of the rest.

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OH YA, THERE WAS ALSO A GAME

As you can probably tell, the game on Saturday night that featured the Canadiens going up against Koivu's Anaheim Ducks ended up being sort of secondary. It happens in this sport occasionally, but that's ok. Koivu won't be playing here every day, or even every year, frankly, and he deserves a send-off that he never got a year and a half ago. The Canadiens didn't do much to honor him, and that too is ok. He will get his proper ceremony someday when he retires, but right now, to the Canadiens, he was just a former Hab on an opposing team and that's how he should have been treated, and probably how he wanted to be treated by the organization. For the fans, it was different, but for the Canadiens, it was game night.

It certainly didn't seem that way early in the game, as the Canadiens would fall behind twice in the first two periods, but twice, they would battle back, eventually tying the game 3-3 and salvage a point in an eventual 4-3 shootout loss.

Koivu would contribute to the game in more ways than one, assisting on Corey Perry's 25th, and taking three minor penalties, two of which (including the game-tying goal by Max Pacioretty with 13 seconds left in regulation) would lead to Canadiens' goals. Koivu would be voted the second star of the game (the first going automatically to Bobby Ryan for scoring the game winner in the shootout), and would receive a standing ovation from the crowd, but I have a feeling that he would have been among the game's stars no matter what he did.

It was a special night in Montreal, and a special game for more reasons than one. Yes, Koivu's return was emotional, and both parties played it with class. No tributes other than a minor change to the anthem video would be showed for Koivu, but I wouldn't be surprised if Koivu himself asked for it to be that way. He would want it that way. Moreover, the Canadiens would show the level of compete and never-give-up attitude that Koivu lived while he was in Montreal, coming back from a two-goal deficit to salvage a point, and peppering 40 shots on an outstanding Jonas Hiller, who keeps proving that he's one of if not the best goaltender in the West. Max Pacioretty showed the same resilience, scoring two goals only days after being wheeled out of Buffalo on a stretcher with a rib injury. Pacioretty also contributed a goal and an assist the night before in a 7-1 romping of the Ottawa Senators.

Whatever you think of Koivu, and the attention brought upon him this weekend, you can rest assured that it is over (for now), with the Canadiens travelling to Philadelphia for another meaningful game against the Flyers, before heading into the All-Star break. We will be liveblogging that game and you can be assured that things will likely get a little rowdy.

Ryan White remains with the team, and it will be interesting to see what he can do against a rowdy group in Philly that likes to get their hands dirty. Andreas Engqvist has been returned to Hamilton despite a decent outing in two games this past weekend, implying that Jeff Halpern will return to the line-up after missing said two games. While the Canadiens won't play another game for a week, expect this one to be the closest thing to playoff hockey we'll see until April. The Habs are hurting with many hurt bodies, and the Flyers could look to take advantage of that. Needless to say, the Habs will be the underdogs in this one.

With Koivu's return in the books, we can now move on. Follow me on twitter as I move on and trash talk Mark Trible heading into tomorrow night's game, and leave your thoughts and memories of Saku Koivu in the comments below!

3 Comments

Cinerichabs88's picture

i agree with you micheal, you see that his heart is still here. i think he would do just fine in a management role on the team. great post george you really brought up some great points. i personally think though that his time was undoubtedly doen in montreal, he wasn't looking for a new contract here and even if he was offered it he wouldn't have signed. i'm curious to know if he is jersey retirement worthy.

George Prax's picture

I'm pretty sure he wanted to stay here Eric. He invested so much in this town, married a woman from here and his kids grew up here. It was just a case of Gainey moving in another direction, and I don't think it was necessary.