For those born in the mid-to-late 1980’s, watching the Montreal Canadiens play hockey wasn’t all it was hyped up to be compared to the ‘back in my day’ stories our older relatives had.
But Saku Koivu provided a bright spot in some of the darkest hours the organization had ever seen and often did it battling through immense personal hurdles.
A knee injury early in his career that changed the landscape of his game, the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis and an errant stick to the eye are the ones that stand out.
The old saying goes ‘you’ll appreciate me when I’m gone.’
It didn’t look that way when Koivu quietly left Montreal during free agency in the summer of 2009, while fans were picketing in front of the Bell Center to re-sign Alex Kovalev, a player with a formidable gift but a heart the size of peanut on the ice.
A year earlier, he was ostracized for not speaking French.
As ridiculous as these two moments were at the time, they look even more ridiculous in hindsight.
Saku Koivu captained the Canadiens for a decade, tied with Jean Beliveau all-time. He’s sixth all-time in assists, tenth in points, fifth in powerplay goals and tied for seventh in game winning goals.
He’s mentioned along the all-time greats in a period where Montreal was unable to put a decent product on the ice.
Aside from his on-ice heroics – see burying the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs on more than one occasion – his return from cancer treatment is quite possibly the most inspiring moments in Canadiens history.
I still get misty watching that clip.
From battling that cancer, and through the Saku Koivu Foundation, he made an even bigger impact within the city, changing the course of many people’s lives – past, present and future.
His donations and the work he’s done with the foundation for the Montreal General Hospital has been enormous.
I have an ongoing debate with my father about retiring Koivu’s number one day. Whenever it comes up, my father always tells me to ‘to look at the names hanging from the rafters’ as a solid argument to why Koivu could never hang up there.
He’s right, the on-ice achievements of those men are unparalleled in the sport. However, aside from Maurice Richard, I don’t think there’s ever been a player that’s meant so much to the team and the city as Saku Koivu.
That’s enough of a reason to get him up there.