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Saku Koivu's courageous battle
You can ask any hockey fan out there to name one word to describe Montreal Canadiens centre Saku Koivu. That word would almost always be this: courageous. And back on September 5th, 2001, Koivu needed to summon all of the courage he had and more, to deal with what was to be the most difficult ordeal of his life, cancer.
In the first week of September, Koivu had contacted Canadiens management, expressing his enthusiasm about the upcoming 2001-02 season, and how he felt 100% healthy after an injury-riddled 2000-01 campaign. That Monday, he boarded a plane in Finland en route to Montreal. Once there, he planned to begin preparing for training camp. But it just wasn’t meant to be.
During the flight, Koivu began to feel some discomfort in his stomach, a condition that continued throughout the plane ride and into the night upon landing in Montreal. The next day, Koivu contacted team doctor David Mulder, telling him that the conditions had worsened and now included severe vomiting. Mulder gave him some medication to try to alleviate the discomfort , but it failed to help, as the symptoms again continued overnight. On Wednesday (the 5th), Koivu was hospitalized and underwent biopsy surgery, which revealed a tumour and malignant cells in his abdomen. This made Mulder quickly realize that this was not just a severe case of the stomach flu, it was much worse; it was cancer.
At first, Mulder diagnosed Koivu with abdominal cancer, but that was later changed to a more accurate description: non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Despite this bleak news, Koivu surprisingly remained optimistic about the situation, and vowed to make a full recovery and one day return to the NHL.
Over the coming days, he had several visitors from close friends, like Mark Recchi, and teammates Craig Rivet and Brian Savage (Savage was later traded to Phoenix that same season). Rivet later spoke to the media, saying he was rather surprised about Koivu’s positive demeanour; “He was the Saku Koivu that we all know, he had a smile on his face.” Rivet also noted that Koivu requested a copy of Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong’s autobiography entitled It’s not About the Bike. Armstrong is a cancer survivor, and Koivu wanted to use his book for inspiration.
Just prior to beginning his chemotherapy treatment, Koivu requested that the media leave him alone, so he could concentrate on his therapy and subsequent recovery, a request that all agreed to. As a result, very little information was available about how his recovery was going. In fact, hardly anyone heard from him until he released a thank-you letter after receiving thousands of e-mails of support in mid-December of 2001. Part of it read as follows:
I personally want to take a moment to thank you all for your words of encouragement. As I go through tough times, your support is of great comfort. It makes it easier for me to face the challenge of my life and it gives me the strength to pursue victory in my battle with cancer. I am honestly grateful for your thoughtfulness and I take this opportunity to wish you and your family Happy Holidays!
After this, Koivu all but disappeared once again, and very little was said about him until the end of January 2002, when his treatment completed, and that he was expected to make a full recovery. From there, everyone figured that Koivu would gradually get back into shape and be ready for 2002-03 training camp. Well, everyone except for one figured this, and that one person was none other than Saku Koivu.
He vowed to enter into a rigorous training program so that he would be ready for the 2001-02 postseason, assuming the Canadiens actually made it there. Throughout the final 3 months of the season, the Habs found themselves in a heated battle with New Jersey, Ottawa, the Rangers, and the Islanders for the final 3 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. The 8th place spot had not yet been solidified as the Habs headed into the final week of the regular season. It was at this time that Koivu made an announcement, one that shocked the hockey world.
On April 8, 2002, he announced that he had completed his rehab, and stated he was ready to return to the lineup and help the Canadiens get to the postseason. And the next day, Captain Saku was indeed in Michel Therrien’s lineup versus the Ottawa Senators. In fact, despite being on the 4th line, Koivu was lined up for the opening faceoff.
That faceoff didn’t occur as originally scheduled, as the fans gave Koivu the ovation of his life, one that lasted well over 5 minutes (after the national anthem was played), and one that left very few dry eyes in the Molson Centre when all was said and done. He wound up losing that faceoff, but the Habs went on to win that game 4-3, clinching that coveted playoff spot in the process. Koivu didn’t record a point in that game, but hit the scoresheet 3 days later against New Jersey, with a pair of assists in a 5-2 loss.
Then came the playoffs and the hated Boston Bruins. Detractors of the team quickly wrote the Habs off, particularly Saku Koivu, claiming he wouldn’t be ready for the rigors of the postseason. Koivu knew he had already won several battles when the odds were against him, and vowed he could handle this one, despite being matched up against Boston star Joe Thornton. Boy, was he ready. Koivu and the Habs upset the top seed Bruins in 6 games, led by soon-to-be Hart and Vezina winner Jose Theodore, and the strong play of Koivu and linemates Donald Audette and Richard Zednik, before he was injured in Game 4.
The feel good story would come to an end in the second round, as the Canadiens lost in 6 games to the eventual Stanley Cup Finalists, the Carolina Hurricanes. Koivu himself had the playoffs of a lifetime (at least at the time), finishing tied for 1st in scoring with Audette and Doug Gilmour, tallying 4 goals and 6 assists in just 12 games.
Saku Koivu faced the challenge of his life in the fall of 2001. Like a true leader, he fought through it, and was there for his teammates when they needed him most. To further prove he was truly healthy, the following season, Koivu played in all 82 games for just the second time, and posted a career best 71 points. In surviving this ordeal, Koivu proved to everyone that he is a true leader, and silenced all of his critics in the process. As we approach the 2004-05 season and beyond, Koivu remains a key cog in the organization, and whenever he leaves, he will go down as one of the most memorable and celebrated players in the storied history of the Montreal Canadiens.
Article written by Brian La Rose for HabsWorld