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At the age of 27, hockey player Saku Koivu has been through a lot. He has fought against cancer, and lived the dream life of a celebrated hockey star. Saku Koivu was not born as a winner, but he had the edge to become a hero in his own life.

When Saku was just a small boy, he was once taken by his father, Jukka Koivu, to the bus station from where he continued alone to Rauma, a small town about 100 kilometres north of Turku. Saku was on his way to stay overnight with another boy who played ice hockey. Wearing a knit jacket and polished shoes, the well-behaved young man presented a rose to the boy’s mother upon arrival.

It was not polite behaviour or neat clothing, however, that differed Saku from his peers. Nor was it the fact that he did not take part in experimenting with alcohol like many other young hockey enthusiasts did. While all of the boys were equally keen on playing ice hockey, Saku, the smallest of them, had the most persistent attitude.

“Saku has always wanted to be the winner. A defeat in a game with the other kids in the yard could make him furious. We raced and raced around the well in the yard – until Saku won.”

Being a winner was not written in the stars for Saku. The beginning was anything but easy. As a child, Saku got severely ill because of a complication of chickenpox, and for about six months he was not allowed to do anything physically straining. This meant the first period of rehabilitation during his career. Finally, however, he ended up in the national team for 16-year-olds.

“People always say that Saku is an incredibly skilled player. He controls the puck, has situations well in hand, and is such a brilliant skater. Yes, Saku has all these, but first of all he has the tremendous will to be the best. He never gives up.”

Fight against the cancer
In spite of the difficult beginning, Saku directed his will to win in ice hockey. Today, Saku Koivu is known as one of the best ice hockey players in the world. For an outsider, it seems that he has already achieved everything worth achieving in ice hockey: National Championship, World Championship, Olympic medal, annual income of over 3 million euros, and captainship in the legendary NHL team Montreal Canadiens.

“Saku hates losing, in all areas of life. His dream is not to win the Stanley Cup wearing his Montreal Canadiens jersey. For Saku, the dream is to win the Stanley Cup in the capacity of Montreal’s captain and first-chain centre. In other words, he wants to be one of those who wins the championship for the whole team.”

All of this was forgotten in September 2001. Everything was in order, Saku was in top condition and the injuries he has suffered in previous seasons were healed. He had spent his summer holiday in Turku and was about to return to Montreal, to make his dream come true. During the long flight, he and his fiancée Hanna Norio would plan their future wedding.

Fate, however, interfered in the “little Viking’s” life with a heavy hand. During the flight to Montreal, Saku had strange stomach ache. The cramps and pain were almost unbearable even for a tough ice hockey player. Medical examinations revealed that it was no appendicitis. Saku Koivu had a lymphatic tissue cancer, known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

A battle of a totally different order began. A young athlete at the top of his career, Saku was forced to stop and start fighting for his health. His own strong will and good physical condition, together with support from his family and friends helped him make it through the treatments. His recovery was exceptionally fast, and he returned to the rink only seven months after the diagnosis, on April 10, 2002.

Family and friends mean everything
In summer 2002, Saku Koivu and Hanna Norio were married. Saku has once said that without Hanna’s support he would hardly have made it through the most difficult times of his life. When Saku says in interviews that family and friends are important to him, the truth is veiled by the cliché. The truth is that his family and closest circle of friends mean everything to him. This simply cannot be overemphasised.

“Saku is such a good friend, he really listens to you and does not think only of himself. He is always willing to help if you need it.”

His most intimate circle of family and friends also know another Saku Koivu, the one that is behind the public image.

“Basically, Saku is a very tender and sensitive person. Sometimes I feel that people don’t know his deepest thoughts and feelings. If Saku has nothing positive to say, he prefers not to say anything at all.”

Whenever homework annoyed the future ice hockey star, Saku never got irritated with his parents or teachers. Instead, he gave hisbed a few kicks, and went on reading. He has never troubled his family or friends with negative feelings, but has always carried his burdens alone.

“Saku is a complex person. On one hand, he is extremely goal-oriented and strict on himself, and he also expresses his opinions strongly. On the other hand, Saku is gentle and kind, and a bit awkward about being the centre of attention. He doesn’t demand anything from others.”

In the hockey rink, however, Saku is tough and selfish and wants to be in the centre of the game. That’s how you become a top player.

“Stubborn and selfish, that’s what he can be. Indeed, to be an artist – whatever the field, it can even be an ice hockey rink – you have to be selfish.”

“At the moment, there are no signs of cancer, but I am still in the recovery phase. My only hope is to be able to continue living my life in a healthy state,” says Saku Koivu. The quotations in italics were provided by family members, friends and teammates of Saku Koivu.

Picture: The newlywed, Saku Koivu and Hanna Norio, leave Turku Cathedral after their wedding on July 19, 2002.

Source : Turku’s Chamber of Commerce