Last night, the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 at the Bell Centre, in an otherwise routine and rather unspectacular hockey game. However, last night also marked the return of former Canadiens captain, Saku Koivu to Montreal. At age 38, the Ducks forward is near the end of his NHL career, and last night may have represented his final appearance on the very ice surface on which he crafted so many special memories over his career. During the last minute of the game, when the result was all but confirmed, the Montreal audience started a familiar refrain, chanting “Saku! Saku! Saku!” Appropriately, Ducks coach, Bruce Boudreau obliged and put the adored Finn onto the ice for the final shift, in front of an appreciative fanbase.
The moment was very emotional and heartfelt, and represented the true feeling that fans of the Montreal Canadiens have for their ex-captain. When the team decided in the summer of 2009 to turn the page and change the culture, by allowing Koivu and fellow UFA Alex Kovalev to walk, some felt it was much needed. The team had become stale over the previous decade, earning labels of being too small, too soft, and too European, and the frustration of the 2008-09 season suggested that the team needed some new blood. Dropping Saku Koivu that summer was meant to be a major cultural shift for the club, with a view towards progress and changing the identity. For me personally, I did not necessarily object to this move. The prior season was supposed to be a coronation for the team. They were in their 100th season, had come off winning the Eastern conference the season before, and had a good blend of veteran and young players that raised the hope that a Stanley Cup was possible. But the season went horribly wrong after a torrid start. The summer of 2009 was our opportunity to finally build a team that could win, and be taken seriously.
By divesting of big contracts, it was an exciting time for the Canadiens. The team had cap-space and there were glamour free agents like Marian Hossa and Marian Gaborik available for the taking. The excitement for the future was short lived however, as general manager Bob Gainey quickly spent his new found freedom and wealth by acquiring Scott Gomez from the New York Rangers. Even in 2009, Gomez’s contract was ridiculed by the hockey world as being egregious. Furthermore, to bring in Gomez, Gainey had to give up 2007 first round pick, Ryan McDonagh. As the markets opened on 1 July, the Canadiens signed current captain Brian Gionta, Mike Cammalleri, Jaroslav Spacek and Hal Gill to form the new core. It was somewhat disappointing at the time, because the Canadiens did nothing to change the label of being too small and too soft. The team did have a slight glimpse of success the following season, using the speed, tenacity and experience that players like Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri provided (in addition to the miraculous goaltending of Jaroslav Halak). Yet, not surprisingly, this success was short lived, and both Gomez and Cammalleri were eventually moved (Cammalleri was traded in 2012 after criticizing the team, and Gomez was bought out in January 2013 for abject performance).
That summer, Koivu moved on and signed with Anaheim. He moved from an environment of crushing media expectation and attention to a life of relative anonymity. Since that time, he has remained relatively productive playing in Southern California. Though his point production has gradually declined over the last two seasons, it pained me to see that at less than half of the cost for Scott Gomez, Koivu was still scoring, while being a positive influence for his young Ducks team. He continued to be energetic, and difficult to contain along the boards. It made me question what the rationale of dropping Koivu was, when he was never the problem. Instead, we brought in inferior players with worse contracts. The juxtaposition between Koivu and Gomez was universally infuriating for Canadiens fans.
I always appreciated Koivu as a player while he was in Montreal. Despite his diminutive stature, he played with such fire and energy, that allowed him to compete with more physically imposing opponents. He was incredibly productive on the ice too, being a creative playmaker and finishing his seasons at or near the top of the Canadiens point total during his entire career with the team. But what puts Koivu truly in the hearts of fans of the Canadiens is his resiliency and strength of human spirit. Early in his career, he overcame crippling knee injuries and continued to be the engine that drove the Canadiens on a nightly basis. Then, in 2002, he overcame cancer. The opening night of the 2001-02 season was difficult, as the emaciated and gaunt Koivu arose from the tunnel and stood on the Canadiens bench alongside his teammates. He was undergoing chemotherapy, and was unable to play, and to this day, the scene remains a haunting reminder of how sick he truly was. Within seven months of his diagnosis, the captain was back on the ice and a major contributor in the Canadiens first round upset of the Boston Bruins. Koivu used his struggles to benefit the city, and his foundation was subsequently able to purchase a PET scan machine for the Montreal General Hospital. On top of all of this, Koivu was a real hero for being a true gentleman on and off the ice. He always demonstrated humility and class, and showed his pride of wearing the Canadiens sweater. He was the ultimate ambassador for the team and the sport. Since he left Montreal, nobody has come close to replicated the status that he had. He continues to demonstrate these admirable qualities to this day in Anaheim:
Whenever the topic of Koivu and his relationship with Montreal comes up, some hockey fans outside the city feel that Canadiens fans did not appreciate Saku Koivu and were disrespectful to him. They cite the fallout from Koivu not learning to speak French as major evidence for this. Nothing can be further from the truth. Quebec is a place of extremes, and one extreme of the population feels that Les Canadiens are an extension of Quebecois culture and way of life. Hence, we constantly see hand wringing for the team to draft more French players, to have only French speaking managers and coaches, and the spread of an idea that the Canadiens are not successful because they do not have a French Canadian superstar. Not surprisingly, some felt that Koivu, who spent nearly 14 years in Montreal, should have learned French during that time, especially in his position as the captain of the club. As someone who has followed the team closely during his tenure, I can say that most Canadiens fans did not share this view. The franco angle was merely the view of a group of extremists, that was captured by the mainstream media and presented as a popular view. Koivu was bigger and better than this debate, and his ability to deal with it was remarkable and a true test testament to his strong character amidst the face of any adversity.
So when Saku Koivu returned to Montreal last night, I was heartened to see the ovation that he received. Even as a grown man, I am not humiliated to say that it nearly brought a tear to my eye. Fans of the Montreal Canadiens have much to appreciate in Saku Koivu. He was a tremendous player on the ice, a great inspiration for those that had to overcome anything in life, be it doubters, illness or being foreign, and a type of athlete that can be a true role model for those in the community. In the first ten games of the season, Koivu appears to finally be showing the effects of his age, having recorded just three points. But should the Ducks (unlikely as it may) fall out of playoff contention, I would love to see Saku return home to Montreal before the end of his career. He represents so much to people in the city, and a ceremonious return would be a great way to rightfully honour his contributions both on and off the ice.
– Jaideep Kanungo, Hockeyland Canada