Koivu towered over city

 

If you don't believe that Saku Koivu has been larger than life in Montreal, you've not taken note of his multi-storey likeness on the southeast corner of the Bell Centre.

 
 
 
 

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If you don't believe that Saku Koivu has been larger than life in Montreal, you've not taken note of his multi-storey likeness on the southeast corner of the Bell Centre.

Koivu towers over St. Antoine St. on the arena that's been his professional home since the building opened in March 1996, during his rookie season with the Canadiens.

He was named the club's first European captain in the autumn of 1999, the 27th captain in franchise history. He'd wear the C on his jersey for nine seasons and 563 games.

Yesterday, on a conference call from his summer home in Finland, Koivu formally exited the Canadiens with the hallmark dignity and class that he's displayed during 14 years in Montreal, a city that more than once did not deserve him.

The 34-year-old native of Turku yesterday agreed to a one-year, $3.25-million U.S. contract with the Anaheim Ducks, completing a 48-hour one-two punch to the solar plexus of Canadiens fans.

On Monday, flamboyant Russian forward Alex Kovalev bolted down the road to the Ottawa Senators. That was a loss of great sizzle.

But yesterday was a rib-kick loss of substance. Koivu, the very essence of the Canadiens for more than a decade, announced a move of three time zones to the California coast, about as far from Montreal as NHL geography would allow.

In Anaheim, Koivu will be reunited with countryman Teemu Selanne, with whom he won a silver medal in the 2006 Olympics. And with a one-year contract, he's giving himself and his family a chance to feel out an entirely new lifestyle, an extension of it possible should the situation agree with them and the Ducks.

It's been no secret that Koivu would not be returning to the Canadiens, notwithstanding the nonsensical report spread yesterday by a cub reporter who wouldn't let the facts get in the way of a good rumour.

The centreman had a strong hint a few days before last month's NHL draft, when general manager Bob Gainey told Koivu that the club was looking at major changes.

(The GM wasn't fibbing, the jettisoning of all 10 of his unrestricted free agents a good definition of "major.")

"It was pretty obvious that ... it might mean we were not going to be offered a (Canadiens) contract," Koivu said yesterday. "Which in the end was the case. After all these years in the NHL, I know it's part of the business."

Shortly before the July 1 free-agency period began, Gainey told his captain he'd not be offered a new contract.

"Sometimes, everything ends," Koivu said. "You go through in your head in a short time what's happened in 14 years. Montreal was a second home for many years and it's not easy news to receive. But after a while we got over it and started thinking about the future and new challenges.

"At this point in my career, I look at the positives and say that maybe it's going to bring something good to my game."

Koivu recalled considerable excitement and abundant nerves when he debuted with the Canadiens in 1995, and he expressed regret that, during his time here, "we weren't able to bring the Stanley Cup to Montreal."

That did nothing to diminish his love of his adopted city, in which he forever surfed crashing waves of emotion.

He battled cancer, broken bones, mangled joints, near blindness and the bigotry of those who believed he wasn't captain material because he didn't speak French.

The language issue that dogged Koivu was something he says he "didn't take personally. ... In an ideal world, I would have loved to speak French fluently. For myself it would have been an unbelievable gift. (But) it didn't happen and I think sometimes the criticism went a bit too far about it."

And he endured management changes, a revolving door in the coach's office, rosters shuffled like a Vegas deck and more than a few teammates who didn't know how to behave like adults or give 100 cents on the dollar.

"I'm extremely proud of the years I spent in Montreal," Koivu said, all things considered. "The man, the husband, the human being I am today is mainly because of the experiences and years I spent in Montreal.

"It's an unbelievably great city, a great place to play hockey (but) not an easy place always. I've played with a lot of great players and been involved with a lot of great people."

Koivu praised those who impacted his life and the loyal friends he has made in the hockey trenches. Gainey, the man on whose watch he leaves, is at the top of his list of most influential people; that alone speaks to Koivu's character.

So, too, does his decision not to bow to the advances of the Minnesota Wild, which is captained by his younger brother, Mikko. Saku Koivu values his relationship with Mikko too much to take the "risk" of upsetting it in a professional arena in which they would compete for the same role and ice time.

A 24-minute phone call from halfway around the world would seem a cold way for Koivu's remarkable tenure in Montreal to end. But somehow, it was intensely personal.

His voice caught sharply one time, early on, during his opening words.

"I have a special thanks," Koivu began, stopping abruptly in mid-sentence, then clearing his throat, "for all the Montreal Canadiens fans in the province of Quebec.

"I want to (say) thanks for the support I got from them. For all these years, especially the year I went through my cancer treatment. I will never forget that. ...

"I think and I know that I'm a better person after all these years. I've learned a lot from Montreal and I will never

forget all the years I've spent there."

For the next captain of the Canadiens, who will fill large skates, indeed, Koivu offered only this advice:

"You have to be yourself. Don't pretend to be something you're not," he said. "Don't be a fake, because people will recognize that very quickly.

"It doesn't matter what you say or how you handle your everyday life, there will be people and members of the media who will not agree or like what you said or did. But as long as you can be honest with what you've done, that's going to be enough."

There was never a mirror in this city into which Koivu could not look.

He hopes his legacy will be that of "a player who loved the city, who was extremely proud to wear the CH for such a long time. I hope they remember me as a player and a human being who didn't want to quit, who gave his all every night.

"My relationship was beyond hockey because of the cancer," said Koivu, whose foundation would raise millions needed to buy a PET/CT scan unit for the Montreal General Hospital.

"Being able to help people over the years, and for years to come, is something that nobody can take away from me. It's something I'm extremely proud of."

The 2009-10 NHL schedule has not yet been released, but the Canadiens' former captain anticipates a special homecoming. It might well rival his reception of April 2002 when he returned to action after treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

"I hope the fans and people in Montreal and Quebec know how much I appreciate the support I got over the years and how I feel about them," Koivu said. "Obviously, I'm hoping on that particular night they're going to show their respect toward me for the years I did my job for the Canadiens."

Some day soon, the Bell Centre will quietly be stripped of the towering No. 11 on its southeast corner. But it will be a long, long time before Canadiens fans look up at that wall and not see the inspirational leader of the building's prime tenant, a man who grew among us and touched countless lives on and off the ice.

Anaheim doesn't yet realize the quality of the man they've just signed. Montreal knows full well what it has lost.

Koivu's conference call can be heard at habsinsideout.com

dstubbs@thegazette.canwest.com

 
 
 
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