Saku Koivu turns 32 on Thursday, a day after Mikko’s Minnesota Wild were to play Saku’s Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. The brothers celebrated the occasion on Tuesday night at the Canadiens captain’s house. “It’s the only chance we get to see him in the season, so it’s fun,” said Saku.
Saku Koivu got one assist as the Canadiens beat the Wild 4-2. Mikko Koivu was called for interfering with his older brother in the first period but didn’t figure in the scoring.
It is the second time the brothers from Turku, Finland, have played against each other in the NHL. Last season in Minnesota, the coaches put the two centres out for the opening faceoff.
“We did it before, so I don’t think it’s a big deal anymore,” said Mikko, 23. “I think just seeing family while we’re here is a good thing.”
Saku said the brothers have become closer since Mikko, drafted sixth overall by the Wild in 2001, joined the NHL club last season.
With a nine-year age gap, Saku was playing for the Finnish national team before his brother reached pee-wee age. When he joined the Canadiens for the 1995-96 season, Mikko was 12.
It isn’t quite like the Dionnes – Marcel was 39 and retired when brother Gilbert joined the Canadiens as a 20-year-old rookie in 1990 – but there is a distance that Saku said has begun to close now that both are adults.
“He was so young at the time when I was living at home,” said Saku. “And when I moved here, I only saw him in the summertime.
“It’s only in the last couple of years we got a lot closer and it’s so much easier now to relate to what he’s going through.”
Other than hockey skill and the square family jaw there are few similarities between the brothers.
Mikko is six foot two and 205 pounds while the stocky Saku is five foot 10 and 184 pounds. Size is likely why Saku was still available for Montreal to draft 21st overall in 1993.
Saku is a hockey hero in Finland, a 1995 world championship gold medallist, three-time Olympian and captain of the national team. Saku and Mikko finally got to play together at the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, winning silver medals.
Mikko is just starting to display his talent.
After posting six goals and 15 assists in 64 games as a rookie last season, Mikko is close to matching those totals less than two months into his sophomore season, while playing a mostly defensive role on defence guru Jacques Lemaire’s Wild.
“I’m assuming that when you have an older brother, you look up to him,” said Saku. “It was a bit different for us (because of the age gap).
“It’s probably been a little bit easier for him to adjust because I’ve been here and gone through it before, but at the same time, it made it tougher for him because of all the people comparing him.
“And I’m sure that when he was a teenager, it wasn’t easy to be the little brother of an NHL player. I think he’s adjusting now and starting to live his own life. That’s good.”
Mikko doesn’t listen to the comparisons.
“The media does that,” he said. “We don’t care about that.
“We play our own games and enjoy the life and we can’t help it if the media does that. But we’re used to that already. Of course, I’m happy for him. He’s had a great career over here already and that’s a great thing.”
Mikko is making his own name as a master of the shootout, which only started in the NHL in his rookie year. Mikko has scored on eight of 12 shootout attempts so far. He is 4-for-6 this season, including two game-winners.
“It’s about luck,” he said. “I’m happy when we win those games and get that extra point, that’s all.”
What stands out about Saku Koivu’s career is what may have been had he not lost large swathes of his early years to a succession of knee and shoulder injuries.
And he missed all but the final three games of the 2001-02 season battling cancer.
He returned to lead Montreal to a playoff upset of the Boston Bruins before losing in six games to the Carolina Hurricanes, posting 10 points in 12 playoff games. His perseverance earned him the 2002 Bill Masterton trophy.
After a few relatively injury-free seasons, his hard luck returned during the first round of playoffs last spring when he was clipped under the visor by Carolina winger Justin Williams’ stick and nearly lost an eye.
Koivu had surgery to repair a detached retina last summer. His slightly reduced vision is hardly noticeable in his play, although a small cataract on the eye remains a concern.
A healthy Koivu may have been a 90-to-100 point player, but his most productive year to date produced 72 points in 82 games in 2002-03.
If he stays healthy and plays himself into an offensive role with the Wild, Mikko could end up with more points than his brother, who also lost a full season to the 2004-05 lockout.
“He’s getting more ice time and power play time this year,” Saku said of his brother. “It’s just the way it goes in the NHL.
“You start with a more defensive role. We’ve always been responsible, two-way players and it’s just that now his role is more defensive. But I’m confident that he can be a power play guy who can also bring the offence.”