Saku Koivu played more games than any other Montreal Canadien in history without winning a Stanley Cup. But as the Canadiens get set to honor their former captain tonight, the city knows he is a champion at heart.
(Editor’s note: This chapter originally appeared in Ken Campbell’s 2008 book, Habs Heroes, The Greatest Canadiens Ever From 1 to 100. In that work, Koivu was ranked 41st, and with him being honored by the Canadiens tonight at the Bell Centre we believed it apropos to repurpose this tale.)
When Saku Koivu stepped on to the Bell Centre ice for a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs Nov. 3, 2007, he made history. It wasn’t exactly the kind he’d prefer to make, but it placed him firmly in the annals of team lore.
That night marked Koivu’s 663rd career game as a Canadien, making him the longest-serving player in franchise history not to win a Stanley Cup. Prior to that night, the designation belonged to Shayne Corson, who was along for the ride when the Canadiens won the Cup in 1986, but was not on the roster and did not meet the requirements to have his named etched on the trophy.
That, however, should not tarnish Koivu’s legacy as a Canadien. Whether or not he ever wins a Stanley Cup, Koivu and his career in Montreal will be defined by so many other things. He hasn’t always been the Canadiens’ best player, but there has never been any question about his level of dedication and commitment to the game. And, of course his most important triumph as a player and a person came when he survived non-Hodgkins lymphoma and returned to the team in 2001-02.
“Did I ever think we would lose him?” Canadiens doctor David Mulder told legendary Montreal hockey writer Red Fisher in 2007. “Well, you have to look at the statistics…”
But Koivu’s game has never been about statistics. After finishing his treatment in 2002 and with the threat of a recurrence of the disease hanging over him for the next five years, Koivu continued to give back to the Canadiens on the ice and in the community. He is considered cancer-free now, but will never forget how the team and the city rallied around him during his time of need.
“The support I got from everybody and the way the team helped me and my family made me feel even more of a Canadien,” Koivu said in 2006. “Even before I felt it, but especially after, I felt like I wanted to make them feel that I’m giving something back.”
Koivu has done that both by his effort on the ice and the establishment of the Saku Koivu Foundation, which raised $2.5 million of the $8 million need to purchase a PET/CT scanner for the Montreal General Hospital, the same machine that was used for Koivu’s final tests before he was declared cancer-free in January, 2007.
There have been other setbacks, the most prominent of which occurred in the 2006 playoffs when an errant high stick by Justin Williams damaged Koivu’s eye so badly it left him with a blind spot and a cataract in the eye. The injury knocked Koivu out of the playoffs and changed the complexion of the series. When Koivu was injured, the Canadiens were ahead 2-0 in games and were leading game 3 of the first round series, which the Carolina Hurricanes went on to capture en route to winning the Stanley Cup.
Koivu may never get the tangible recognition of having his name on the Stanley Cup, but he will always be seen as a winner by the Canadiens.