MONTREAL – Injuries, a battle with cancer and struggles to make the playoffs marked his 13 years in Montreal, but for the generation of fans who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, Saku Koivu was the face of the Canadiens.
The memories flooded back Wednesday when the gifted and dauntless centre announced his retirement after 18 NHL seasons, including 10 years as the Canadiens captain.
The 39-year-old played his final five seasons with the Anaheim Ducks skating alongside fellow Finnish great Teemu Selanne, but his career will mostly be remembered for the great highs and devastating lows he experienced in Montreal.
“Looking back at my 22 years of pro hockey, first in Finland and then in the NHL, I feel truly blessed and fulfilled,” Koivu said in a statement released through the NHL Players Association. “I have been contemplating retirement for quite some time and am very confident in my decision at this time and place.”
The Turku, Finland native played 1,124 NHL games and had 255 goals and 577 assists.
He competed at four Olympics, two World Cups and seven IIHF world championships, winning a gold medal for Finland in 1995.
The Canadiens, the Ducks and even rival clubs like the Ottawa Senators sent out tweets congratulating Koivu on his career.
But his NHL figures are modest considering what he may have produced had his career not been marred by a succession of knee injuries, his 2001-02 bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a horrific eye injury in 2006 that left him with restricted peripheral vision.
And his career may have been much different had he landed in Montreal at any other time but the fall of 1995.
Drafted 21st overall in 1993 on advice from scout J.C. Tremblay, Koivu stayed two seasons with TPS Turku before jumping to the NHL.
Less than two weeks into his rookie campaign, general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers were fired and replaced by an inexperienced management team led by GM Rejean Houle and coach Mario Tremblay.
In December, Tremblay left Patrick Roy in the net for nine goals in a 12-1 loss to Detroit and the superstar goalie demanded a trade. He and captain Mike Keane were sent to Colorado a few days later in one of the worst trades in Canadiens history.
The former dynasty, which Savard had at least maintained as a contender with Stanley Cups wins in 1986 and 1993, went into a downward spiral that took a decade to reverse.
Later that same season, the Canadiens moved out of the historic Montreal Forum into their new home, then called the Molson Centre.
One of the bright spots in that era was Koivu, the plucky little centre whose leadership qualities were evident from his earliest years.
In only his second season, Koivu was among the league scoring leaders with 13 goals and 25 assists in early December when he suffered the first of his serious knee injuries.
On Sept. 30, 1999, he succeeded Vincent Damphousse to become the first European captain in Canadiens history.
The big blow came just before training camp in 2001, when cancer was found in his abdomen. Remarkably, he was able to return near the end of the regular season.
The thundering ovation when he stepped onto the ice for the first time since his illness went on and on, and Koivu was visible moved. Then he sealed the bond he had forged with Bell Centre fans by not only playing in all 12 playoff games that spring, but sharing the team lead with 10 post-season points.
He was given the 2002 Masterton Trophy for dedication, sportsmanship and perseverance, and followed that by playing all 82 games in 2002-03, collecting a career-high 71 points.
The cancer moved him to start the Saku Koivu foundation, which raised $8 million for a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner for the Montreal General Hospital. In 2007, he got the King Clancy award for his humanitarian efforts.
“My time in Montreal was special beyond playing hockey,” Koivu added in his statement. “Thank you to the fans and lovely people of Montreal for your support and love, and for providing my family and me with wonderful memories that we will always cherish as well as the immense support during my illness.
“Thank you with all my heart to Dr. and Mrs. David Mulder and Dr. and Mrs. Blair Whittemore and the staff at Montreal General Hospital for saving my life.”
Another setback came in the second round of the 2006 playoffs against Carolina, when he was headed to the net with the puck but the Hurricanes’ Justin Williams tried to lift his stick and got him square on the left eye instead. He rushed from the ice with blood streaming from the eye and was taken to hospital.
But no matter the injury, Koivu kept coming back and playing with the same intensity, even if the knee braces left him without some of the quickness of his early seasons.
There were bad times as well. He bristled at criticism for not learning French, which some felt was required of a Canadiens captain at the time, and he was not happy that a photographer sneaked into the hospital to take a picture of his damaged eye.
But for most fans, he was a hero.
The Canadiens cleaned house after the 2008-09 campaign, and it included letting Koivu go to the Ducks as a free agent. It ended a 10-year tenure as captain, tied for the longest in team history with the legendary Jean Beliveau.
Fans had to wait every other year for the Ducks to visit so they could greet him with their “Sa-Ku Sa-Ku” chants.
His former teammates took to twitter to comment on his retirement, including defenceman Sheldon Souray, who wrote: “Saku Koivu is a MAN among men. He was an inspiration, a mentor, a friend, and an unbelievable competitor. He showed me what it meant to be a professional in a city that didn’t expect anything less than excellence. He set the bar high both on and off the ice and truly showed the world what the word ‘courage’ meant.”
Added former Ducks teammate Matt Beleskey: “Saku Koivu, one of the most dedicated and hard working players I have ever had the pleasure to play with. His compete level was outstanding!”
Koivu thanked the Turku coach who helped hone his skills, Vladimir Jurzinov, and his agent for most of his career Don Baizley, who died of cancer in June, 2013. As well as the Canadiens, he thanked his parents, his wife Hanna and their two children.
He also thanked the Ducks, who opted not to bring him back for a 19th NHL campaign.
“I am grateful to them for allowing me to experience NHL hockey in California,” Koivu said. “Orange County has truly been a blessing for us.”
The one thing missing from Koivu’s career was a Stanley Cup, but he picked up plenty of prizes. He won four Olympic medals, including silver in 2006 in what may have been the most impressive performance of his career, four world championship medals and a World Cup silver medal.