MONTREAL – Saku Koivu’s first visit to Montreal in an Anaheim Ducks jersey was a jittery, but ultimately happy experience.
The 36-year-old former Habs captain wasn’t sure how he would be received by the 21,273 Bell Centre fans who once adored him, but those fears were put to rest as he skated out for the opening faceoff.
Fans had been chanting “Saku, Saku” as a 2002 image of the Finn wearing a Montreal jersey flashed on the scoreboard as the national anthems ended. They stood and cheered for about two minutes as Koivu circled nervously at centre ice and broke into a roar when he raised his stick to acknowledge the fans.
”A lot of what I am today is because of Montreal,” Koivu said later. ”There’s still a kind of bond with the fans here.”
His team ended up winning 4-3 in a shootout, but not before Koivu was called for three minor penalties that led to two Montreal goals, including Max Pacioretty’s game-tying effort with only 13 to play.
It was Koivu’s first game in Montreal since he signed with the Ducks in 2009 after 13 years as a Canadien, the last 10 as captain.
Koivu lined up at centre ice and took the opening faceoff against the player who now wears No. 11 for the Habs, Scott Gomez. But he felt it took forever for the puck to drop as the applause went on and on.
”(Gomez) asked me if I wanted to win the faceoff,” said Koivu. ”I wasn’t really listening and then he won it anyway.
”It’s been a tough two or three days. I’m tired in a way, but it’s a good feeling. I’m happy it’s done and we can move on.”
It was also a big night for former Canadiens forward Max Lapierre, but two other ex-Montreal players, Kyle Chipchura and Paul Mara, were not dressed for the game.
Before the game, Koivu said: “I’m really nervous about it. Seeing the ‘CH’ jersey and not being a part of it, that will bring back the memories.”
The Ducks were having fun with it at their team skate Saturday morning, cheering each time Koivu touched the puck and booing when it went to Lapierre, who asked for a trade and was dealt to Anaheim in December.
That was the same reaction the two players got from the crowd.
“We had some fun at practice, but we talked about this game, about how important it is to me and Max that the whole team is ready,” Koivu added.
The native of Turku, Finland, was not given a contract offer after the 2008-09 season and left to sign as a free agent with Anaheim.
The 36-year-old’s stay in Montreal was marked by his successful battle with cancer during the 2001-02 season, when he returned at the end of the campaign and helped win a first-round playoff series against Boston.
He planned to spend some time with the medical staff who treated him after the game.
“Everything is as well as it can be,” Koivu said. “We still do the annual checkups and everything has gone well.
“Coming here reminds me of that year. Being healthy and being able to play and not worry about it as much is a great feeling.”
Koivu at first signed a one-year deal with Anaheim, but last summer he extended it for another two. But he is not sure how long he’ll play after next season.
“It will probably be year by year,” he said. “I have a good example on my right wing in Teemu Selanne, who four years ago took a half year off because he felt it was time to move on. He came back and look at him now.
“It’s about staying away from bad injuries at this age. And as long as you can maintain your health and if you’re having fun and are in an environment you enjoy, who knows?”