MONTREAL – Saku Koivu did his best to stay calm but the former Canadiens captain was still choked with emotion in his first visit to Montreal since leaving as a free agent two seasons ago.
“I left two years ago and it’s my first time back, but when our plane landed today, I felt like I was home,” Koivu told a packed Friday news conference at the Bell Centre.
It should be even more moving on Saturday night when the gifted and tenacious centre, who played 13 years in Montreal, skates onto the Bell Centre ice in a visitor’s jersey for the first time when the Anaheim Ducks play the Canadiens.
“It’s going to be different,” he said. “It’ll be like I’m playing at home, but in a Ducks jersey.
“I don’t know what to expect. It will be an emotional night.”
After the 2008-09 season, then-general manager Bob Gainey decided it was time to rebuild an underperforming team, letting go of 11 eligible free agents.
Among those not offered contracts was Koivu, ending a sometimes thrilling, sometimes heartbreaking stay with the team he served as captain from 1999 until his departure.
There is already an online movement afoot to make sure Koivu is given a long standing ovation and even one to vote him as first star of the game regardless of the score.
Some even want his No. 11 jersey retired.
“I feel I don’t belong there,” he said of his sweater possibly hanging from the rafters at the Bell Centre. “When you look at the legends and what they’ve done for the team, I don’t consider myself in the same class, but if people even say that it feels good.”
The 36-year-old’s stay in Montreal was marked by frequent injuries and his successful battle with cancer. Through it all, he still managed to pile up 191 goals and 641 points in 792 games to rank 10th in all-time team scoring, just ahead of Elmer Lach and behind Bernard (Boom Boom) Geoffrion.
Despite his talent and battling style, his stay coincided with one of the weakest periods in the Canadiens storied history as the team never came close to winning the Stanley Cup.
“The one thing I wish I could do differently is having more success in the playoffs, not winning the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I felt what it’s like here when we had some success and how passionate the people are about it.
“There were two or three years I thought we had the team to go all the way but then injuries and things happened.”
Montreal drafted the five-foot-10, 180-pound centre 21st overall in 1993 and he joined the team for the 1995-96 season. In the seasons that followed, Koivu was twice among the league scoring leaders before suffering serious knee injuries.
Koivu, who took over from Vincent Damphousse as captain in 1999, experienced stomach pain on a flight from Finland for the start of training camp in 2002. He was later diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the abdomen.
But Koivu battled the disease head on and returned with three games left in the regular season. In his first game back, he got an eight-minute standing ovation from the home crowd. Despite missing nearly the entire season, he led the Canadiens past the Boston Bruins in the first round of playoffs.
Koivu counts the establishment of the Saku Koivu Foundation as one of his main achievements in the city. It raised the $8 million needed for a PET scan to help in cancer treatment at Montreal General Hospital.
“The goals, assists and points will disappear when you stop playing, but the legacy I’m most proud of is the foundation and the PET scan that hundreds of people have gone through,” he said. “That’s what makes a difference.”
For all the good he did on and off the ice, Koivu couldn’t find any luck. During the 2006 playoffs, Montreal was well on the way to beating eventual Cup champion Carolina when he was high-sticked by Justin Williams while going to the net to take a shot. The stick went under his visor and he suffered a detached retina that required surgery and left him with partially impaired vision. The Canadiens then lost the series.
Koivu hadn’t been back to Montreal since he signed with Anaheim. He hoped to visit in the summer after the change, but couldn’t bring himself to do it.
But he said there was no hard feelings toward the Canadiens.
“I kind of felt they were going in a different direction,” said Koivu, now an alternate captain of the Ducks. “And at the same time, me and my family felt we needed a new challenge.
“Bob Gainey called a couple of days before the deadline and said they weren’t going to offer a contract. It was a mutual agreement. Therewas no bitterness about it.”
In California, Koivu says the pressure to win is the same, but the off-ice life is different. There are few rabid hockey fans and he can go to the beach and not be recognized. It seems to have mellowed him.
“My family says I’m enjoying life more,” he said. “I’m more relaxed and showing my emotions more.”