Saku Koivu’s NHL career came to an end Wednesday when he announced his retirement, but the ideal manner in which he conducted himself over 18 seasons in the sport’s top league – and the courage he showed in triumphing over cancer – will resonate in the hockey community for years to come.
When Koivu arrived in North America in 1995, he had already established himself as the best player in his native Finland, winning the Finnish Elite League’s regular-season and playoff MVP awards. But none of that could’ve prepared him from life in the hockey pressure-cooker that is Montreal. As the Canadiens’ first round pick (21st overall in 1993), he had expectations placed on him from the get-go, but he amassed 20 goals and 45 points in 82 games of his rookie NHL season.
His physical challenges began in his sophomore campaign, which saw him miss 32 games because of a knee injury. From that point on, Koivu played just one more 82-game season thanks to a slew of ailments that included concussions, as well as injuries to both knees and one of his eyes. Many of those injuries came because he was an undersized player (listed at 5-foot-10) who never shied away from physical contact. He was as brave as any player and respected by all of his teammates for the way he played the game and the way he lived his life.
That attitude served Koivu well in so many ways – not just in terms of his on-ice battles, but in his willingness to take on the captaincy when the Canadiens offered it to him in 1999. As the first Habs captain in that franchise’s storied history, he could’ve been swallowed up by any number of pitfalls, but he handled all the challenges with aplomb and earned the love of his team’s fan base.
Never was that more apparent than when Koivu was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins intra-abdominal lymphoma in 2001. Fighting that cancer caused him to miss all but three games of the 2001-02 season, but no one in Montreal will ever forget how stirring it was to see him return to the team to play the final three games of the campaign:
The inspiration Koivu provided to thousands of cancer patients and their loved ones can’t be measured, but the fact he went on to captain the Canadiens for a full decade – tying him with icon Jean Beliveau as the longest-serving captain in franchise history – tells you all you need to know about how well he did wearing the ‘C’. When he eventually left Montreal to join the Anaheim Ducks in 2009, there was no bitterness from the fan base; the smartest supporters knew Koivu had given his all to the team and had earned the right to dictate how the rest of his career played out.
Koivu played the final five seasons of his NHL career in Anaheim and operated the same way he did in Montreal: no complaints, no drama. Just a fundamentally decent human being doing what he could for his team.
Ultimately, that’s how he'll be remembered. Koivu may not have won a Stanley Cup, but his success with the Finnish national team – with whom he won an Olympic silver medal and numerous other honors in international competitions – was more than enough recognition of the effect he had on the ice. He retires with 255 goals and 832 points in 1,124 regular-season NHL games, as well as individual honors including the 2002 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy and the 2007 King Clancy Memorial Trophy.
But when you think of Saku Koivu, you don’t think about awards. You think about a lion-sized heart and a legacy that inspired people beyond the sport he loved so dearly.
That’s more important than anything he ever did on the ice.