Rabid Habs

Oh Captain, My Captain!

Former Habs Saku Koivu in Ducks jersey

“Never fear Habs fans, Saku and Marko are coming”. A statement that I remember seeing written on a sign that was being held up by a fan at the old Forum, on a Saturday night, on SRC, sometime in 1994 – I’m pretty sure.

To say the least, I was intrigued. “Saku and Marko”? I thought. You see, I was just a kid at the time and wasn’t the hockey buff I am today. I had little knowledge of prospects in the system due to the fact that, well, I was just a 12 year old kid during the time in question and had more “important” things on my mind. Well, as you all know, the “Saku” in question would turn out to be Saku Koivu, one of the greatest captains in the history of the Habs. And well, the Marko in question was Marko Kiprusoff. If you aren’t familiar with Marko Kiprusoff, give him a search on Google, because simply put I am not in the mood to talk about him.

This article is going to focus on one man: #11, Saku Koivu. I’m going to keep this simple and avoid going into detail about stats and all that other hoopla and just focus on what Koivu meant to me.

From Day 1 in 1995 I knew this guy had heart. What he lacked in size and stature, he made up for with sheer will and determination. He had a compete level in him that was ferocious and it’s safe to say that it was second to none. He had the heart of a lion and the eye of a tiger. Heck, this guy would go into battle in the corners for the puck, against guys twice his size, and almost always emerge victorious with the puck. My young eyes had not seen much of the sort at the time and safe to say Mr. Koivu quickly became one of my favorites.

He continued this trend until he was eventually named team captain in 1999, a decision that turned out to be right on so many levels. Koivu was a diamond in the rough on some mediocre Habs team that failed to qualify for the post season, but nothing seemed to shake or phase him. I mean, the man had missed 32 games in his sophomore season due to a knee injury, 40 games in his first year with the captaincy due to a dislocated shoulder, then returned only to suffer another knee injury. Like I said, nothing seemed to phase him. That is until the dreaded “C” work crept into his life.

Koivu was diagnosed with non-hodgkins lymphoma in September 2001, which nearly kept him out the entire season. I was devastated. Images of Saku on the TV screen looking so thin and pale were disturbing to say the least and many questioned whether or not he would even survive this ordeal. But, I knew he would. A man that possessed the heart that Koivu did certainly wouldn’t let such a horrible disease get the better of him. And low and behold, in game number 80 of the 2001-02 season, which took place on April 9th 2002, Koivu defied the odds, returned to the ice, and received an eight-minute standing ovation from the overjoyed Molson Centre crowd. I remember applauding in front of my TV, with tears streaming down my cheeks. My captain had returned and was healthy.

Koivu went on that playoff year to help the 8th seeded Habs upset the big bad Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. It’s a memory that shall never leave me. Koivu was rewarded that summer for his courage and off-ice team leadership while undergoing cancer treatment and was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy. Sadly enough, Saku’s troubles would not end there. Koivu suffered knee problems in 2003–04 and was forced to miss 13 games. Just another obstacle on a seemingly endless list of obstacles that this warrior would have to overcome.

During the 2004–05 NHL lockout, Koivu returned to Finland to play for TPS, a team that was coached by his father, Jukka Koivu. Something he enjoyed immensely, and if my captain was happy, so was I.

When the lockout ended and NHL play resumed in 2005–06, Koivu returned to the Canadiens to rack up 62 points in 72 games – not too shabby if I do say so myself, but like I said earlier, I’m not getting into stats.

From there his troubles continued and on April 26th 2006, during a home playoff game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Koivu was high sticked in the left eye by Carolina forward Justin Williams. Saku was hurried to the hospital, where he would remain overnight. To say that I was pissed wouldn’t do how I felt justice. I knew in my gut that our captain, and my favorite player, was done for the rest of the playoffs and I was spot on with my prediction. Saku would recover, however, and play with the Habs up until 2009.

In the summer of that year, he signed with the Anaheim Ducks as a free agent. It was bitter sweet, because I knew that change was needed, but it broke my heart to think of Saku wearing a uniform that was not the bleu, blanc et rouge. Koivu went on to play for 5 seasons in California, but didn’t seem to have the form he did when playing for Montreal. Some say it was age creeping up, which no doubt was playing a factor, but I know, along with all Habs fans, that deep down his heart was with the Canadiens. I’m sure it still is to this day which is why, ladies and gentlemen, I love him just as much now as I did when he was a member of the Habs.

So with his recent retirement comes a question: Should Saku Koivu’s #11 be retired and hung from the rafters at the Bell Centre? I say YES! Even though he didn’t raise Lord Stanley as a member of the Habs, there’s no way on earth anybody can say that Koivu’s heart wasn’t as big or that his passion wasn’t as strong as any players who represent a number that hangs above the heads of 21,273 fans during every home game. For that, I say immortalize #11 forever. If whomever is chosen to be the new captain of the Canadiens ends up being half the captain Saku was, safe to say Habs fans, we’re gonna be in good hands for years to come.

So I say this with a heavy heart. Farewell Oh Captain, My Captain!, may your journey ahead be as glorious as the one you have left behind.