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Thursday, January 20, 2011
Saku Koivu prepares for emotional return

By Pierre LeBrun

Saku Koivu has imagined what his return to Montreal will be like Saturday night.

He figures it'll hit him the most when he's standing on the ice during the national anthems. With the memories flashing in his mind and his heart pumping a little more than normal, he'll have the urge to stop a tear.

Koivu's unique relationship with the fans in Montreal will always be highlighted by their emotional support when the former Habs captain battled back from cancer in spring 2002.

"My relationship and the bond with the people in Montreal was kind of special and doesn't happen very often," Koivu said this week. "Obviously, that off-the-ice battle I went through, plus injuries I came back from, I always felt the fans are really knowledgeable there and respected and appreciated guys that gave whatever they had and guys that fought through things. I have nothing but great memories from those years, and I hope that the people there feel the same way."

Saku Koivu
Saku Koivu spent the first 13 seasons of his career in Montreal before heading to Anaheim (via free agency in summer of 2009).

An introspective Koivu spent some time after Wednesday's practice in Toronto with me and Marc Antoine Godin of Montreal's La Presse. There was absolutely no bitterness over the Canadiens letting Koivu walk in the summer of 2009, only positive memories of his 13 seasons wearing the famed Montreal uniform. It's clear that the time between his last season in Montreal and his time with the Anaheim Ducks since then has been a nice buffer to let the dust settle.

Koivu admitted the nerves were beginning to build up as Saturday approached.

"I'm a little bit nervous, in a good way," he said. "A lot of emotions involved there. I was there for so long, and so many things happened throughout those years. I haven't been back in Montreal, at all, since the playoffs ended two years ago. It's been a while."

His winning goal in Game 3 against Boston in the 2002 playoffs after his return from cancer still resonates. The Bruins were heavily favored, but they had no chance with the wave of emotion the underdog Habs were channeling through their courageous captain.

"The excitement of the fans in Montreal, especially in the playoffs, I don't think you can get that anywhere else," Koivu recalled when asked about that spring of 2002. "For a hockey player, I kind of wish everyone could go through that and experience what it is to play there. It's very unique. That spring when I came back, there were so many things ... that feeling that we could overcome anything. Myself coming back and beating Boston in the playoffs, that was such a special feeling."

Godin, who covers the Habs, asked Koivu a question that made the forward pause: If he could go back and rewrite any part of his time in Montreal, what would it be? At first, Koivu said he has wished the team had had more playoff success. Then, he added the big-time kicker.

"And perhaps be fluent in French," Koivu said with a bit of a smile. Or was it a smirk?

His inability (or unwillingness?) to speak French was an on-again-off-again topic in his time in Montreal. Some Habs fans (and media) believed the captain should have spoken Quebec's No. 1 language. Personally, and I say this as a proud French-Canadian, I got tired of the subject.

"I totally understand the point they were coming from," Koivu said of the French debate. "I was there long enough to learn, but hopefully now that's behind me and we don't have to go back there."

Indeed, let's move on.

When asked about what he believed was his Montreal legacy, Koivu thought for a few seconds and didn't give a hockey answer.

"Probably, for myself, the proudest thing I was able to accomplish was the cancer foundation we set up there and we got the PET scan," Koivu said.

The PET/CT scan machine Koivu helped bring to Montreal General Hospital is "a sophisticated piece of equipment used in diagnosing and treating various illnesses [including cancers] with what is known as Positron Emission Tomography," according to the hospital's website.

"When I think about hockey, it's just a game with goals and assists. When you retire, that disappears," Koivu said. "But when you walk in that hospital and you see your name there and you see the people that go through the machine, it's something that stays with us for a long time. People I've never spoken to are benefitting from that, and that's a legacy I'd like people to remember for me."

You talk about athletes giving back. Koivu didn't miss.

On the ice, Koivu interestingly never attained "love affair" status like Alexei Kovalev did in his time in Montreal. They are two different types of players; Habs fans love a flashy player. But the respect Montreal fans had for Koivu was never in question.

"As a player, if you get the respect that you deserve, that's what you're looking for," Koivu said. "Being loved? That might be too strong a word between fans and a player. But yeah, I've never considered myself a flashy player. I'm not talented enough to toe-drag. You have to put the hard work into your game, and that's how I see myself as a player, and I think that's how the people in Montreal saw it, as well.

"I think respect is a good word."

[I found a neat Koivu career retrospective on YouTube if you want to take a look.]