Iconic Finnish center Saku Koivu announced his retirement on Wednesday, closing the book on a celebrated 18-year NHL career.
“Looking back at my 22 years of pro hockey first in Finland and then in the NHL I feel truly blessed and fulfilled,” Koivu said in a statement released by the NHLPA.
“I have been contemplating retirement for quite some time and am very confident in my decision at this time and place,” Koivu said. “Making it in hockey is not only about talent and hard work on the part of the athlete. You cannot do it alone no matter how determined you are. I am grateful to so many people along the way that have facilitated and made my career possible.”
Fire and skill – Koivu’s career can be adequately summed up with those two words. Intensity came flowing out of every pore when Koivu pulled on his hockey sweater and laced up his skates. His courageous style of play, gutsy determination and ability to read the game enthralled fans in Montreal and Anaheim. Koivu’s fireball tenacity and sportsmanly attributes won him countless admirers in rival cities.
To not appreciate Koivu was to not appreciate the game of hockey itself. He was one of those unique players who exhibited everything that makes the sport of hockey wonderful.
Saku began his NHL career with the legendary Montreal Canadiens in the final season of the old Montreal Forum. The Forum was the perfect backdrop for his rookie season, as Koivu was quickly embraced by Montrealers as the franchise transitioned from the Forum to the newly-constructed Bell Centre.
Koivu’s package of abilities – his jet-like skating, his ability to improvise and dangle, his responsible two-way play, his gutsy throwback style and a flair for the dramatic meant he could have fit in with any of the great Habs teams of yesteryear.
Behind Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeon on the depth chart, Koivu was asked to play a checking line role in his rookie season. Despite starting many of his shifts in the defensive zone, Koivu was able to demonstrate his abundance of natural ability by recording 45 points in 82 games.
“I want to thank Serge Savard, the late JC Tremblay and the Montreal Canadiens organization for drafting me, believing in me and providing a wonderful place to begin my NHL journey,” Koivu said. “I also would like to extend special thanks to the Molson family, George Gillett and his family, Bob Gainey and Pierre Boivin. Thank you to my former teammates, coaches and the Montreal Canadiens staff.”
Constant knee injuries would go on damage the speed that a young Koivu was blessed with. Even with injuries limiting his breakaway speed, Koivu was a force who could devastate opponents for the majority of his 13 seasons in Montreal.
On September 30, 1999, Koivu was named Montreal’s first European-born captain. He would go on to captain the Habs for 10 seasons, tying him with the legendary Jean Beliveau for the longest tenure in Canadiens history.
“I feel I was truly lucky to have a chance to play for the legendary Canadiens for so many years and serve as captain, and share that great honor with many truly legendary captains from before my time,” Koivu said.
The biggest challenge in Koivu’s career came on September 6, 2001, when he was diagnosed with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a form non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Like Penguins legend Mario Lemieux and Tampa Bay Lightning center John Cullen before him, Koivu made an inspirational comeback that captured the attention of the entire hockey world.
On April 9, 2002, Koivu made a sensational return to the Habs lineup in front of his adoring home fans at the Bell Centre. He was greeted with an eight-minute standing ovation. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, or the press box or among millions of fans watching from their television sets at home.
His return sparked the Canadiens to clinching an eight-seeded playoff spot and upsetting the number one seeded rival Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2002 playoffs. At season’s end Koivu was awarded the Bill Masterston Memorial Trophy by the Professional Writers’ Association for “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Whenever challenge arose, Koivu did not back down. In a 2006 playoff game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Koivu took a high stick to the eye when Canes winger Justin Williams lifted his stick. He would miss the remainder of the playoffs and underwent surgery to repair a detached retina during the offseason. Koivu did not regain some of his peripheral vision due to the injury.
Cancer, constant knee problems, a serious eye injury – nothing could keep Saku down. His love for the game was never hindered.
“My time in Montreal was special beyond playing hockey,” Koivu said. “Thank you to the fans and lovely people of Montreal for your support and love, and for providing my family and me with wonderful memories that we will always cherish as well as the immense support during my illness. Thank you with all my heart to Dr. and Mrs. David Mulder and Dr. and Mrs. Blair Whittemore and the staff at Montreal General Hospital for saving my life.”
His next journey brought him to Anaheim, where he teamed with Finnish Olympic teammate Teemu Selanne. Together, the Finnish duo delighted Orange County fans with their apparent passion and continually outstanding play despite their advancing years.
Just like in Montreal, Koivu was beloved by spectators at Honda Center. Up until his final 2013-14 season, Koivu remained a face-off expert, a dependable two-way player and valuable dressing room leader.
“I am thankful to the Anaheim Ducks organization, Henry and Susan Samueli and Bob Murray for welcoming my family and me to Orange County and giving me an opportunity to play for an amazing organization and a truly great team,” Koivu said. “I am grateful to them for allowing me to experience NHL hockey in California. Thank you to my teammates, coaches and the Anaheim Ducks staff and to the Ducks’ fans. Orange County has truly been a blessing for us.”
Koivu finishes his 18-year career with 255 goals and 577 assists in 1,124 NHL games.
Saku will be remembered as a player who made the game great in the modern era. His spirited desire, level of dedication and sportsmanly tendencies not only benefited Habs, Ducks and Finnish national team members, but also any hockey player no matter his age or skill level stood to gain a lot from watching Koivu closely.
“All in all it has been a dream come true but what I value the most in hockey is the feeling of being part of a team and the friendships I have made along the way,” Koivu said.
Merci, Saku. Adieu, Saku.
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