For fans of the Montreal Canadiens of a certain age, their hero is not Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard or even Patrick Roy. It’s Saku Koivu. The Finnish center, and former Canadiens captain has announced his retirement according to a Finnish newspaper.
For many Canadiens fans of a certain age, basically in the 25-30 range, Saku Koivu is the most memorable Canadiens player. He was the captain for most of our teenage years, we saw his battle with cancer – and were old enough to understand the off ice implications of it.
Most of my memories of the Canadiens before the last few years are drenched with Koivu’s influence. I remember sitting in my bedroom watching TVA when he received the ovation when returning from cancer. I remember watching his goal in the comeback against the Boston Bruins that same year.
The shootout goal against the Rangers after they came back from a 5-0 deficit. I remember being at my first hockey game and seeing Koivu – not Peter Forsberg, not Eric Lindros, not Jaromir Jagr – leading the scoring race. I remember him dealing with injury after injury.
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My first game was December, 7 1996. Against the Chicago Blackhawks. It was the game where Koivu suffered his first knee injury. He was among the leaders of the league in scoring at the time. He would never fully recover.
Koivu will always be remembered for what he wasn’t. He wasn’t a top center. He wasn’t a winner. He wasn’t a true Montreal Canadien, according to some.
But there is no player from 1996-2008 who will be as important to the history of the Montreal Canadiens as Saku Koivu. He was great for the team, great for the community, and a whole generation of fans look up to him as their hero.
Will the Canadiens ever retire No. 11? Probably not. In fact almost definitely not. But, make no mistake. Koivu was loved – perhaps not even as much as he should have been – and meant something to a generation of fans that Roy meant to the generation before.
No, Koivu didn’t win a Stanley Cup, or even get the Canadiens close. But for the generation that idolized him, we weren’t used to the dynasties of the 1970’s. We grew up with the parity of the NHL.
But, that is not how the Canadiens history works. We don’t celebrate Koivu the way that Toronto celebrates Mats Sundin, for instance. But I would argue Koivu was underappreciated and will be that way forever for what he meant to the teams he was on.
So, when you go on Twitter today and you see a lot of fans sentimental over Koivu retiring, this is why. He wasn’t Richard, he wasn’t Beliveau. But we never felt Richard or Beliveau. Koivu was as important to us as anyone.