I’m not saying it should happen tonight, but I’m off the fence. Saku Koivu deserves to have his number retired by the Montreal Canadiens.
I was having a discussion with someone at a bar a few weeks ago about Koivu having his No. 11 retired and was rattling off the numbers. Second-longest serving captain. Top 10 in points. The undisputed leader of an entire era.
But one number kept coming back to haunt me. Championships.
It’s something that most people look at when they say that Koivu’s number should not be retired. That this franchise deserves to be at a higher standard. That there are still plenty of more deserving players who are still waiting.
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And I see it. I just don’t agree.
Yes, Steve Shutt and Jacques Lemaire have great numbers and both have an argument to have their number retired. But we’re now talking about the fourth or fifth best players on their team. You can’t honour every player who was a significant contributor or even Hall of Famer during the 1970’s.
I’m also not making the argument that every era should be represented. If Saku Koivu was Vincent Damphousse or Guy Carbonneau, we don’t even have this conversation. Between Carbonneau and Koivu, the Canadiens had four captains [Muller, Damphousse, Keane, Turgeon] in four years.
But Koivu restored something. He brought back stability to the captaincy. He led the team through a lot of tough seasons, and then, fought his battle with cancer, came back, and led the team again.
If you ask most people under the age of 35 to name their favourite Canadien historically, Koivu will come up more often than anyone besides likely Patrick Roy, who most that age would remember more for his time with the Colorado Avalanche. That’s not something that can be said for Shutt, Lemaire or anyone else whose number is not retired. Koivu not only led the franchise for 10 seasons, he defined it.
When Jean Beliveau passed away, people talked about how the Canadiens were all about class and that Beliveau rubbed off on the franchise and defined it. Saku Koivu was also all about class. His contributions to the city of Montreal through his foundation are significant as well.
There is the issue of statistics. They aren’t great. However, he is 10th in points in franchise history. 6th in assists. If he hadn’t suffered with injuries he would be even higher. Heck, if Eric Lindros can be considered for the Hockey Hall of Fame despite his injuries, Koivu can be considered to have his number retired.
The Montreal Canadiens are among the franchises with the most championships, behind only the New York Yankees.
The Yankees have a tradition that includes Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig and many others. In 1997, however, they decided to honour Don Mattingly’s number. Mattingly was a good, not great player who had flashes of brilliance. He will likely not make the Baseball Hall of Fame and is in his last year on the ballot.
Mattingly was the leader of the Yankees for most of his career from 1982-1995. The number of championships? Zero. He didn’t play in a playoff game until his last season in 1995. Not because of injuries – because his team didn’t make the playoffs. The Yankees honoured their captain through their roughest years.
Koivu was drafted right after the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. Mattingly made his Major League debut the year after the Yankees lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.
Say what you want about the Yankees, but they know tradition. Probably the only team other than the Canadiens that does. When I walked into Yankee Stadium the first time, it felt like the Bell Centre. They still honoured a player who was the hero of a generation of Yankees fans.
If the Yankees can do it, the Canadiens can as well. I’m not saying this will or should happen tonight when Koivu is honoured – it shouldn’t. There should be a waiting period, and I don’t think anyone wants Brendan Gallagher to change numbers again.
I also don’t think it necessarily will happen. But I think it should. I’ve made up my mind on what I feel.
I understand that the Canadiens cannot go retiring the number of every good, or even very good player. I understand that Koivu isn’t Richard, or Beliveau, or Lafleur, or Roy. Not even close. But to a generation of Canadiens fans, he was. And that’s why his number should be high up on the Bell Centre rafters.
When I go to a Canadiens game with my grand children, and we look up at the numbers. I won’t be able to say that I saw Richard, or Beliveau, or even Lafleur. But I will be able to tell them stories for days about the guy who wore 11.