Saku Koivu (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHL)
Former captain Saku Koivu never won a Stanley Cup with the Montreal Canadiens like so many of their great players from the past did, but that should not tarnish his legacy. He is as beloved as any of the team's past stars and he was just as classy and dignified as they were.
Truth is the Montreal Canadiens had planned to honor former captain Saku Koivu months ago. But seriously, when are these guys going to give us a break? This will be the second time in a week hockey fans will have to have their boxes of tissue at the ready while watching a pre-game ceremony.
That’s what happens, though, when you produce as many great players as the Canadiens have and you’re as good as this organization is at keeping their legacies alive. It’s been two decades since this organization has won a Stanley Cup so perhaps we should cherish these ceremonies while they last, but something tells me the Canadiens could have a tribute night devoted to 2004 first-round pick Kyle Chipchura and it would be memorable and special.
It will undoubtedly be special tonight when the Canadiens hold Saku Koivu Night at the Bell Centre. The way the Canadiens do things, you just know there’s going to be some grand gesture that will both surprise and amaze. One week after the stirring Jean Beliveau ceremony, it's only fitting they should fete Koivu tonight. That's because it would be difficult to come up with two men who have worn the Canadiens uniform with more class than Beliveau and Koivu.
Your trusty correspondent highly doubts it will be an announcement that Koivu’s No. 11 has been retired by the Canadiens, but then again, with the Canadiens you never know.
Which brings us to an interesting question. Should the Canadiens retire Koivu’s number, either tonight or at some point in the future?
The answer from this corner is an undeniable, unequivocal yes. It would indeed require the Canadiens to part with tradition. The Canadiens have already retired 15 numbers, totaling 18 players, and each and every one of them to this point has won at least two Stanley Cups with the team and is in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Koivu spent 13 seasons in Montreal without winning a Cup and is not a Hall of Fame player. It would also require the Canadiens to give up another under-30 number in addition to the 14 that are already retired.
But Koivu deserves to have his number retired by the most successful organization in the history of hockey, not for what he accomplished, but for what he represented. Canadiens fans have loved their star players over the years and while Koivu may not have matched the feats of the likes of Jean Beliveau, ‘Rocket’ Richard or Guy Lafleur, he was just as universally admired.
That was on full display when Koivu battled back from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001. I recall being at Toronto Maple Leafs training camp in Newfoundland that fall, just days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and there was a pall of gloom hovering over everything on the ice and off. One of the observers at that camp said he heard Koivu wouldn’t make it to Christmas.
But Koivu, in true fighting spirit, not only survived, but was back in the Canadiens lineup by the end of the season. His first time back to the Bell Centre and his 2001-02 season debut in the Canadiens 80th game of the year represent two of the most emotional moments in team history. The Saku Koivu Foundation later raised $2.5 million of the $8 million it cost to buy a PET scanner for the Montreal General Hospital.
Koivu’s cancer battle and his career with the team embody everything it means to be a Canadien. He did not win a Stanley Cup, but he led a franchise that often struggled to find its way with the dignity and class that is required of a captain of an iconic franchise. He played hard every game, never took a night off, provided consummate leadership and displayed undying loyalty to both the city and the team. His points-per-game in the playoffs were higher than they were in the regular season, and if that doesn’t qualify him as a consummate Canadien, nothing does.
He suffered broken bones, was almost blinded by a stick in the 2006 playoffs and beat cancer as a Canadien. He also endured his share of barbs from those who believed he didn’t deserve the position of captain because he couldn’t speak French. Koivu dealt with all of them with class and dignity, just as he did in 2009 when then-GM Bob Gainey told him he would not be offered a contract. That’s a lot more than can be said for a number of other players whose numbers are retired. Lafleur, Patrick Roy and Larry Robinson all broke with the Canadiens amidst controversy and bad feelings. But Koivu had nothing but positives to say about the Canadiens and Montreal as he left town.
In a book I wrote titled Habs Heroes that chronicles the top 100 players in Canadiens history, Koivu checks in at 41 as the only player in the top 50 not to have won a Stanley Cup for the Canadiens. But it was not about the Cups for Koivu. And it should not be held against him that he just happened to play for the franchise during some of the leanest years of its history.
Wouldn’t it be something if Brendan Gallagher pulled a Ray Bourque tonight and stripped off his No. 11 in exchange for another number so Koivu’s could go up into the rafters? Probably won’t happen, but it’s a number that should be there someday. I’m betting that even though Koivu never won a Cup, the legends who did would be honored to share the rafters with him.