One of the most respected men in all of hockey announced his retirement today. 39 year old Saku Koivu hangs up the skates after an 18 year NHL career and decorated international career.
Koivu was allowed to become a free agent by the Anaheim Ducks this summer. Reports placed some interest in Koivu in more of a mentoring role, but he clearly did not find a situation that he found appealing enough to return to the NHL for the upcoming season.
None of those reports seemed to hint at what many fans wanted - either joining his brother Mikko Koivu with the Minnesota Wild or a homecoming to the Montreal Canadiens for one final season.
Koivu is best remembered as the long time captain of the Montreal Canadiens. In fact, serving 10 years as captain ties him with the incomparable Jean Beliveau for the longest such stint in the team's glorious and long history.
Koivu wore the blue, blanc et rouge with great pride, competing night in and night out against competitors much bigger than he was. Yet admirably grit he matched up against the NHL's best with quickness, skill and intelligence.
Yet his trademark would become courage and dignity and much of that had to do with his scary battle with cancer that interrupted his career and threatened his life. Koivu, at the age of 27, memorably sat out the majority of the 2001-02 season after being diagnonsed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in his abdominal region. The disease claims half of it's victims within the first 5 years of diagnosis, and Koivu's biopsy results did not look great. Yet Koivu fought on. He even made public appearances in his Habs jersey despite losing his hair to treatments.
Koivu made a stirring return to the ice just 7 months after being forced off of it, inspiring the team and it's fans just before the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He walks away as one of the most accomplished Finns in NHL history with 832 points in 1,124 games.
After 13 seasons in Montreal the Canadiens made the hard decision to let Koivu walk away as a free agent. He joined the Anaheim Ducks where he played with best friend Teemu Selanne for five more years.
Yet one of his most memorable moments as a Duck came in Montreal, when the Ducks made their only visit to the Bell Centre for the season. Anticipating that this may be Koivu's final game in Montreal, the fans again gave him an ovation few would ever forget. It began at the end of the game and erupted moments later when he was announced as one of the three stars:
“It was emotional,” said Koivu. “I had the whole building behind me. It was nice. A big thank you for that. I felt great before the game and obviously at the end, that was amazing.”
"He has come to mean so much to this city, in part by taking life's hard knocks without complaint and leading Habs with his huge heart," wrote Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette.
Koivu obviously tried to repay the fans' gratitude on the ice but also strongly contributed to his adopted hometown. He established the Saku Koivu Foundation in 2002, which has raised $8 million to buy a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scanner for the Montreal General Hospital that has aided in the treatment of cancer patients.
So the question now becomes will Saku Koivu's #11 join the retired numbers of the many greats in Montreal?
Koivu himself weighed in on that discussion with Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette.
"Even if it is considered, that is such an honour. But I can’t help when I look at the Habs in rafters, their careers, Cups they won, thinking I didn’t do enough to deserve that."
Koivu played in a total of 1,124 career games in the NHL. Koivu scored 255 goals and 577 assists for 832 career points, recorded a plus-minus of +10, and also played in 80 playoff games where he contributed 18 goals, 41 assists and 59 postseason points.
Koivu was a decorated international player, representing Finland at all major competitions: four Olympics (1994, 1998, 2006, 2010), seven World Championshipa (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2003, 2008), two World Cups of Hockey (1996, 2004) and two World Junior Championships (1992-93, 1993-94). He won an impressive 9 medals, including medals in all four Olympics including a silver in 2006 and a World Championship gold in 1995. A concussion kept Koivu out of the 2014 Olympics which he had hoped to be his swan song.