Growing up as a fan of the Montreal Canadiens in the 2000’s was perhaps the least desirable time to be a Habs fan. The Canadiens had won Stanley Cups in each of the decades that preceded the 2000’s, and were a lock in the playoffs almost every year. Despite them missing the playoffs five out of the first nine years I was alive, I still knew that my team would be the Montreal Canadiens.
A large part of this was my father being a Canadiens fan. That said, as big of an influence as my father had, the biggest reason was Saku Koivu. I know I am not the only one who feels this way because for a generation of Habs fans, Koivu was the captain of their childhood years.
For me, he was the only captain I had ever known up until his departure in 2009. Not only was he the team’s captain for ten years, what he accomplished on and off the ice during his time in Montreal cannot be paralleled. For this reason, I believe his jersey should join those up in the rafters of the Bell Center. Koivu has earned the right to be immortalized as a Canadiens legend.
While that may be perceived as a bit of an exaggeration by Canadiens fans who were alive to watch the legends and Hall of Famers who played for the Canadiens from the 1950’s to the early 1990’s, for me and many others, it has merit. While it is true that Koivu did not win a Stanley Cup like all the others who have had their numbers raised to the rafters, that cannot be pinned on him.
Koivu was drafted right after the Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup in the 1993 draft. He debuted in the tumultuous 1995-1996 season, which is better known for the infamous Patrick Roy trade. In his respectable rookie season, he ranked fourth in rookie scoring with 45 points in 82 games.
The significant roster turnover from the 1993 season, coupled with the Roy trade, hampered any chance of the Habs winning a Stanley Cup. The 1998-1999 season began a stretch of three years where the Canadiens did not qualify for the playoffs.
This had little effect on Koivu, who continued to perform admirably in the early part of his career. Unfortunately, he was thwarted by injuries in the years that followed his rookie campaign, playing only 204 of 328 games between his sophomore season and his fifth season. However, in that time, Koivu would still amass 178 points despite the injuries.
It was just a case of bad timing for Koivu, being drafted after the Habs won their last Stanley Cup to date, and being one of the innocent bystanders in the Roy incident. However, these were circumstances beyond Koivu’s control. All he could do was play.
Unfortunately for Koivu, the injury riddled seasons kept him from doing so. That said, none of those injuries compared to what Koivu encountered in the 2001-2002 season. Koivu was heading into his third season as team captain when he found out he had cancer.
Naturally, Koivu was expected to miss the entire season, and potentially a lot longer than that. However, as we all know, that did not happen, and he returned for the final two games of the regular season.
I was only four at the time, but Koivu’s return to the Molson Center in 2002 is my earliest hockey memory. I did not completely understand the gravity of the situation, but I saw the love and respect the fans gave Koivu, and I knew that he must have done something remarkable. Once I had gotten a little older and began to understand why they gave him the legendary eight-minute standing ovation, it was easy for me to pick a favourite player.
To this day, there has not been a player I admire the same way I admired Saku Koivu. He was the ultimate hockey underdog. He defeated cancer, and then made an improbable return to lead an eight-seeded Canadiens squad past the rival Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
As mentioned, Koivu’s shortcoming was not winning a Stanley Cup in Montreal. That may be the difference between him getting his number retired. However, if the Canadiens were to retire the number of a player who did not win a Stanley Cup, Saku Koivu must be the first choice. He was captain of the team from 1999-2009, tied with Jean Beliveau for the longest captaincy in franchise history, and was the first European captain in team history.
He also tallied 641 points in 792 regular season games while sporting a Habs jersey. This even more impressive given the total number of games missed between his sophomore and fifth seasons, and virtually missing an entire season, playing only three games in 2001-2002 while he was undergoing cancer treatment. Additionally, he added 48 points in 54 playoff games, showing his ability to come through for his team.
Numbers and accomplishments are only a small portion of the reason he should have his number raised tot the rafters. Koivu played with an amazing mix of speed, skill, heart, and hockey IQ. He played in every situation, and he did so at a high level. Whatever the team needed, he was able to provide. That kind of versatility and effectiveness does not come around often. Since Koivu left, Montreal has not found a center at his level in almost eight years.
This past January, Koivu was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame, along side legends Teemu Selanne and Joe Sakic. If that does not say something about the way Koivu is looked at in the hockey world, I don’t know what does.
— IIHF (@IIHFHockey) January 17, 2017
There is also the impact Koivu had on the city of Montreal. The work that the Saku Koivu Foundation did to bring a PET scanner to Montreal shows the type of dedication he had to the city and making sure that the people of Montreal would not have to travel outside of the city to be treated for cancer like he did.
The argument will always be made that Koivu simply did not accomplish enough in Montreal to be honoured the way the likes of Richard, Lafleur, Beliveau, and others have been, but it should at least be considered. He had that night in December of 2014 when he was honoured in a ceremony before a game against the Anaheim Ducks.
In my opinion, it should be taken a step further. He would probably already have his number retired by his team if he did not play for the Canadiens. He has the accolades, the statistics, and the impact, but unfortunately Koivu may be a victim of circumstance.
Edited by Donna Sim