NHL

Saku Koivu still has strong bond with Canadiens fans

The Montreal Canadiens and former captain Saku Koivu have a special bond that was cemented by a career of highs and lows, and contributions to the city that went beyond hockey.

Former captain welcomed back

Former Montreal Canadiens forward Saku Koivu joined the organization in 1995, and served as the team's first European captain from 1998-2008. (David Zalubowski/The Associated Press)

There was something special in the way that Montreal Canadiens fans embraced Saku Koivu.

The former Canadiens captain, who retired after finishing his career with Anaheim, will get one more chance to feel the love when he is feted ahead of a game against the Ducks on Thursday night at the Bell Centre.

"I always felt that I was respected as a player and for the way I played the game, but what makes me feel humble was the way I was loved by the fans," the 40-year-old Koivu said. "Sometimes you think about why it happened, why they took me as their own.

"You can't explain it, but there has been a real, unique bond between the fans in Montreal and myself. They've shown their passion and love and support throughout the years and really, it's been amazing."

It was a much happier occasion for Koivu, the gifted centre from Finland who lived through soaring highs and terrible lows in his 13 seasons with the Canadiens from 1995 to 2009.

Never moreso than in the 2001-02 season, when he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer at the start of training camp. After a season of debilitating treatments, he shocked the hockey world by returning with three games left in the regular season.

Triumphant return

At his first game back, the Bell Centre fans stood and cheered for several minutes.

Then Koivu helped the Canadiens make the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, and knock off first-place Boston Bruins in the first round.

"That year, the lows I went through and then being able to come back and be a factor in the series, it was a dream come true," he said. "It's like the whole story was written before."

The following season, Koivu had his best campaign with 71 points, but what won the fans over even more was how he started a foundation to raise millions for PET scans to help in cancer diagnosis for others.

Time of transition

Koivu was selected 21st overall in the 1993 draft and looked to be a scoring star in the making until his career was slowed by a series of knee and shoulder injuries. He was named captain in 1998, a job he held for 10 years.

He joined the Canadiens in 1995, just in time to see the storied franchise come apart with the replacement of general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers with the inexperienced Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay.

"There were a tough few years not making the playoffs, but in the early 2000s, I think everybody saw a complete change and turnaround. Winning the Eastern Conference one year and having talented players coming up pretty much every year. It made a difference. I think the franchise is on that path now and their future is really bright.

"It was frustrating and hard but at the same time I'm really happy I stayed here and I was able to see the other side as well, a successful team."

Welcomed back

On his first game at the Bell Centre as an Anaheim Duck in 2011, he got another long ovation instead of the boos departed Habs often get on their return.

"I really didn't know what to expect because I'd seen some former players that played somewhere else come here and the reception wasn't always as good," he said. "It was a pleasant surprise.

"It was like coming home, and when I got the reaction from the fans, I really felt the love and respect."

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