Former Habs Captain and Finnish Legend Saku Koivu Retires

“Looking back at my 22 years of pro hockey, first in Finland and then in the NHL, I feel truly blessed and fulfilled. I have been contemplating retirement for quite some time and am very confident in my decision at this time and place.” And so, with those words released in a statement via the NHLPA today, 39-year-old Saku Koivu has retired from the NHL.

Koivu is, rightfully so, regarded as one of the most beloved Montreal Canadiens in modern NHL history. He was drafted by the Habs with their first pick (21st overall) in the 1993 entry draft, and joined the team for the 1995-96 season. His rookie year was a good one, as he scored 20 goals and 45 points, good enough to finish 4th in rookie scoring. It was the start of a very productive tenure in Montreal, one that would last for 13 seasons and see Koivu score at least 14 goals and 44 points in each of them (aside from seasons cut short due to injury or lockouts).

Though never an elite scorer (he topped out at 22 goals and 75 points in 2005-06, one of only two 70+ point seasons he posted in his career), Koivu was a reliable offensive leader on the Canadiens during some very lean years for the franchise. Still, by the time he was done in Montreal, his 450 assists as a Hab were 6th in team history, while his 641 points where 10th – lofty placements for a team with such history.

He very likely will be remembered for his battle, and victory, over a non-Hodgkins lymphoma form of cancer called Burkitt’s lymphoma. Koivu began experiencing severe symptoms prior to the 2001-02 NHL season and soon learned of his disease. While many thought that Koivu was done for the year, if not done for his career, he made an heroic comeback to play the final three games of the season (in which he picked up 2 assists).

As you can imagine, there wasn’t a dry eye in the Molson Centre, as Koivu received an 8-minute standing ovation from the Montreal faithful upon his return. For his amazing recovery, he was awarded the Bill Masterton trophy for perseverance and sportsmanship from the NHL after the season.

He was also be remembered in Canadiens lore as being the 27th and first European-born captain in team history. This was a big move for a team steeped in such cultural and linguistic heritage and though Koivu’s French never met the standards of some fans, his tireless efforts in the community as captain made him beloved by people in Quebec, while also earning him the King Clancy trophy for humanitarian contribution in 2006-07.

However, all good things must come to an end, and after 13 seasons in Montreal, 10 as captain (tying the great Jean Beliveau as the longest-serving in team history), Koivu became an unrestricted free agent and signed a contract with the Anaheim Ducks in 2009 for a chance to play with countryman Teemu Selanne.

It was a tough way for the Canadiens to lose such a highly regarded player, who had given so much to the team and the community of Montreal, without the fans having a chance to truly show their appreciation. However in March 2013, in what might have been his final game in his adopted hometown, the fans got their chance to give him a rousing send-off:

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Over five seasons with the Ducks, Koivu would continue to be a reliable offensive contributor, where his 64 goals and 127 assists with Anaheim both rank 10th in team history, however the Stanley Cup would elude him.

He leaves the NHL with an impressive, considering some of the major battles with injury and illness he suffered through, 1124 games, during which he posted 255 goals, 577 assists and 832 points. His career assists are in the top 100 all time (89th), while his career points is 130th. In addition to his Masterton and Clancy trophies, he was also twice voted into the NHL All-Star game by fans around the league.

But perhaps even more impressive than what Koivu accomplished in the NHL was the impact he had on hockey in his native Finland.

He represented his country at numerous international events over nearly two decades and used his fine offense on the world stage to help Finnish hockey to amazing heights. At the IIHF World Championships he would win gold in 1995, in addition to two silver medals and a bronze. He led the 1999 tournament in scoring  (16 points in 10 games), and was named top forward twice (1995, 1999).

Perhaps even more notable is what Koivu was able to do at the Olympics. Through four Olympic Games, he collected one silver medal and three bronze medals, while twice (1998, 2006) finishing in a tie for first in tournament scoring with Selanne.

He would captain Team Finland for 12 years, and ultimately finish with 30 goals and 94 points in 89 senior-level international matches. He would also be named the Finnish ice hockey player of the year twice, in 1994 and 1995. His contributions made him beloved in his native Finland and he is also the 3rd ranked NHL scorer in Finnish history (behind only, of course, Selanne and the legendary Jari Kurri).

All told it was an impressive career for the slightly undersized center with quick feet and even quicker hands. Though he never got his hands on the Stanley Cup, his point totals, his esteem among the pantheon of Canadiens greats, his amazing perseverance through cancer and a severe eye injury, and his incredible record internationally should garner some Koivu some Hockey Hall of Fame votes three years from now, when he becomes eligible.

If not, Koivu will just have to be content with being one of the most respected and adored men in hockey over the last two decades. Au Revoir Saku, et merci.

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