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Saku Koivu follows his instincts to the Ducks

The long-time captain for the Montreal Canadiens, a cancer survivor, says embracing change has given him a spark and he looks forward to finding his place with his new team.

September 13, 2009|Helene Elliott

The stands at Anaheim Ice were nearly deserted as Saku Koivu skated with his Ducks teammates for the first time last week, the silence broken only by the occasional blast of a whistle or the crunch of blades biting into the ice.

Had this been Montreal, where he spent 13 seasons and united a sometimes-fractured city in admiration of his victory over non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the stands would have been jammed with reporters and photographers interested in the million issues that percolate around the Canadiens.

Instead, Koivu had 90 minutes of blissful privacy to meet teammates and start settling in as the Ducks' second-line center, a process that will continue today when training camp begins at Anaheim Ice.

"It is different, there's no doubt," he said, smiling. "Like today here it felt good. You can just be among your teammates and have fun and practice hard but it's more of a tighter feeling than it was in Montreal."

He has been a friend of Ducks winger Teemu Selanne since they first played for Finland's national team more than a dozen years ago, and he knew Finnish forward Petteri Nokelainen, but no one else here. He told his wife he was more nervous before that workout than for any Canadiens game last season.

"But it's a good excitement, that nervousness," he said, and his trepidation was reasonable.

After serving as the Canadiens' captain for nine seasons -- second only to the 10-season term of the legendary Jean Beliveau -- Koivu and the Canadiens hit an impasse last spring. The team fizzled after a strong start and made a swift playoff exit. Management wanted to get younger. Koivu, 34, wanted to play a meaningful role for a Stanley Cup contender.

It happens all the time. Teams make business decisions. Players move from place to place.

But he's not any player. He was a symbol of hope and perseverance, a stoic man who aided countless charities in Montreal but was vilified by politicians and self-promoters who said his inability to speak fluent French was an insult to Quebec's heritage.

He should have learned French, he acknowledged. But English was the language in the locker room and of those he socialized with so he got by without French -- even though his wife, Hanna, and 4-year-old daughter, Ilona, speak it.

"Pretty much once a year it was brought up by somebody and it was kind of like over and over again," he said. "I understand where they come from. I didn't take it personally."

Neither did most fans. When he returned after missing the first 79 games of the 2001-02 season while fighting cancer, they gave him a stirring ovation. Montreal Gazette reporter Red Fisher, who has covered the Canadiens for more than 50 years, called it the most exciting night he had witnessed.

"I can't recall any Habs crowd more giddy with pleasure welcoming a player back," Fisher wrote after Koivu signed a one-year, $3.25-million contract with the Ducks in July.

"Now he's gone -- and I'll miss him greatly."

Jack Todd, also of the Gazette, was more effusive.

"In all their illustrious history, the Canadiens never had a player with more heart than Saku Koivu," Todd wrote. "It is to our eternal shame that he was too often the target of attacks from bigots in this province, to our eternal credit that some of us were able to recognize what a rare individual Koivu is and to celebrate with him his greatest triumph, the return from cancer.

"This city, Saku, will never be the quite same without you."

Koivu said he took "nothing but positive memories and experiences" with him when he left. But he and the Ducks are focused on beginnings now.

"I think this is a great move for him," Selanne said. "Of course it's going to be different than Montreal. The attention to hockey here, you can't compare it. I really believe this is going to be a new start for him."

Koivu agreed.

"I felt at this point of my career that I needed a new challenge. I felt that I wanted to find that spark again that I had when you're younger," he said. "So I'm in a situation right now that I have to prove to myself and find my place, and nothing will come easy.

"I think at this point it's more about the mental aspect of the game but if you find that excitement again, there's a lot to give. And when the team is winning and you're having a bit more fun, things are a lot easier."

The Ducks, eliminated by Detroit in the seventh game of their second round of the playoffs last spring, have been a one-line team since they traded Andy McDonald in December 2007. To get winger Joffrey Lupul for the second line they dealt bruising defenseman Chris Pronger to Philadelphia, and their defense may suffer. But Koivu saw enough promise here to move his wife, daughter and 3-year-old son, Aatos, across the continent.

"And look at the lifestyle and the weather," he said. "When you're coming from a long winter in Montreal, it's good. If you want to experience something else, this is the place."

He won't experience the hockey fanaticism that blankets Montreal, but he didn't come here to escape that. He came to win.

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