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HELENE ELLIOTT

Emotional Montreal trip for Ducks' Saku Koivu

For the first time, Saku Koivu will play on the opposing team in Montreal, the city where he won over critics and captured hearts as he battled cancer.

January 21, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Ducks center Saku Koivu, who played for the Canadiens for 13 seasons, will be playing in his first game in Montreal on Saturday since joining the Ducks.
Ducks center Saku Koivu, who played for the Canadiens for 13 seasons, will… (Gary A. Vasquez / U.S. Presswire )

Saku Koivu was stoic while he fought cancer and while defending himself against critics who thought the captain of the Montreal Canadiens should immerse himself more deeply in the city's culture and speak fluent French.

But on Friday, back in the city where he matured as a hockey player and a man and was celebrated for his strength and courage, the Ducks center grew emotional while discussing Saturday's game, his first in Montreal since he left as a free agent in 2009.

"When we landed today it felt like I was coming home. It felt really comfortable, like it had been a week ago that we left," he said during a news conference that was carried on Montreal radio and TV stations and preserved on video on the Montreal Gazette's website.

"I felt that I'd been really lucky. I felt privileged that I was able to play here for so long."

His visit Friday to the Bell Centre, the Canadiens' home arena, was an odd experience, he acknowledged.

"I can walk this road with my eyes closed," he said, "but [Saturday] I've got to go the other way. To be with the visiting team, an opponent, it's going to feel different. It's going to be an emotional night, a night I won't forget. It's going to stay with me the rest of my life."

Koivu, 36, served as the Canadiens' captain for 10 years and tied the great Jean Beliveau for the longest term of wearing the "C" on that distinct sweater. His accomplishments went well beyond the numbers he put up, though those were good: He peaked at 75 points in the 2006-07 season and scored 50 or more points in each of his last six seasons with the Canadiens, and he might someday join the company of Canadiens greats who have had their jerseys retired, though he said he didn't feel worthy of such company.

But he left behind more than numbers and lines inscribed in a record book. In battling non-Hodgkin's intra-abdominal lymphoma, he set an inspiring example of perseverance and resilience and once he recovered he left a physical legacy by starting a foundation that contributed a PET scan machine —used in diagnosing and treating cancer — to Montreal General Hospital.

When he returned to the ice, in the 80th game of the 2001-02 season, fans gave him an eight-minute standing ovation that surely stirred the ghosts that inhabit the arena's rafters.

"My time in Montreal was a little more than just hockey," he said. "Really trying to make a difference and be part of the community created a really special bond between me and the people of Montreal and the community here."

He said he had no bitterness over his departure, accepting then-general manager Bob Gainey's decision not to offer him a contract in the summer of 2009 as a sign it was time for him and the Canadiens to try something new. Playing hockey in Southern California, he said, affords him an opportunity to relax more than he could in hockey-mad Montreal and to go to the beach without someone asking him why he missed an empty net the night before.

He said he had only one regret about his Canadiens career: "Not having more success in the playoffs, not winning the Cup."

But he doesn't wallow in his regrets, choosing instead to appreciate the past while looking forward with eagerness. He anticipated seeing old friends from the Canadiens' training staff, the doctor who helped him conquer cancer, the neighbors he and his family had become close to while living in Montreal.

He said several times he was nervous about what might happen in the game and seemed genuinely touched when told that fans had organized a movement to vote him one of the three stars Saturday night so they can give him another ovation.

"I feel," he said, "like I should be the one standing at the red line and applauding for them."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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