I’ve essentially seen three incarnations of the Montreal Canadiens in my lifetime – the 1986 to 1994 version that was among the
NHL’s best at times and won a pair of Stanley Cups on the back of Patrick Roy… the 1995 to roughly 2003 version that just straight-up sucked… and the 2004 to today version that has been up and down, but has mostly been at least competitive and entertaining.
Over that time, only a few players really had enough impact to make a dent in the history of the team – Roy, of course, Kirk Muller, Stéphane Richer, Vincent Damphousse, Chris Chelios, Patrice Brisebois for the better or worse, and maybe Jose Theodore for a time.
People will still remember those guys decades from now, and all on that list except Theodore won at least one Cup with the Habs.
Then there’s the curious case of Saku Koivu.
The best of a bad era
In his prime, Koivu was a talented player. He was never quite electrifying, but he was inspirational in the little-train-that-could kind of way.
His best quality was and is his work ethic, seconded by his innate likeability. Is he a good guy? I have no idea. Most pro athletes are really just spoiled pukes when you really boil it down, but at least Koivu comes across as a decent guy. As a fan who had to endure Alex Kovalev as a Canadien, I’m at least happy Koivu was there to balance his pukiness out with hard-nosed effort and hustle. As long as Koivu was there, the organization could be counted on to be led in a classy manner.
But really what it comes down to is that Koivu was merely the best player in a bad, bad era for the storied franchise. Over his tenure, the team missed the playoffs five times and was led in scoring by such revelations as Martin Rucinsky and Yannick Perreault. Thrilling indeed.
Most of the Habs teams Koivu played on were simply terrible, but he was always expected to somehow stand above his teammates and be a first-line centre, a 40-goal-scorer, and a top-10 NHL point-getter.
If Saku Koivu had been on a decent team in his prime, he might have been the league’s best second-line pivot – a consistent 25-30 goal-scorer with 70-75 point totals. But in Montreal, he was simply asked to do too much and he was consequently consistently beaten down for it.
An era of transition Montreal wasn’t ready for
The late-90s and early-2000s were a major era of transition for the National Hockey League and it’s now 30 teams – but Montreal fans were simply not prepared to see what was happening.
While fans went on and on about the Habs’ dynasty years, the league was busy growing and spreading the talent around more and more. In the meantime, the Canadiens were making 65 Canadian cents to every American dollar they had to spend, and they simply couldn’t compete.
All the while, there was Saku Koivu busting his ass to be a leader while being supported by players like PJ Stock, Valeri Bure, Joe Juneau, Oleg Petrov and Patrick Traverse.
The man overcame cancer, donated millions of dollars to Montreal hospitals, was the near-perfect example of the modern sports role model, and all the French media talked about was how he never learned their language – while all the English media did was bitch about the French media bashing Koivu on the issue.
And almost no one looked at what he did well – on or off the ice.
Kept on truckin’
Meanwhile, Koivu just kept on plugging. He got healthy again and was the leader of a rebirth that saw the Habs become competitive once again. No one was talking about a new dynasty-in-the-making, but at least the Canadiens had a shot at going deep into the playoffs every year.
Koivu led the Habs to thrilling upsets of the Boston Bruins in 2002 and 2004 with Theodore doing most of the talking, and helped the Canadiens win their first conference title in 2007-08 – even if that team was grossly over-rated.
Then following the 2008-09 season, GM Bob Gainey blew the team up and Koivu was left to sign with the Anaheim Ducks, closing a 13-year run as one of the hardest working and most under-appreciated players in the history of the Montreal Canadiens.
Cheer loud on Saturday – but not too loud
And now Koivu comes back to Montreal for the first time as a member of the opposition, and this is a case in which the returning player should be given nothing but respect. But don’t be mistaken – this is not Tim Raines coming back to town as a member of the Yankees, nor is it Doug Harvey coming back to Montreal as a New York Ranger.
Koivu was no superstar and he never won a championship in Montreal. Should Scott Gomez be wearing number 11 this year? Probably not. But other than the occasional “hey man, that’s not cool,” people don’t seem to really care.
But boo-birds beware, it’s also not Lebron James going to Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat or Kovalev coming back as a Senator.
Koivu’s return to Montreal Saturday should be treated with respect, but ultimately this is not a major note in the history of the franchise. This is not Saint Patrick coming back as a member of the Quebec Nordiques Colorado Avalanche.
I’ll always respect Saku Koivu for his hard work, great attitude, and occasionally exciting play. More importantly, I’ll look back his courage and the example he set of how to play the game with heart – but I won’t be voting for him to be first star unless he deserves it, and I certainly won’t be calling for his jersey to be raised to the rafters of the Bell Centre after he retires.
Koivu always treated Montreal with respect and deserves the same in return – but when he hits the ice as a member of the Ducks tomorrow night, he’ll be the enemy for 60 minutes and nothing more.