- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Some relationships between players and fans are about more than just hockey.
In the case of Anaheim's Saku Koivu, his battle with cancer in 2001-02 left a permanent connection to the city of Montreal and its passionate hockey fans. His return to the game in April 2002 after a season-long battle with cancer won’t soon be forgotten in the city he called home for the first 13 seasons of his career.
Because of this, every visit Koivu makes to Montreal is special.
Koivu's first game back in Montreal was two seasons ago, but considering where he is in his career, Thursday night's return could end up being his last.
"Yeah you never know at this point what’s going to happen," Koivu said this week while in Toronto before Anaheim’s trip to Montreal.
"It’s only the second time for me back [in Montreal]. The first time two years ago and it was a very emotional game, the whole couple of days. I'm hoping it's going to be a little easier for myself to put the skates on and face the Canadiens and the fans again. It’s for sure going to be a lot of memories and emotional, but hopefully a fun one. It’s great to see the people and some of the close friends that were with me for all that time."
Koivu turns 39 next month but remains an effective player, albeit now more in a third-line role.
With good buddy, teammate and compatriot Teemu Selanne officially announcing that this will be his last season, it begs the question whether Koivu will return next season or not. If you’re being paid to read body language, Koivu doesn’t look like a guy who’s ready to quit right now.
"It’s one year at a time at this point," he said. "Last year I felt physically fine, I felt the season went well. This team has a lot of potential to do well even though last year didn’t end like we wanted. Right now it’s way too early to talk about what will happen in the future. The No. 1 thing is to stay healthy and feel physically fine and take my time after the season to see what the future holds for me."
The future this season will also likely include another Olympic Games, another chance to skate alongside his bud Selanne wearing Suomi colors.
"For both of us, it’s been a great experience," said Koivu, who has played in 28 career Olympic matches and collected three bronze medals and a silver, dating back to 1994. "We’ve had a few highlights in our careers and the Olympic Games have been one of them. You represent your country, Teemu is going to be in his sixth Games and it’s going to be my fifth if we’re going to be there. It’s a big milestone, one last time to put the Finnish jersey on; that’s going to mean a lot to us."
And the Finns are always a tough out. Don’t bet against them in Sochi, not with Pekka Rinne or Antti Niemi or Tuukka Rask in net and the likes of Mikko Koivu (Saku’s younger brother) and impressive rookie Aleksander Barkov leading the way up front.
Finland will need to win low-scoring games to succeed, but it tends to come together as a team quickly because players accept their roles without hesitation, which sometimes isn’t the case for more talented and star-studded lineups.
"I'm sure when you [look] at it on paper, we’re not the favorites," Koivu said. "But I’ve played in four Olympics and I’ve got four medals."
His Ducks, meanwhile, are off to a 7-2-0 start, although Koivu tempers his reaction to the team’s start, which has come despite a 30th-ranked power play and a 24th-ranked penalty kill.
"We’ve got good four-line balance right now ... there are still a lot of things we can improve, though; I think there’s only two games where we’ve been really consistent for 60 minutes," said Koivu, whose team lost 4-2 in Toronto on Tuesday night. "Our special teams have not been very good. We’ve been fortunate in some games to get wins and points."
A win in Montreal on Thursday night, though, would feel mighty good for him.