The Canadiens are part of David Mulder's marrow. So when Les Habitants missed the playoffs for the third straight time last season, he took it as hard as any native of Montreal. Adding to the pain was the responsibility he felt; David Mulder is the Canadiens team doctor.
The franchise that had won 23 Stanley Cups seemed cursed. Bum knees, bad backs, broken bones. Montreal lost more man-games to injury than any other club in the NHL last season. Frustrated, Mulder pulled double shifts all summer searching the medical charts for clues that could explain why. He was still searching on Sept. 4 when captain Saku Koivu's fiancée called.
Koivu and Mulder are survivors who share the bond of old friends. Over the previous six seasons, Koivu had battled injury after injury, trying to hold the Habs together as stars like Patrick Roy and Mark Recchi were traded away. And Mulder had been there to repair him every step of the way. The surgeon's handiwork allowed Koivu to spend a restful summer of nearly constant light in his native Finland, gaining strength for the new season. Under a new owner, the Canadiens added depth to their roster, and the All-Star center was eager to lead. That was what made the 5 a.m. call to Mulder so strange. Koivu's fiancée said he'd spent the entire connecting flight from Amsterdam to Montreal vomiting, with a bloated stomach and back pain.
It sounded like food poisoning or, at worst, a burst appendix. Mulder admitted the then-26-year-old Koivu to Montreal General for a battery of tests. By nightfall, the doctor was staring at a radiology chart, thinking, My God.
Saku and his fiancée, Hanna Norio, were anxiously awaiting Mulder's diagnosis when the silver-haired surgeon walked into the exam room. Mulder has a habit of touching patients before delivering bad news. He let his hands brush against Koivu's toes. A moment of silence followed.
Then Mulder used a three-syllable word that Koivu didn't understand.
"What's that?" asked Koivu.
Hanna tried to answer first, but the word "malignant" caught in her throat.
"Saku," Mulder said softly. "It's a cancer."
Everything stopped for Saku Koivu. He remembers only this: "I felt very alone."
The news hit the Canadiens at a charity golf tournament. Brian Savage, Koivu's neighbor and linemate, instantly called two of their best friends, Recchi of the Flyers and Trevor Linden of the Canucks, telling them to grab the next flight to Montreal. By nightfall, rumors were sweeping the city, creating a media frenzy in front of Montreal General while Saku slept inside. You'd hardly expect a bawdy, Francophile city to adopt a soft-spoken Finn as its own. But Koivu owns this town. He has elfin green eyes that twinkle and a buoyant optimism that kept the Habs playing with heart while its owner, Molson, let the team wither.
The next morning, with all of Montreal following his condition, Koivu hurriedly held a press conference with Mulder to confirm that, yes, he was battling for his life. He didn't yet know that the cancer inside him was Burkitt's lymphoma, or that it kills half those who have it within five years. As cameras clicked, Koivu flashed to a summer scene in Finland a few weeks before, now a lifetime ago. He and Hanna sat on the dock of his lake house. As they watched summer campfires flicker across the water, Saku asked Hanna to marry him. Now as he walked out of the press conference with her to start life as a cancer patient, he vowed to keep their July wedding date. He vowed to return to the ice. The battle to keep both promises would define a season as tumultuous as any in the Canadiens long and storied 83-year history.
Except for a strange metallic taste in his mouth and a loss of appetite, Saku says he felt fine for the first few days in the hospital, where he was deluged with get-well cards. But as soon as he was sent home, shot full of ultrahigh-dose chemotherapy drugs, he closeted himself in the dark, writhing in pain. For three days, he couldn't bear to speak, hear noise or see light. He couldn't get out of bed. Listening to him scream, his parents, who had flown in from Finland, were convinced he was dying. Hanna thought so too.
What little Saku remembers, he describes this way: "I just needed to sleep, to close my eyes. My head was killing me, I was throwing up and the pain, the fire that was in me -- it was like ... it was like ... " He falls silent before he can find the words to finish.
While Koivu slow-skated in his dreams with morphine, Andre Savard held his breath. The longtime scout had been hired as GM to remake the Canadiens without the megastar budget of the rich American teams. For offense, he got a couple of young Europeans, Richard Zednick and Jan Bulis, from the Capitals. Resurrecting the penalty-killing unit he built as head scout in Ottawa, he nabbed 29-year-old Andreas Dackell from the Senators and 34-year-old Joe Juneau -- an aerospace engineer whose career seemed to be fizzling -- from the Coyotes. To fill the leadership void left by Koivu's absence, he called a guy whose career really was over: Doug Gilmour, who'd retired after scoring just seven goals in 71 games in Buffalo. For a sniper, he found Yanic Perreault in the lower-middle class of the free agent pack. The man he told to turn them into a team, Michel Therrien, used to be a phone repairman.
The rag-tag bunch jumped out to the best record in the preseason, helped by the hungry play of goalie Jeff Hackett, who'd warmed the bench for a chunk of last season with a broken hand. But no one was under any illusion about how they'd fare when the rest of the NHL shook off its rust. The real season was about to begin. And they were missing their captain.
Late in the afternoon before Opening Night in Montreal, Saku got dressed. He wanted to open the season in front of his city, not in bed. Bald and pasty white, he threw on his red, blue and white jersey and drove to the Molson Centre. As the house lights went down and his name boomed over the PA system, 21,273 fans rose to their feet, players on both sides clanged their sticks -- and the place came to life. For seven minutes, they refused to let him out of the light. Koivu bit his lip, bounced from foot to foot, eyes watering. That night, the Habs rallied to tie bitter rival Toronto. Then they went on to beat Anaheim, Columbus and New Jersey, rocketing to first place with their best start since 1981. Still, the question hovered over Montreal: How long could it last?
Not very, as it turned out. By mid-October, the Canadiens were heading back down to earth, to the bottom of the Northeast Division. Koivu's jersey still hung in his locker. But when his teammates visited him in the hospital or gathered around him on the rare days he felt well enough to visit the locker room, Hanna thought she saw fear in their eyes. It was the look kids get when they see sick grandparents and think, "What if this happens to me?" It was a natural question for anyone to ask when they came to Montreal, where it seems as if the guardian ghosts who lived in the old Forum can't afford the club-seat prices at the Molson Centre.
In November 1999, Savage was skating across the blue line in Los Angeles when he was checked in the face and broke his neck. Two months later, a walk-on winger named Trent McCleary stopped a shot with his throat, crushing his larynx. (McCleary was rushed into surgery with his skates on, and Mulder saved his life with a tracheotomy.) So many freak accidents have hit the Habs that Patrice Brisebois, the lone holdover from the '93 Stanley Cup team, started joking that their only sure future Hall of Famer was Mulder because he's literally kept them alive. Brisebois himself went down with an injury this past January.
In the 10 days before Halloween, Mulder was busy indeed. First, Hackett dislocated his shoulder at home against the Sabres. Then his backup, Jose Theodore, suffered a concussion when the two teams met a week later in Buffalo. In a battlefield promotion, Olivier Michaud, an 18-year-old junior goalie making $80 a game, got thrown into the net in Edmonton.
Before Koivu's cancer was diagnosed, he was a skeptic about the supernatural. Then Savage's wife gave Koivu's picture to a faith healer. One night the healer called him, unprompted, and without identifying herself, asked Koivu several questions about how he was feeling. Koivu insists he got a warm tingling through his body as she spoke, after which the nausea he'd felt suddenly lifted. "Now I believe," he says. But when asked about Savard's sudden trade on Nov. 21 for Donald Audette, a playmaker who'd grown unhappy in Dallas after signing a four-year contract, he shrugs his shoulders, unsure how far to take his new belief. "Here was a guy who was healthy in Dallas. Then he comes here and ... "
The Habs offense had been outshot in 15 of 20 games before Audette joined them and sparked a six-game winning streak that they took into a home game against the Rangers. Midway through the game, Audette tried to stop a breakaway by throwing himself toward Radek Dvorak. As he lunged, his right glove rode up on his wrist, exposing enough skin for Dvorak's skates to slice nine of the 10 extensor tendons in his hand. Seeing Audette skating to the bench in near shock, holding his flopping hand, Mulder screamed to a coach to tie the gushing artery while he packed ice around the hand. If a microsurgeon hadn't been pulling a rare night shift at Montreal General, Audette might be one-handed today.
In times of crisis, Koivu usually could be expected to stand up and rally the troops with what Recchi calls "an uncanny knack for making everyone feel important." Instead, as his Habs went into a 4-9-2 December swoon, he was more distant from them than ever.
After the seventh of eight chemo cycles, Koivu was down to 165 pounds from 181, and his immune system was a wreck. When Hanna took him for walks by their home, she'd shuffle her feet, fearing she'd frustrate him if she got too far ahead. Seeing Koivu's weakened condition, his doctors decided to delay his last dose by a month. With nothing much holding him in Montreal, Koivu wanted to fly home to Finland for the holidays. But even that seemed out of reach; the risk of infection from flying on a commercial jet was too great. That was when the man who'd bought the Canadiens in June, Colorado financier George Gillett, arranged for a private plane and told the pilot, "You're going to Finland."
There could not be a more stirring reminder to Koivu of how cancer had reshaped his life than the flight halfway around the world. It was the first time in years he wasn't playing hockey in December. His team was struggling, but his only focus was on that last round of chemo and an all-important final test to see if it worked. If it did, he could think about coming back, like Mario Lemieux or Lance Armstrong, both of whom had called and told him to be strong. If not, he'd be put on more experimental "phase 2" drugs that would leave him in a state in which hockey would be the least of his concerns.
On Feb. 6, after he'd nearly worn out the rug in his Montreal home from pacing, Koivu was scanned by a magnetic imaging machine to test for the presence of cancer cells. The 20 minutes that it took to get the results went by in slow motion. Then the radiologist walked out of his office with a smile on his face and his thumb in the air. Koivu was cancer-free. At that moment, as Koivu realized he'd beaten back the intruder inside him -- at least for now -- he felt a remarkable peace. When the moment passed, he saw Hanna and his parents crying. Then he wept too.
The news has been a miracle in one of the most macabre seasons any team in any sport has faced. Koivu was the heart of the Canadiens before; now he is their soul. Against all odds, the Habs are fighting for the last playoff spot in the East. While they're not playing pretty, they're not folding, either. Gilmour has turned back the clock, scoring a point a game since January. With the league's second-best save rate, Theodore has people talking about him as the next Roy. Juneau's penalty-killing has set a tough tone. And now Saku wants to join them. "With what I've been through, I feel I have something to offer," he says.
This isn't to say the scrappy Canadiens will make the playoffs. Or that Koivu can skate on the ice and pick up where he left off. Or that any of this will play out like a TV movie.
"What Saku has done is remarkable," says Mulder. "He has taken on a tremendous illness. But the science is unclear where to take it from here. We still don't know the effect that chemo has on an athlete of his character. Muscle mass. Reflexes. Speed. And the impact on the psyche. We're in uncharted territory."
The great mystery of injuries and illness eludes even the team doctor. But this much he knows: Saku Koivu is now skating every day with the rest of the team's injured players; he and Hanna will wed this summer; the Canadiens are still in there scrapping for the final playoff spot.
The battle still rages, but a victory has already been won.
This article appears in the April 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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