MONTREAL -- There was always a special connection between former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu and the fans of Montreal.
Koivu, who retired after finishing his NHL career with Anaheim, was honored Thursday night before the Canadiens dropped a 2-1 decision to the Ducks in a matchup of his former teams.
Koivu received a nearly five-minute standing ovation as part of a 30-minute pregame tribute. That brought tears to the eyes of the 40-year-old Koivu, who retired after spending the last five years of his 18-year NHL career in Anaheim.
"I always felt that I was respected as a player and for the way I played the game, but what makes me feel humble was the way I was loved by the fans," Koivu said. "Sometimes you think about why it happened, why they took me as their own.
"You can't explain it, but there has been a real, unique bond between the fans in Montreal and myself. They've shown their passion and love and support throughout the years and really, it's been amazing."
The ceremony began with a scoreboard montage of photos and a mix of fans and former teammates thanking him and saluting his career.
Koivu's wife Hanna, daughter Ilona and son Aatos, along with his father Jukka and mother Tuire were on the ice as he gave a 15-minute speech in English and French without the help of notes.
The crowd roared when he said "Montreal truly is the most exciting place to play hockey," and "I will always be a Hab in my heart."
The gifted center from Finland, lived through soaring highs and terrible lows in his 13 seasons with the Canadiens from 1995-2009.
Koivu choked up as he thanked the team of doctors that saved his life when he diagnosed with abdominal cancer before the 2001-02 season. After a season of debilitating treatments, he shocked the hockey world by returning with three games left.
He was greeted then by the Bell Centre crowd that stood and cheered for him for several minutes. Koivu then helped the Canadiens make the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and eliminated the top-seeded Boston Bruins in the first round.
"That year, the lows I went through and then being able to come back and be a factor in the series, it was a dream come true," he said. "It's like the whole story was written before.
"I don't want to use the word regret, but probably the only thing (missing), and I'm not only even talking about winning a Stanley Cup, is really, genuinely competing and maybe being in the finals. Because we saw that a few times, winning in the first and second round, how this city reacts when you win. That year was special."
The following season, Koivu had his best campaign with 71 points, but what won over the fans even more was how he started a foundation to raise millions for PET scans to help in cancer diagnosis for others.
Koivu was chosen 21st in the 1993 NHL draft and looked to be a future scoring star until his was slowed by a series of knee and shoulder injuries. He was named as Canadiens captain in 1998 and held the position for 10 years.
He joined the Canadiens in 1995, and three months later, star goalie Patrick Roy was traded to Colorado. That sent the team into a downward spiral that took years to stop.
"That first few months, and then having the last game at the Forum and first game at the Bell Centre, I pretty much saw everything that can happen all in that first year," Koivu said. "I realized fairly quickly how big hockey is in this city and this province.
"There were a tough few years not making the playoffs, but in the early 2000s, I think everybody saw a complete change and turnaround. Winning the Eastern Conference one year and having talented players coming up pretty much every year. It made a difference. I think the franchise is on that path now and their future is really bright."
The setbacks, and the grace and determination with which he fought back and handled them, had much to do with the affection fans developed for the first European player to wear the C for the Canadiens.
During his first game at the Bell Centre with the Ducks in 2011, he received another long ovation.
"I really didn't know what to expect because I'd seen some former players that played somewhere else come here, and the reception wasn't always as good," he said. "It was a pleasant surprise.
"It was like coming home, and when I got the reaction from the fans, I really felt the love and respect."
Koivu ended his NHL career with 255 goals and 832 points in 1,124 games.
He also played in four Olympics for Finland, winning a silver and three bronze medals. He also led Finland to silver at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
"I haven't lost the passion for the game," Koivu said. "I just didn't have that push, mentally, anymore to play and compete, and that's why I retired. But I wish that one day I'll still be part of it, in a significant role, somewhere in hockey."