Maybe not this year, but Koivu will return to glory

In the beginning of the season, the city of Montreal was optimistic and full of energy. Fans thought this could be the year that Les Habs went all the way. This could be the year that the Stanley Cup returns to where it should be. This could be the year that Saku Koivu unleashes his enormous potential.

This was not the year.

First, Koivu went down with an eye injury in the third game of the first-round series against the Carolina Hurricanes, leaving behind him a void that was much bigger than the stats will show. What the Canadiens lost was a leader, a role model, a go-to guy. With Koivu in the hospital, they had no one to turn to.

If it's true that "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," Koivu must be the toughest hockey player in the world. Cancer, knee and shoulder injuries, eye injury -- nothing, nothing seems to stop him.

Not even the latest injury.

"It looks like the vision will be back 100 percent,"' Koivu told the media on Friday. "But we have to wait until all the blood is gone before we know for sure."

Even that is enough for the Canadiens fans. There is still hope.

With his boyish looks, Koivu, 31, still seems young. Even after all the problems he's faced, all the injuries and other obstacles life has thrown his way, all the games, and improvised postgame meet the press events, all the traveling, and all the hits and hooks he's had to endure in his career, he still reflects the same promise he did when he cracked the TPS, Turku Finnish Elite League, lineup 13 years ago.

His presence still seems to say the same thing: everything's going to be all right.

There's something about him that assures, inspires and encourages others. He's a leader in the class of Steve Yzerman, Mark Messier and Mats Sundin. He has that certain something that makes everybody around him better. They become better because Koivu makes them want to be better. Because not getting better would mean letting Saku down.

"I've never heard Saku tell anybody else to try harder," said Hannu Aravirta, Team Finland coach between 1994 and 2003. "He doesn't have to or want to. Saku does the best he can, and leads by example. He is so genuinely himself, there is nothing superficial about him."

Nobody wants to let down a leader who gives everything he's got, who's ready to sacrifice personal success for his team. And let's face it, playing in Montreal for the past ten years, and never even hinting about a trade, or complaining about the unrealistic demands is exactly that.

While the Canadiens have struggled during the Koivu era, and not advancing to the second round of playoffs is struggling for the famous club, Team Finland has flourished.

Olympic bronze in Lillehammer in 1994, World Championship in 1995, bronze in Nagano 1998, World Championship final berth in 1999, a quick exit for the Koivu-less Finns in Salt Lake City, and then a run to the World Cup final in 2004, when Koivu was back on the team.

And then, at the Torino Olympics in February, Koivu showed once again why he is the Lion King. The captain of captains, as he is called in Finland. Koivu led his team to the final against Sweden with 11 points in eight games.

In the opening faceoff of the third period against Mats Sundin, Koivu's stick broke. He skated to the bench to get a new one. Meanwhile, the Swedes took advantage of the temporary one-man advantage, and just as Koivu was back in action, Nicklas Lidstrom scored the game-winning goal.

The one thing that hasn't been broken is also his most important asset -- his heart.

But let's not forget that Koivu is a truly exceptional hockey player, a talent that comes along only every once in a while.

"I remember attending a coaching seminar during the World Championship in 1991, with a local junior team as a group we could work with on the ice," Aravirta said.

"I was talking to a friend of mine about the TPS, and why they hadn't been able to bring any new talents to the team for a while. I said jokingly, 'Let's look at this team for a second, and point out the next Turku star.' We did, and we both pointed at the same guy."


He has been a star since he was a teenager. He's been a leader on his club team, the Finnish junior national teams, and he was only 18 when he played his first World Championship in the Team Finland jersey in 1993.

The following season, Koivu led one of Team Finland's top lines in the Lillehammer Olympics. Koivu, 19, was the team's third leading scorer. A couple of months later, in the World Championship in Milan, Italy, Koivu was already the team's top scorer, ahead of Jari Kurri.

Koivu became a household name in his native Finland. Everybody, from hockey enthusiasts to my grandmother, was talking about the blond kid.

The following year, he went from household name to a legend, as Finland won its first World Championship, beating Sweden in the final. Koivu's line, Koivu-Jere Lehtinen-Ville Peltonen, was also the tournament's first All-Star line.

"Saku was made alternate captain, even though he was a young player. He was given the responsibility, and he carried it well," said then-captain Timo Jutila.

Koivu and his teammates were greeted by hundreds of thousands of people upon their arrival in Finland, and Koivu was celebrated first in Helsinki, with the entire team, and then in Turku, his home town.

By then, Koivu had been to the Finnish Elite League finals three times in a row, winning two of them. He had won the Finnish League scoring title once by a 20-point margin. He was a World Champion and an Olympic bronze medalist, the MVP of the Finnish league, and Player of the Year. He was also on a first-name basis with the world.

He was simply Saku.

There was nothing he couldn't do, that feisty little fighter.

So, when Koivu left Finland for Montreal in 1995, an entire nation wished him well on his way to superstardom in the NHL. Sure, it was expected to be tough in the beginning, but Koivu had done the impossible before.

The Canadiens have proved to be too much of a challenge for even Koivu. His rookie season was promising, though, as he picked up 45 points in 82 games. The following season, Koivu reported at the Canadiens camp stronger and more experienced. By midseason, he was on top of the world.

In December 1996, Koivu noticed the announcement on the Montreal Forum screen, mentioning that he was the league's leading scorer, when it was time to take another shift. That one shift changed everything. Koivu tore the ligaments in his knee and was out 12 weeks. He did end up with 56 points in only 50 games, finishing fourth on the team.

Since then, Koivu has missed 213 regular-season games due to injuries and illness, most famously, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that forced him to miss an entire season. It also spurred him into starting the Saku Koivu Foundation. The foundation's sole purpose is to provide the greater Montreal area with a PET/CT Scan machine, equipment used in diagnosing and treating various illnesses, including forms of cancer. Koivu then made an unforgettable comeback just before the playoffs in 2002.

The Torino Olympics gave new hope to the Saku faithful. This could be the year.

An eye injury in the playoffs put an end to that, but Koivu has proved once again that he's got what it takes. He's got the talent, he still has the fire, and the hockey gods have got to be on his side just once.

So, next year, all Canadiens and Finnish hockey fans will chant the same chant as always: This could be the year.

They'll never give up hope. Saku wouldn't.

Risto Pakarinen is a freelance writer based in Stockholm, Sweden.