Captain K comes into his own
Saku Koivu leads by example
DAVE STUBBS, The Gazette
Published: Saturday, December 23, 2006
From his dressing room seat, Saku Koivu looks directly across the carpeted floor to the stalls of defencemen Craig Rivet and Sheldon Souray, his good friends and assistant captains, then overhead to a photo of Albert (Babe) Siebert, the huge-hearted Canadiens captain from 1936-39.
When Koivu looks left, down this Hall of Fame gallery, he sees 1940s icons Elmer Lach, Butch Bouchard and Toe Blake.
But his eyes are drawn to the right, past the image of '40s star Bill Durnan, the Canadiens' last captain in goalie pads; past Didier Pitre, the first player signed to the franchise, in 1909; past Jack Laviolette, the club's first captain that same season, the year the team was born.
And it is here that Koivu's eyes are stopped, frozen by those of Maurice Richard, the most incandescent Canadien of all time.
"His eyes are always staring at me," Koivu said, perhaps unaware that the Rocket's coal-black focus is trained on every player in this room, win or lose, no matter where they sit.
"And the phrase, 'From failing hands we pass the torch ...' Quite often that catches my eye."
Never has Koivu held the Canadiens' symbolic flame with greater poise than he does today, his club riding a five-game winning streak into Boston tonight.
This season, on the best balanced team he's captained, his offensive skill has at last been unwrapped. As the premier line's centreman, he is leading by example and by deed.
Long known mostly as a playmaker - and for years used as a checker while expected to provide offence - Koivu has 14 goals and 20 assists through 34 games. He's on a pace that would give him 34 goals and 48 assists, easily eclipsing his career-high 71 points (21 goals) of 2002-03.
"I've looked at guys who score, and where they score from," Koivu said. "So I'm getting a couple feet in front of the net now, and sometimes on a good bounce I get a crappy, easy goal.
"Of course," he added, grinning, "over a beer next summer, they'll all be highlight goals."
The 27th captain of hockey's most successful franchise says he continues to grow every day, every game, every shift.
Koivu, 32, leads a club that is like none other. Sixteen Hall of Fame captains gaze down from the dressing room walls. Perhaps the greatest, Jean Beliveau, also watches most of Koivu's home games from a few rows behind the team bench.
The numbers of six former captains have been retired; three more are in club management: general manager Bob Gainey, head coach Guy Carbonneau and assistant coach Kirk Muller.
"The history is all around you here," Koivu said during a 40-minute talk in the dressing room this week, sitting among equipment bags packed for a triumphant trip to Buffalo.
"You see all the names and faces of the people, the great teams that have been here.
"When I was named captain of the Canadiens, I heard more about these men. But what shocked me was later, when I walked into the (Bell Centre's) Mise au Jeu restaurant and saw the paintings of the team's captains hanging on the wall.
"The last one was me. You can't really believe that you're among those other players."
From the day he arrived here for the 1995-96 season, not yet 21, Koivu had been warned.
"They said, 'Don't buy a house, because as soon as you do, you'll be traded,' " he said, laughing.
On Sept. 30, 1999, at age 24, the native of Turku, Finland was elected the Canadiens' first European captain, and the first from Finland in NHL history.
That Christmas, he bought the house he still calls home - well aware that the six captains immediately preceding him were traded while they wore the 'C'.
"I've survived the jinx," Koivu said. "But there are lots of times I've wondered how close the trade was. I'm sure I've been in talks, everybody has been. You wonder, 'Was there ever a time when I was almost gone?'
"To still be here is amazing. And to have played in Montreal is something I'm very proud of."
At the end of the 2008-09 season, the final year of his current contract, Koivu will complete his ninth season as Canadiens captain. Had the NHL not locked out its players in 2004-05, he would equal Jean Beliveau's 10-season record of leading the club.
Whether Koivu wears the 'C' into the Canadiens' second century will depend on his motivation and the makeup of the team.
"This is a business, I understand that," he said. "Let's say that, when my contract expires, we have three great young centres who are a step ahead of me. There's no reason for them to keep me around.
"Maybe I won't finish my career here. But I'm confident I can stick around a couple more years. I have no reason to think of any place except Montreal.
"I don't mean to say we're better than the others. But to play my entire career with the Canadiens - with their history, the way you're treated here and the way the game is appreciated here - would be different than if, let's say, I'd played my entire career in Columbus."
Koivu discovered his own new world in North America as the Canadiens' first pick (21st overall) in the 1993 entry draft. He debuted with Montreal two seasons later, fresh from being named Finland's player of the year and also selected the best forward at the world championship, in which his country won the gold.
He immediately showed tremendous promise in the NHL, scoring 20 goals and adding 25 assists in 1995-96, his rookie season.
Then, during training camp before the 1999-2000 season, he was elected captain of the Canadiens, edging veteran teammate Shayne Corson by a single vote.
"To be really, really honest, I expected that Corson would be captain," Koivu said. "He was a lot older than me (eight years), had been in the league for a long time and had a reputation of being a good player and leader.
"It's a big thing when you're named captain by your coach or general manager. But it's a lot more special when you're chosen by your teammates. It was a very nice surprise."
And almost a curse early on. Koivu was sidelined 53 games that season with knee and shoulder injuries, and the Canadiens missed the playoffs. In 2000-01, the team failed for the third consecutive year to qualify for the postseason.