When Saku Koivu, 39, announced his retirement from hockey on Wednesday, with a statement from the NHLPA, it truly marked the end of an era.
He’s the boy wonder of the late 1980s and early 1990s who turned into Team Finland’s leader and captain of the early 21st century, only to take a step back in the last few years of his career into the role of an elderly statesman.
Last January, when Team Finland coach Erkka Westerlund announced his selection to the Winter Olympics, he also read out loud a message from Saku Koivu, in which Koivu explained to him – and the nation – why he had decided to decline an invitation to the team.
In the message Koivu said that a concussion had kept him off the ice for five weeks, and that he wasn’t in the mental or physical shape he expected himself to be when taking on the best of the world.
Westerlund’s voice cracked as he read the last lines of the message.
In 2006, when Westerlund had been behind the bench in the Turin Olympics, the Finnish team, led by Koivu, had played the best hockey either one of them had ever seen. Sochi was going to be the icing on their careers.
Koivu hadn’t played in the national team since the Vancouver Olympics where he was the captain of the Finnish team than won bronze, like he had been the captain of all the teams he had played on since 1998.
In 1998 he took over Team Finland, the year after the Montreal Canadiens, as the first European player to wear the C in the storied history of the franchise. Pretty good for a kid who, while being a wonder boy, was also questioned for his size. Or lack thereof.
But nothing stopped him. Koivu played his first Finnish league games as a 17-year-old under the watching eye of IIHF Hall of Famer Vladimir Jurzinov, made his Worlds debut at 18, and the year after that, represented Finland in both the World Juniors, the Lillehammer Olympics and the World Championships in Milan, Italy.
“Making it in hockey is not only about talent and hard work on the part of the athlete. You cannot do it alone no matter how determined you are. I am eternally grateful to Vladimir Jurzinov and the TPS organization for recognizing and feeding my strengths at a key time in my youth,” Koivu said in his statement.
The 1994 team won Olympic bronze, and the World Championship later that year was Koivu’s big coming out party. He led Finland in scoring, and finished third in tournament scoring, while Finland lost the final to Canada.
And in 1995, he became household name.
All through the 1970s, and 1980s, Finland had been chasing a World Championship medal, always coming up short, even if they did win Olympic silver in 1988. They had been close several times, but the what-ifs were starting to take a toll on people. And then suddenly, Finland won a World Championship silver in 1992, an Olympic bronze in 1994 and a World Championship silver in 1994.
Not only had Finland now won several World Championship medals, they had also come close to winning it all.
In 1994-95, Saku Koivu stormed through the Finnish league in a way that can only be described as domination. He won the scoring title, he was the regular season MVP, the playoffs MVP, winner of the Golden Helmet, Finland’s “Ted Lindsay Award” for most outstanding player, and his TPS Turku won the Finnish championship.
And then it was time for the World Championship in Sweden. Finland had gotten close the previous year, and had their core group together for another year, while the NHL lockout kept NHLers out of the tournament.
Those two weeks in May, nineteen years ago, made Koivu, and his linemates Ville Peltonen and Jere Lehtinen part of Finnish hockey history. Finland beat Sweden in the final, 4-1, Peltonen scored a hat trick, all three were voted into the media All-Stars, and Koivu won the tournament directorate’s Best Forward award.
Koivu was 20, Peltonen and Lehtinen 21. The line was dubbed the “Huey-Dewey-Louie” line, after the three nephews of Donald Duck in a duck-crazed country. (The Donald Duck comic is still the biggest weekly in the country).
“A championship is a championship, and it’s impossible to explain how it felt to win it. You have to experience it. We were young and my career had been going only up. I’d played in the Finnish league finals three times in the three seasons before that, and had won two of them,” Koivu said in a book about the tournament ten years later.
Koivu, Peltonen, and Lehtinen all signed NHL contracts after the 1995 tournament. Peltonen with the San Jose Sharks, Lehtinen with the Dallas Stars, and Koivu with the Montreal Canadiens, who had drafted him in the first round in 1993.
In his second season, moments after the announcer had told the Montreal crowd that Koivu had taken the lead in the NHL scoring race, Koivu injured his knee while attempting to check Chicago’s Jeff Shantz, spoiling what could have been a memorable season.
Two months later he was back, and three years later he was made the captain of the Canadiens. Three years later, he made another comeback, this time after a bout with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer that kept him out until the 80th regular season game.
But he came back, and he came back tougher than ever, and played all 82 regular season games next season – for the first time since his rookie season seven years earlier.
Fittingly, his last name means “birch” in Finnish. And like a young birch, Koivu may bend, but he won’t break.
He was the captain when Finland went to the World Cup final. He was the captain when Finland advanced to the Olympic final in Turin.
Ten years after the World Championship title, Koivu had learned how difficult it was to go all the way.
“Back then, I couldn’t really fathom the importance of it all. I had no idea how tough it is to win a title, or how small the margins of error are,” he says in the book.
In Turin 2006, the gap between winning and losing was closer than ever, and unfortunately for the Finns, they got the short end of the stick.
Sadly for Team Finland, it was Koivu who was holding the short end of that stick. His stick broke at the opening faceoff of the third period and while Koivu skated back to the bench to get a new stick, Peter Forsberg passed the puck to Mats Sundin, who dropped it to Niklas Lidström whose slap shot beat Antero Niittymäki, giving Sweden the lead the needed to win the game.
It broke some hearts, but after the loss, all you can do is get up and get ready for the next game. That’s what Saku did. Saku is on a first-name basis with Finland, even if he’s stayed away from the limelight as best as he can, hoping to get a shot at the Stanley Cup.
He didn’t get it. So now it’s time to get up and get ready for something new.
“It’s been dream come true but what a I value the most in hockey is the feeling of being part of a team and the friendships I have made along the way. I was blessed with a wonderful childhood and an upbringing that provided me with all I needed to make my career and life what it is today,” Koivu said at the end of his statement before thanking his wife and kids.
“Thank you Hanna, Ilona and Aatos for loving me as a man and father and supporting my career and sharing the ups and downs of it all. I love you.”
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Originally published here.