A little cheat today. I recently published the following article in the Finnish sports magazine Urheilulehti, as part of the 2010-2011 NHL season-opening issue. It accompanied a much longer essay on the Koivu family (Saku, Mikko and father Jukka) by Finnish hockey analyst Petteri Sihvonen.
Saku Koivu’s status as a hero in Montreal, as one of our beloved sons, was not simply a product of his skill on the ice. Nor was it a product of his wholesome, public image, or his qualities as a leader. To truly understand how a young man from Turku (a place Canadians can’t even pronounce, let alone find on a map), came to be the beloved captain of the NHL’s most storied franchise, you have to think about Montreal and the intricate way that history, politics and hockey intersect in that fair city. Don’t think about the what of Saku; think about the when.
Saku’s career in Montreal began in 1995, a year when the French and English populations of the city were never more polarized. In October of that year, the province of Quebec voted in a referendum to separate from Canada. After months of uncertainty and political ugliness, the voters decided (by .1 percent) that Quebec would remain part of the Dominion of Canada. But the damage had been done. Hostility between the remaining Federalists and Seperatist factions was higher than ever. To make matters worse, five months later, goaltender Patrick Roy, St.Patrick, left the team. Now, even the Hockey Gods had forsaken us.
Into this environment was dropped a baby-faced Finnish centre. Saku tallied 20 goals and 45 points in his rookie season. When he scored in Montreal, the announcer’s call sounded like cosmopolitan poetry: “Le but des Canadiens, marque par le numero onze, Canadiens goal, scored by number eleven, SAAA-KUUU KOIIIII-VUUUU!” Saku’s name sounded deliciously different to us, not English or French, free from politics. Over the years, it rang out in school yards and on frozen ponds all over the city: SAAA-KUUU KOIIII-VUUUU!
Saku was an exciting player to watch. He was a great playmaker, sure, but he was gutsy, never afraid to go into the corners against men twice his size. He played with unbridled passion, though never alongside superstars. His linemates weren’t flashy; they were men like Rucinsky, Stevenson, Savage. He was a workingman’s star. Best of all, he was unburdened by the history of Quebec and her politics. He wasn’t a frog or a tête carré, he was a Finn. Every Montrealer was allowed to love him.
Eight years later, Saku was struck down with cancer. The city was shocked, and finally, politics didn’t matter. French and English ceased to matter. A member of our family was sick. All we cared about was Saku. Months passed and finally, he came back to us. I was at that game, his return. If I live to be a hundred, I’ll never experience anything like it again. As Saku came on the ice, the entire crowd, 21,273 people, stood in an ovation. We chanted his name. We cried. Everyone cried, the drunks in the cheap seats, the businessmen in the boxes, old ladies, French and English, Italian, Vietnamese, and Greek. We cried. We forgot the politics and the history and took a moment to welcome our hero home.
Saku’s legacy in Montreal is not about his slick passes or game-winning goals. His character shone through the dimness of Quebec politics. He brought the city together in a way that no one else could. That’s what he did for us.
About the Author
Written by Laura Rollins
A Canadian coaching hockey in Finland.