Saku with one of my kids, many years ago. A wonderful memory…
Tonight, the man who for a long time was the face of the Habs and the emotional center of fan respect and appreciation for the team, will be once again be skating on the ice of our home rink. Saku has already given an extensive press conference and openly, with occasional smiles and also an obvious lump in his throat, answered the most obvious questions. How does it feel to be back? What memories and feelings does he keep after all those years as our captain? Read an excellent account of his answers here.
What strikes me in the return of Saku is how we suddenly get glimpses of the man who for all those years eluded us: a man who acknowledges some of his ordinary failings, and who also confirms (at last) how much hockey meant for him in Montreal. Because, let’s face it: Saku in Montreal always seemed to be about something other than hockey. He is a small, often injured player, who in his final seasons with the CH often failed to be the clutch guy. In fact, his propensity for late hooking penalties that would cost a comeback had earned him the nickname “Captain Hook” with some fans. Fan worship of Saku had a lot more to do with his “Captain Courageous” persona, and here, we were in purely irrational territory.
We Habs fans are nothing if not ridiculously emotional, and Saku was for us the intersection of several great scenarios. His was the story of a hard-working nice guy struck by that most random evil: cancer. It was also, for a long time, the script for what a true captain brings to his team –nothing tangible (in the form of points or victories), but something more esoteric, more elusive, and greater: the capacity to be a team, to coalesce and meld into one thing driven towards one common purpose. Somehow, Saku did that.
In his final seasons with the Habs, there were many rumours about how in fact his leadership was hollow, a spectacle for the press, while in the dressing room his was a divisive influence. Much was made about the fact that Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu didn’t seem to be able to play with heart unless one of them was out with an injury. Whatever the truth may have been about Koivu’s ability to lead, I have always given such negative echos little credence, mostly because they emanated from the same sports writers (one in particular) who would constantly decry Koivu’s lack of French.
To the fans, Saku’s presence on the ice was an essential passionate component of the team’s emotional barometer, regardless of his stats. There was much irony there as Saku, in post-game interviews, always seemed restrained, uncomfortable, largely emotionless. Indeed, off the ice he wasn’t much to write about, and even when speaking of his battle with cancer, he tended to minimize, de-dramatize, and make everything sound quite flat. But once the puck drops, as we all know, a great alchemy takes place: an unassuming, bland little guy could be the soul of a franchise steeped in a fantastically intense emotional history. Quebec hockey fans know the saying: “Ça se joue sur la glace.” On the ice, Saku was the receptacle for our visions of courage, selfless devotion, toughness and nobility. Off the ice? To the consternation of politicians and cynics, whatever he was or wasn’t off the ice didn’t really matter.