MONTREAL — Injuries, a battle with cancer and struggles to make the playoffs marked his 13 years in Montreal, but for the generation of fans who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s, Saku Koivu was the face of the Canadiens.
The memories flooded back Wednesday when the gifted and dauntless centre announced his retirement after 18 NHL seasons, including 10 years as the Canadiens captain.
The 39-year-old played his final five seasons with the Anaheim Ducks skating alongside fellow Finnish great Teemu Selanne, but his career will mostly be remembered for the great highs and devastating lows he experienced in Montreal.
“Looking back at my 22 years of pro hockey, first in Finland and then in the NHL, I feel truly blessed and fulfilled,” Koivu said in a statement released through the NHL Players Association.
“I have been contemplating retirement for quite some time and am very confident in my decision at this time and place.”
The Turku, Finland native played 1,124 NHL games and had 255 goals and 577 assists.
He competed at four Olympics, two World Cups and seven IIHF world championships, winning a gold medal for Finland in 1995.
The Canadiens, the Ducks and even rival clubs like the Ottawa Senators sent out tweets congratulating Koivu on his career.
But his NHL figures are modest considering what he may have produced had his career not been marred by a succession of knee injuries, his 2001-02 bout with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and a horrific eye injury in 2006 that left him with restricted peripheral vision.
And his career may have been much different had he landed in Montreal at any other time but the fall of 1995.
Drafted 21st overall in 1993 on advice from scout J.C. Tremblay, Koivu stayed two seasons with TPS Turku before jumping to the NHL.
Less than two weeks into his rookie campaign, general manager Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers were fired and replaced by an inexperienced management team led by GM Rejean Houle and coach Mario Tremblay.
In December, Tremblay left Patrick Roy in the net for nine goals in a 12-1 loss to Detroit and the superstar goalie demanded a trade. He and captain Mike Keane were sent to Colorado a few days later in one of the worst trades in Canadiens history.
The former dynasty, which Savard had at least maintained as a contender with Stanley Cups wins in 1986 and 1993, went into a downward spiral that took a decade to reverse.
Later that same season, the Canadiens moved out of the historic Montreal Forum into their new home, then called the Molson Centre.
One of the bright spots in that era was Koivu, the plucky little centre whose leadership qualities were evident from his earliest years.
In only his second season, Koivu was among the league scoring leaders with 13 goals and 25 assists in early December when he suffered the first of his serious knee injuries.
On Sept. 30, 1999, he succeeded Vincent Damphousse to become the first European captain in Canadiens history.
The big blow came just before training camp in 2001, when cancer was found in his abdomen. Remarkably, he was able to return near the end of the regular season.
The thundering ovation when he stepped onto the ice for the first time since his illness went on and on, and Koivu was visible moved. Then he sealed the bond he had forged with Bell Centre fans by not only playing in all 12 playoff games that spring, but sharing the team lead with 10 post-season points.