|Tuesday, April 9
Updated: April 14, 6:27 PM ET
Light shines bright on Koivu, and his prospects for life
By Chris Stevenson
Special to ESPN.com
MONTREAL -- He stood on the blue line, stick in one hand, his helmet in the other and the bright lights shone down on the blond hair that has sprouted on his head.
Saku Koivu stood there and shuffled his feet and the sound poured down from the stands.
And what was there in those cheers? Relief? A celebration of a young life battled for and won? Respect, encouragement, love?
All of those things.
The Montreal Canadiens captain stood in the bright light on the blue line before the game Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators and the fans and the players welcomed him back from a dark place, welcomed his return from a battle won with courage and grace and dignity.
"I never felt anything like that in my life. It was fun. The emotion from the fans was incredible," said the 27-year-old after the 4-3 victory by the Habs that propelled them into the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"I expected something, but not that much. It shows the kind of fans we have here."
Koivu wound up playing 13 shifts for a total of eight minutes and 22 seconds, mostly on the fourth line and occasionally on the power play.
It seems impossible that almost exactly seven months ago, Koivu had stood just a few feet away from where he stood Tuesday night. His head was clean shaven then, his hair the most visible victim of the chemotherapy treatments he had just begun to battle the non-Hodgkins lymphoma that had been discovered in his abdomen.
The cheers rained down that night as well, but they carried a different message then. Koivu stood alone in a darkened Molson Centre that night, wearing his red Canadiens sweater over his street clothes.
The cheers swelled the building that night as well, but they were tinged with fear. He was facing a battle that claims half its victims within five years. Play again? The question then was whether he would live. Nobody knew what the future held then, nobody knew how his body might be able to handle the ravages of the disease or the chemicals that were being pumped into his body to battle it.
Nobody knew if he would win his battle. The priority then was simply life, not hockey.
Only the most optimistic person in the Molson Centre on that night in October could have envisioned the scene Tuesday night.
Koivu, his cancer in remission since February, standing there waiting for the national anthem, his teammates standing shoulder-to-shoulder with him.
The crowd shouted its emotion and Koivu raised his stick in acknowledgment.
More cheers. For seven minutes it went on. The Senators stood on their bench, tapping their sticks on the boards in salute.
Public address announcer Michel Lacroix attempted to introduce anthem singer Nadya Blanchette and was shouted down.
Three times he tried.
The crowd continued to spill their passion through the anthem and erupted again when Koivu was introduced as the starting center. Referee Dan Marouelli stepped aside and Koivu once again stood at the bottom of the waterfall of emotion. He looked pleadingly at Marouelli.
"It was a great feeling to see him so happy," said Canadiens defenseman Craig Rivet, who had raced to the bench and jumped into Koivu's arms after scoring the Canadiens' second goal.
"It was a great moment for me. He's been through so much. You can't help but smile every time you see his face. He's so happy to be back with the guys. When he went out onto the ice, I couldn't get the smile off my face."
Koivu took his public place with his team Tuesday, but he had never been far away. His teammates hung his sweater in his stall at home and on the road. He visited his teammates whenever his strength hadn't been completely sapped by his treatments.
"The day I got here, Saku was waiting for me," said Canadiens center Doug Gilmour, who signed with the club as a free agent in October. "He would walk in the dressing room like nothing was going on. You go home thinking you've got a little problem. You don't have a problem. There's people out there fighting for their lives."
"He still had an impact (in the last seven months)," said Rivet. "He was at the rink every day, even when he looked so sick with his bald head after chemo. He still came to the rink to cheer us on."
When Dr. David Mulder, the Canadiens team physician, broke the news to Koivu in September, Koivu didn't understand the word malignant.
He understood the word cancer.
Koivu said he never felt more alone.
He stood alone on that night in the dark Molson Centre in October, not knowing what lay ahead.
He did not stand alone Tuesday night.
He had teammates, a coaching staff, opponents, hockey fans, a city and the hockey world standing with him.
There are people standing today where he stood back in October, feeling alone, in the dark.
Tuesday night, he hopefully gave them light to help show them the way.
Chris Stevenson is the senior writer for SLAM! Sports (slam.ca)