- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Saku Koivu wasn't really worried when he was taken to the hospital.

He had serious pain in his stomach and back, and he was vomiting. He thought it probably was food poisoning or a virus he picked up on the long plane ride from Finland to Montreal.

His thoughts were on preparing for the Canadiens' upcoming campaign, the 2001-02 season. Soon, that was the last thing on his mind. The next day doctors told him he had some form of cancer. He soon learned it was non-Hodgkin's intra-abdominal lymphoma.

"You know cancer is everywhere, but that's something somebody else gets, not you," Koivu said after the Canadiens' pregame skate yesterday at MCI Center. "Anyone who has had cancer and says they never thought about dying is lying. But after the first couple of days, I never asked, 'Why me?' I just wanted to start the treatments and start feeling better."

The Canadiens were shocked to learn their 27-year-old captain was stricken.

"It was mind-boggling," assistant coach Rick Green said. "You would never think it would strike as disciplined an athlete as Saku is with that degree of severity. Seeing him in the hospital was painful. He started to deteriorate right away."

Koivu took heart from conversations with Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux, champion cyclist Lance Armstrong and other cancer survivors.

"It genuinely helped me to talk to people who had gone through it, especially at the beginning when everything was tough and I didn't know what to expect," Koivu said. "It made me feel, 'They did it. Why can't I?' "

Two months into his treatment regime, the weak and pale Koivu started feeling better and began to think he could play again. After he had his final chemotherapy Jan. 14, 2002, Koivu challenged himself to get back on the ice in time for the playoffs.

It didn't seem to be a realistic goal all the more so because the Canadiens were two games under .500 with 36 to play and had spent the three previous springs with golf clubs, not hockey sticks, in their hands.

And yet, seven months after falling ill, Koivu put on the No. 11 jersey that had been hanging in the Montreal locker room throughout his absence and returned to the ice April 9. Koivu had two assists in his second game, and Montreal won seven of its last nine to edge the Washington Capitals for the final Eastern Conference playoff berth.

"We got a huge lift knowing that Saku was cured," Green said. "And we were motivated knowing that he was going to come back and play sometime. But Saku's being able to pick up where he left off was just amazing. Saku generates a lot off his quickness. For a guy who's not real big, he's tough to contain.

"I don't think Saku has changed since he came back. He has always had just one way to play, and that's full-speed ahead."

Koivu and the Canadiens upset the Buffalo Sabres in the first round before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup finalist Carolina Hurricanes. Koivu tied for the team lead with 10 points in 12 playoff games. He was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy for his courage.

"The support that my family and I got when I was sick, not just in Montreal but from all over the world, was just overwhelming," Koivu said. "You don't want to be by yourself in a battle like that. My visits to cheer up patients in hospitals have different meaning now. I can relate to what they're going through, and they're more comfortable talking to me. If I can make a difference in someone's battle, that's bigger than anything."

The Canadiens are 24-26-7-7, but Koivu is better than ever.

With 16 goals and 40 assists, he easily is Montreal's top scorer and is just one point shy of the career-high 57 he scored in 1997-98. His personal bests of 20 goals and 43 assists are also in jeopardy.

More important, Koivu is healthy. He has played every game. There are no signs of the cancer in his body.

"When you get a second chance, you want to make the most of it," Koivu said. "You see life a little differently. You appreciate the little things like waking up feeling good and being able to go for a walk, grab a cup of coffee. I'm enjoying the game more. If I have a couple of bad games, I'm not going to lose sleep about it like I did before.

"I'm more relaxed out there and having fun. When you're having fun, usually good things will happen."

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide