So it has finally happened. The news we'd all been expecting. The news I'd been dreading.
Saku Koivu has left the Montreal Canadiens. Rather the Canadiens have left him.
I haven't felt this way in a very long time. I felt vaguely disgusted when we traded Damphousse for a draft pick. I felt quite a stab when Recchi was downgraded for Dainius Zubrus (particularly since my newly minted Recchi sweater would be vintage before its time). But those times, there was always Koivu.
Now that Saku is gone I am feeling almost bereft. Perhaps that's a tad dramatic, but there is certainly emptiness in this feeling. Emptiness with fear. I have to be honest, I didn't expect I would feel this way. It seems Koivu saved one last surprise for me.
A personal favourite for years
It's been a long time since the Koivu joined the team and even longer since that fateful day in June 1993 when I bought out every West Island card shop of their Saku Koivu Finland Junior cards. A few days later, when he was drafted I felt a real connection with a player for the very first time. A player whose stats I had scoured and decided was certainly good enough to grace my team (despite old NHL myths about size), a player who captured my imagination completely.
Those next years were the genesis of my deeper involvement. Through a desire to find out more about Koivu and his ETA, I learned a lot about prospects, Finnish military service and the dangers of drafting Europeans. As a by-product, I learned more about all the players coming through. I wasn't yet a blogger (no-one was) but a seed was sewn.
What started with a lot of hope developed over time into exhilaration followed by respect and finally total admiration for the player, and indeed the man. My late teens and early adulthood are peppered with memories of Saku Koivu. From his flirtation with the scoring lead in his earliest years, to establishing himself as the Montreal Canadiens offensive engine to his eventual evolution into the player that would do anything, play any position, to help his team, my team. He was an average skater, an effective digger and beyond all a stylish passer. He quickly surpassed the Stanley cup heroes in my lists.
While for many the pinnacle of Saku's days in Montreal will always be the night he returned to the Bell Centre (a night I can happily say I attended and cheered myself hoarse), for me the pinnacles were many. The virtuoso playoff performances against Joe Thornton where he was at once the best playoff scoring threat and the man to shut down the Art Ross pretender were top among them.
I don't think I'm alone in considering Saku Koivu a personal hero. I can safely say that if I were a drafted as a hockey player and Pierre McGuire lined up to ask who I pattern my game on – it would be Saku Koivu. I have never identified with any single player more than I have with Saku. When we are down by two in the third I look down the TV at the bench and can't understand some of what I see, but then I see the captain (usually deep in discussion with a linemate) and I see my hope reflected. His hunger for winning, his strategy for getting there and his willingness to do whatever it might take are all qualities I try to emulate. And I haven't even mentioned his trademark quick no-look backhand pass disguised as stickhandling.
No I'll miss watching him play. I'll miss just knowing he's on our side.
Overcoming the loss
Now don't get me wrong, my head is telling me it's alright. It's telling me that the analysis I and others have done shows the team needed the lift it may (and I stress may) get from replacing Koivu. I can see this team winning as much or more. My left brain can't really see them being any worse than last season.
Those of you that read here a bit will know that I'm well aware of the inverse relationship between a sentimental GM and a great GM. I can talk up a storm about the merits of telling Guy Lafleur to retire to make room for Naslund, for kicking Robinson to the Kings so as to make a new start. I'm really quite cold and calculating when I want to be. At least half of me is.
Still, on Koivu, my heart questions.
As I mentioned there is a certain emptiness now, and there's fear. After all, how will I feel watching Gomez, Gionta and Cammalleri? Will Kostitsyn become my new Koivu? Will my passion for this team fade to academic interest?
There is no honest way to know the answer to those questions. Only when the puck is dropped and play resumes will I know. Only then will I know if I will feel the pull that I've felt for near a decade and a half. Only then will the scariest question be answered:
Will I fall out of love with this team?
I hope not, but I'll have to see. Right now, I'm into the moves. I understand the motives and I'm excited by the potential. But that's my head. Ultimately my heart is the only part of me that will decide if the passion is still in this for me.
I hope not, but I've heard of these sudden awakenings happening before. People who say things like they haven't watched hockey since Bobby Orr retired or that the day the Oilers traded Gretzky was the day they stopped investing their valuable time and thoughts.
Today is the first day without Saku Koivu to look forward to in a very long time. I think for many of us, it will mark the day we lost our innocent and childish optimism, the luxury we took from knowing Koivu would be there, Koivu would be better, Koivu would save us. For all these years Koivu has been the very best quality of the Canadiens to me.
While I don't applaud the loss, it is something I would have had to deal with at some point. Now that he is gone I have a new opportunity. I may not relish it, but I think I'm about to find out what kind of fan I really am.