MONTREAL - Saku Koivu has captained the Montreal Canadiens through some of the leanest years in franchise history.
But for the first time in his career, Koivu's Canadiens have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup and he can't wait to get the season started.
''I was questioned a lot when I signed (my contract) two years ago about why I did it and why I stayed,'' Koivu said Friday as the Habs opened training camp with physicals and testing. ''I said that I've seen the ups in the mid-nineties when we had a good team, but the late nineties wasn't a lot of fun.
''The reason why I stayed was because I saw the potential and the fun that is possible here, and I want to be here if the team wins the Stanley Cup in the next couple of years.''
Koivu will be entering his 10th year as team captain, tying him with the legendary Jean Beliveau for the longest tenure wearing the `C' in Montreal. But perhaps no Canadiens captain before him has ever carried the weight of unmet expectations quite like Koivu, simply because Montreal is not accustomed to experiencing 15-year Stanley Cup droughts.
''It was tough, especially in a city like Montreal, or a Canadian city where people expect you to succeed and win,'' he said. ''When you don't have the team to do it, it's frustrating. But to experience this now, it makes it a lot bigger and a lot better, and hopefully we can reach that next level that we're looking for.''
Koivu feels this year's edition of the Canadiens is the best he's ever suited up for, largely because of the mix of promising young players and experienced veterans.
The Canadiens were already a potent offensive team last season that finished first in the Eastern Conference, but general manager Bob Gainey went out and added some important pieces in winger Alex Tanguay, centre Robert Lang and enforcer Georges Laraque.
On top of that, key young players like goalie Carey Price, defenceman Mike Komisarek and forwards Christopher Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn should improve from last year.
''When I first came here, my first two years, we had a pretty good team on paper and on the ice,'' he said. ''But this one, I think, has more youth, has more potential, and I think it's better. This is the best team in a long, long time that I think the Montreal Canadiens have had.''
Koivu's time as captain has been laced with more than its share of adversity and controversy, and this off-season was no different. He was criticized in certain pockets of the Montreal media for skipping out on the team's pre-season golf tournament earlier this month, and Friday was his first opportunity to publicly explain why he wasn't there.
Koivu said he spoke with Gainey about it beforehand and they both agreed it would be better for him and many of the other European players on the team to continue their preparation for training camp at home.
''I talked about it with him and he agreed that it was better to stay and maintain the routine with the skating and the off-ice workouts,'' he said. ''It was more just about the timing, because it was three weeks before training camp.''
With the team's 100th season celebrations ongoing throughout the year and the all-star game coming to the Bell Centre, many on the Canadiens feel the timing of the team's ascension into the league's upper echelon couldn't be much better.
But the captain warns that the players will have to do everything they can to avoid getting caught up in all the hoopla.
''Obviously the expectation will be higher, but that's what we want. When you have expectations, that's when the fun begins,'' Koivu said. ''With the centennial and the all-star game, it's just going to make it more special. As players, we know there's going to be hype, so we're trying to downplay it a bit and focus on what's going on in the room.''
Koivu has lost four times in the second round of the playoffs over his career with the Canadiens and has never made it further, but he hopes last year's five-game loss to the Philadelphia Flyers will help snap that streak in this milestone season.
''I said after the playoffs that you don't become a Stanley Cup winner by fluke, or in the period of a month,'' he said. ''You have to lose to learn to win. The experience we had in the playoffs will hopefully help us during the season.''