"It's good to see you guys."
And with that, Saku Koivu touched down in a place he had known as his only professional hockey home before this season. Now with the Anaheim Ducks, Koivu will step onto the ice as a visitor in Montreal for the first time Saturday night, and admits he'll be nervous.
"There was a lot of mixed feelings and emotions involved when I thought about returning here. So many things happened here. I've spent the majority of my adult life here in Montreal, a lot more than in Finland where I'm from," Koivu said. "It's been kind of emotional. When the schedule came out in late July, obviously I circled that date, when we would be in Montreal. But it felt miles away, at the end of January. I had all this time to prepare myself and get ready. And then last night in Toronto, after the game, it's two nights from now and then I started getting a little nervous and emotional."
A first-round draft pick in 1993, Koivu accrued 641 points during his Canadiens career, ranking 10th all-time on Montreal's scoring list. He sits 25th on the goal-scoring list with 191 markers and sixth on the assists list with 450. His 792 games played places Koivu 19th all-time for the franchise.
Koivu became the 27th captain in team history prior to the 1999-2000 season, and held on to the 'C' for ten seasons. The Finnish native was also the first European to be named captain in team history.
Koivu has always had a tremendous relationship with the fans of Montreal, who supported him during his bout with cancer. He received a rousing standing ovation upon his return in April 2002. And while he doesn't know what to expect from Habs fans, he is eager to play in front of them again.
"I was asked if I expect to get a standing ovation and I said I don't know," he said. "(But) the way they treated me and the support that I got, I should be the one standing at the red line and applauding for them and giving a standing ovation for the fans. They've surprised me often over the years, so, getting a really positive, overwhelming reaction tomorrow would obviously feel good, and that would not surprise because that's happened before too."
While Koivu loved his time in Montreal, he acknowledged that he's been able to loosen up a little bit in Anaheim, where the pressure to perform isn't as overwhelming as Montreal.
"Here, you can't escape the game. You can't go anywhere and not talk about it. I said it even before when I was playing here: when things are going well and you're winning and you have a winning team, I don't think there's better place to play hockey than Montreal. But there's another side of the coin: if you're expected to score and you're expected to win and that doesn't happen, you hear about it. And you read about it. It wears on you," he said. "(In Anaheim) It's kind of like the pressure and expectation come from inside of the team and organization. When the game is done, you can go to the beach and nobody knows who you are and you don't have to talk about why you missed an open net from the night before."
And while the task at hand is winning, Koivu is going to make sure he takes in a comeback that's been two years in the making.
"I'd love to win the game, don't get me wrong, and those two points are very crucial to our team as of right now. But for me this week and tomorrow the whole game, it's a lot more. Coming back here and this is gonna be a weekend I'm not going to forget. Hopefully it will be a great experience," he said.