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World Cup of Hockey

Saku Koivu enjoying slower pace of retirement

After 18 NHL seasons, former Canadiens captain finally spending quality time with family in Finland

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

TORONTO -- Saku Koivu has come full circle, 1,124 NHL games at his back and a happy future laid out before him in his native Finland, where he is settled once more.

Koivu played 18 seasons in the NHL from 1995-2014. The first 13, 10 as captain, were spent with the Montreal Canadiens and the final five with the Anaheim Ducks. He was a four-time Finnish Olympian, winning a silver medal and three bronze medals, and represented his country seven times in the IIHF World Championship, winning a gold, two silvers and a bronze.

Today, at 41, he is happy in retirement, still involved in Finnish hockey but catching up on being a husband and father, difficult with the demands of an NHL career.

With his wife, Hanna, and the couple's daughter, Ilona, nearly 12, and son, Aatos, 10, Koivu has been blissfully happy for the past year and change in his hometown of Turku, a million miles from the big-city life of Montreal and Anaheim.

On Thursday, here as an adviser to Team Finland for the World Cup of Hockey 2016, Koivu settled into an Air Canada Centre sofa and spoke of a family's new life in his old home.

"We spent a California year (in 2014-15 after he retired) and we felt it was time for us to bring the kids back to Finland," he said. "We went home for the summer [of 2015] and we stayed.

"It went a lot better than we expected. You get used to the cycle of the calendar year; in the fall you return from Finland to Montreal or California, then you come back to Finland in the summertime. But now we're staying. We thought, 'How are the kids going to adjust?' They were in an American school and now we put them in Finnish school, writing and reading. It took two, three months and they felt a lot more comfortable with it. The kids had no issues, school went well, and they have their activities and their friends. It's gone well.

"Everybody tells us the first year when you come back [to Finland] is the honeymoon, but the second year is when reality hits. We'll see how it goes. Our kids have enjoyed it, and the parents and families of Hanna and myself live there, so it's home for us."

Koivu arrived in Montreal in 1995, having been selected with the 21st pick of the 1993 NHL Draft after being heavily scouted in Finland by former Canadiens defensemen J.C. Tremblay. In the fall of 1999, Koivu was voted by teammates as the Canadiens' 27th captain, the first from Europe to wear the "C."

For the next decade, advertised as 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, Koivu was cannon fodder for hulking defensemen, playing with the heart of a lion while being vaporized as he pushed toward the opponent's net.

But no bruise or welt would prepare him for the autumn of 2001, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Koivu's courageous public cancer battle captivated not just fans, but people who knew nothing about hockey yet were moved by his strength. His return to action on April 9, 2002, was one of the most emotional moments in Montreal hockey history, with Koivu skating onto Bell Center ice, then doffing his helmet to a tumultuous standing ovation, his scalp just stubble.

Koivu's legacy in Montreal won't be one of Stanley Cup titles won; there were none. Nor will it be his dazzling offensive output; he scored 641 points (191 goals, 450 assists) in 792 regular-season games with the Canadiens. Rather, it will be the spirits he lifted, the people he inspired, even the lives he saved with his cancer battle. Grateful for his treatment in the city and the outpouring of support he received during it, Koivu created a foundation that raised the millions required to purchase a cancer-treatment machine for Montreal General Hospital.

More than 30,000 tests have been performed on cancer patients by the PET/CT scan-machine Koivu gave to his adopted home.

His love of Montreal endures, more than seven years after he moved away.

"It's where I grew up, in a way," Koivu said when we spoke in 2012, on the eve of his 1,000th NHL game. "It's where I went from being a 20-year-old boy who left his home in Finland to become a man."

Indeed, Finland's pull has forever been strong, and it's for that reason he and his family chose to return home.

Finnish hockey greeted Koivu with open arms. He was named to the board of the national federation, which he says is "more or less a once-a-month kind of thing."

For the World Cup, he and fellow Finnish NHL stars Teemu Selanne and Kimmo Timonen were named advisers to the country's team to the World Cup. Admittedly, it wasn't Finland's finest hour with three straight losses and preliminary-round elimination, just one goal scored in nine periods.

Koivu is considering a larger role, having agreed to the World Cup post as a single project. For now, he's involved with his old team, TPS Turku, and its talent identification program. He skates four or five mornings a week with the players and works alongside the sports psychologist who offers counsel.

"The program shows the players what to expect, how life is going to change and what it means to become a full-time hockey player, on and off the ice," Koivu said. "I've been doing a lot of little stuff.

"Supposedly I have to let them know what I'll focus on specifically," he added with a smile, "but I don't know what it is yet."

Koivu enjoyed his eight years as a member of the International Olympic Committee's Athletes Commission, which reached full term at the 2014 Sochi Games, though he wishes he had been able to serve without the distraction of being an NHL player.

But what you need know about this man is he has no regrets. He has lived a full, rewarding life, enjoying the riches and fame of a pro hockey career; he has learned through every day of it, whether dressing for games or battling broken bones, torn joints, a near-blinding eye injury and life-threatening cancer.

Koivu and Hanna were married and then had their two children while he was a member of the Canadiens. The family hopes to return to North America annually; they still have good friends in Montreal and Anaheim.

A professional hockey player for his entire adult life, Koivu is enjoying a slower pace, being at home with his wife and children and not running for planes and pulling hotel keys from his pocket.

As you see him folded with an easy smile into an arena sofa, it is clear to you that he is very happily in a hurry to do nothing at all.

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