It is a never-ending source of bewilderment to me that many of the same people who so reverentially embrace Saku Koivu when he returns to Montreal as a member of the Anaheim Ducks recoil at the thought of the Canadiens ever honoring Koivu by retiring jersey number 11.
The standard argument against raising Koivu's jersey to the rafters is that he doesn't have the personal statistics or Stanley Cup rings to warrant elevating him to such elite company. If you want to play the comparison game, Koivu has 300 more career points than Bob Gainey, whose number 23 is retired, but Gainey had much better timing, having joined the Canadiens when Sam Pollock was putting the finishing touches on the CH dynasty that dominated the latter half of the 1970s. Koivu's first season was the same year Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay were handed the keys to the franchise and promptly steered it into an abyss of mediocrity from which it's still struggling to emerge.
But this isn't about tearing down Gainey or anyone else to build up Koivu, because when it comes to Koivu, there are no comparables. On their own, neither his statistics nor his successful battle against life-threatening illness justify retiring Koivu's jersey, but the combination makes for an argument as powerful as it is improbable. He's the second longest-serving captain in team history after Jean Beliveau. That alone is testament to Koivu's place in the Canadiens pantheon, even before you factor in goals, assists and disease. Summarily dismissing the notion of honouring him because of his record as a player is not without statistical merit, but it pays short shrift to someone who was dependable, productive and a stabilizing leadership presence in the locker room during an extended period of mismanagement by the front office. LNH.com managing editor Arpon Basu needed fewer than 140 characters to accurately express what Koivu represented even without taking his illness into account.
Koivu is not just a hockey player who got cancer and beat it. He was already a franchise fixture and fan favourite when he was diagnosed. His strength and courage during his health struggles and the commitment to community born of that battle provided moments of emotion and drama unprecedented in the history of a franchise already awash in legend and lore. No Stanley Cup championship celebration was as powerfully uplifting as Koivu's first public appearance at the Bell Center after his diagnosis, or his return to the lineup after his recovery. No one - not Beliveau, not the Rocket, not the Flower - has represented the Canadiens on and off the ice with more honour and dignity. No one.
When most former Canadiens players return to Montreal in another uniform, they hear at least a smattering of boos. The unanimous and unequivocal admiration and respect the Bell Center crowd showed for Saku Koivu last night is reserved for players whose legacies transcend petty competition because of what they meant to the CH - the Lafleurs, Robinsons, Savards and Roys.
Their jerseys hang from the rafters. When the time comes, so should his.