Koivu's courage an inspiration to all
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun
Teemu Selanne sees it.
Since Saku Koivu returned from Burkitt's lymphoma, a cancer that kills 50% of its hosts within five years, the little Finn is a different man.
He laughs easier.
He is more empathetic.
And he is an even better leader.
"Of course, it means a lot," said Selanne, one of the most ebullient players to don an NHL uniform. "I really think it helped him in the long run. The things he has been through let him enjoy life more. He enjoys what he does more. You can see it."
What Koivu is doing right now is leading a wildly erratic Finnish team against the U.S. in tonight's World Cup semi-final here in St. Paul, Minn.
The Finns were rocked by the defection of Janne Niinimaa, a defenceman for the New York Islanders, who clashed with coach Raimo Summanen.
They have been at turns devastatingly good, demolishing the Czechs 4-0; astonishingly lucky, they might have lost their 4-4 tie with Sweden were it not for poor play from Maple Leafs goaltending prospect Mikael Tellqvist; and unforgivably bad, needing a late goal to beat perpetual doormat Germany 2-1 in a quarter-final.
The Finns have been in North America since Tuesday.
They stayed in Toronto on Wednesday and flew to St. Paul yesterday.
"We're tired," Koivu said.
"I think there's going to be a little bit of jet lag."
Despite Niinimaa's departure, there is no obvious acrimony, Koivu said.
"What happened was between two people and they couldn't work it out, but that's in the past now. We're focusing on the future."
If they are, it's because Koivu is leading them there.
"It's huge that we have a guy like him," Summanen said.
"He's our captain and he's our leader and we're going to need those leaders because everything will be based on how much we believe."
Belief, of course, is something Koivu is now famous for.
"I was talking to my wife and she asked whom we were playing," U.S. defenceman and Maple Leaf Ken Klee said. "I said we were playing Finland and they had Saku Koivu. She knew how much he has had to battle through to get on the ice."
Thanks to Mario Lemieux and Koivu and Lance Armstrong, cancer has become a familiar story line among athletes. It has morphed from a death sentence to something to be overcome, like a sophomore jinx or a knee injury.
The whole thing is a little too pat.
For one thing, does that make people who die of cancer losers? For another, the expectation that cancer survivors are somehow superhuman is as asphyxiating as the sense of shame and hopelessness that once accompanied a cancer diagnosis.
And yet, to survive is a marvellous gift.
If the preponderance of cancer survivors in our media teaches us anything, it's that the greatest leaders take their accomplishments and ambitions less seriously, not more.
Koivu endured eight cycles of chemotherapy and 40 needles in the spine. He received tens of thousands of get well wishes and a seven-minute standing ovation when he got back to work.
"It changed my life, absolutely," Koivu said. "What happened to me, what happened to Lance, it gave a lot of recognition to cancer but, more importantly, it also gave more hope to people. I've always hoped that it helped people to know what we went through."
Koivu will be the focal point of the U.S. defence. The Finns offence drops off dramatically after the first line of Koivu, Selanne and Jere Lehtinen.
On the eve of what his coach called the biggest game in Finnish hockey history, Saku Koivu didn't look the least bit concerned.
Neither did anybody else.