His foundation helped bring a Cancer diagnostic machine to Montreal General Hospital.



MONTREAL – His appearances in this city that worships its hockey heroes still generate a great deal of interest, and Saku Koivu is not expecting anything less even if four years have passed since he was a fixture here.

Two years ago, the widely respected Ducks center was greeted with a lengthy standing ovation at Bell Centre approaching the cauldron of emotion that engulfed him in his 2002 comeback from cancer.

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From left, Dr. Blair Whittemore, who helped treat Saku Koivu; Dr. David Mulder (once the Canadiens team doctor); and Ron Collett, president of the Saku Koivu Foundation and Montreal General Hospital Foundation all have played a part in Ducks center Saku Koivu’s fight and recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Little figures to change when the former Montreal Canadiens captain hits the ice Thursday night, still very much a beloved figure for his tenacity, ability and professionalism. But it is what Koivu left behind that might be his greatest legacy.

Inside the fifth floor of the Montreal General Hospital sits a large PET/CT scanner that uses both positron emission tomography and computed tomography to produce detailed three-dimensional images of patient metabolism and the anatomy.

The machine exists in the downtown hospital because of the foundation that bears Koivu’s name. The technology is to aid in the early detection of cancer cells in the body and it is the center’s lasting gift after beating non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“You can catch it in the early stage,” Koivu said. “You know exactly what to treat and how to treat it. It’s been so many years now, 10 years already. I don’t even know how many people have gone through it.

“And I’m sure there have been cases, lots of cases that they were able to get the treatment going in the early stage and make a difference.”

After being diagnosed before the 2001-02 season, Koivu was dismayed when the nearest PET/CT machine was 90 minutes away in Sherbrooke and not one in Canada’s second-largest city and the population center of Quebec.

Once tests showed that he was in remission following chemotherapy treatments, Koivu talked with his wife, Hanna, and his parents on the drive back to the city about creating a foundation and raising money to bring the scan to Montreal.

“That was like the pinnacle of everything,” he said. “We talked about doing something afterward during the treatments. As soon as we were coming back – the feeling that we’re having right now as a family, I was thinking this is something that I want to be able to give to somebody else.”

Ron Collett, president of the Montreal General Hospital Foundation, also runs Koivu’s foundation and estimates 2,500 to 3,000 patients a year benefit from the machine that allows for detecting cancer at the molecular level.

In the 11 years since the $8 million was raised, Collett said he continues to get donations that have allowed the hospital to purchase upgrades to the PET/CT scan to meet changing medical requirements.

It is the presence and name of Koivu, he says, that often brings hope to patients, especially younger ones. Sometimes it is a simple note from an athlete who knows first-hand what the battle will be like.

“They’re like how he was then,” Collett said. “When you are first diagnosed, you’re thinking that maybe you’re not going to get better. So he still does that sort of thing whenever I ask him to do it. It’s great.

“It’s great that even though he’s moved from Montreal, his spirit and community leadership has never left us. Even though he’s physically moved, he’s still very much here in spirit.”

As for the game against the team he once fronted for 13 seasons, Koivu vows to handle this trip back better than the momentous 2011 return. One thing the serious-minded center plans to do is actually enjoy it.

The Ducks managed a 4-3 shootout win even though Koivu took three minor penalties, one of which led to a late tying goal by the Canadiens to force overtime.

“It was very emotional, I think, even just in the days leading to that game,” Koivu said, recalling that night. “We were in Ottawa and Toronto before and I kind of felt there was a lot of media even in those games talking about the return. I was very nervous those days and the game day and didn’t really enjoy the game because of the emotions.

“Hopefully tomorrow I can be little more relaxed and be able to enjoy it and have fun. Hopefully we have a good outcome for that game. It’s going to make it that much more fun for me.”

Koivu’s days on the ice will end sooner than later and when retirement does come, there will be widespread respect for an exemplary career. But on a hospital floor sits the result of a crusade that has become a lifelong mission of sorts.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to find the cure,” he said. “You just want to be a part of that. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how long it’s been since I got my good news.

“If you can make your friends or your family members or somebody’s days in life easier and better, I think that’s what it’s really all about.”