There’s never a good time to say goodbye.
Too bad for Wild fans, who for the third time in five months are wishing farewell to Mikko Koivu.
Back in September, the Minnesota Wild announced that they would not re-sign their longtime captain. The move was not surprising, coming on the heels of Minnesota flipping veteran Eric Staal for little in return. Bill Guerin decided it was time to shake up the locker room, which logically included Koivu.
The Wild might have been done with Koivu, but he wasn’t done with the NHL. Instead of playing in Finland, he signed a one-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets the next month. Koivu was the first captain in Wild history, and also their first “Mike Modano as a Red Wing” Bizarro World late-career change.
Now after seven games in a Blue Jackets uniform, he’s saying goodbye to the NHL. He announced in a statement, “The bottom line is I haven’t been able to get to the level of play that I need to be true to myself and fair to my teammates, so the time is right for me to retire from hockey.”
It’s a bitter end to a memorable career, and a twist of the knife that the relationship between the player and the team couldn’t come to a more satisfying conclusion.
You might feel angry that Guerin threw the face of his franchise aside with little pressing need to do so. After all, this was a transition year, and Jared Spurgeon would still be there to inherit the captaincy next season. What was the harm in keeping him around, particularly with depth being at a premium?
Then again, how can you look at what happened and say Guerin was wrong? Koivu had been relegated to fourth-line duty by the end of the year, and was invisible in the postseason. It was clear that his career was winding down, and time to turn the page on his era. Is that heartlessness, or ripping off the Band-Aid? You can argue either credibly, but Koivu stepping away from the game justifies Guerin’s actions as logical, if not sentimental.
On the flip side, you can also look at Koivu and criticize him for not seeing what everyone else saw. Koivu traded retiring as a one-team player for seven games as a third-line center for a nothing-special Columbus team? He finished last year uncertain whether he’d play again. How did he not know himself enough to know he couldn’t be satisfied with his own level of play?
At the same time, how else could it end? Koivu’s stubbornness is legendary, and his competitiveness knows few bounds. The Wild were undisputedly his team, and his team unceremoniously told him “Thanks, but no thanks.” How does that personality just quietly exit the stage to Helsinki after that? If he didn’t have that drive, would he ever have been the player he was to begin with?
Now that the book is closed on Koivu’s career, what happens now? How do we process this incredibly unsatisfying ending?
Ultimately, this won’t affect his legacy in Minnesota… at least not much. At retirement, he still leads the Wild in almost every category imaginable except goals. He’ll still be their first full-time captain, a position he held for over a decade. His commitment to defense will be remembered as setting the tone for his team during their first 20 years. You can reasonably expect to see his No. 9 hanging in the rafters sometime in the near future.
He’ll still be Mr. Wild, at least for this era. But he won’t be a one-team player. He won’t be their Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic, or Sedin Twins. That weird seven-game footnote is small, but it’s forever.
It’s a small tragedy laid against the nearly half-million people lost to coronavirus this past year, but Koivu was absolutely robbed of a proper ending in Minnesota. Under normal circumstances, he’d have a farewell tour near the end of the season. Fans would be able to send him off properly. There would be a sense of closure for him and for the team he gave so much to.
Instead, any proper goodbye was derailed on March 11, the day sports shut down. His last game at the Xcel Energy Center was a week earlier, a largely unremarkable game against the Nashville Predators where he went scoreless and played under 12 minutes. Five months later, he played his final “home” game in Edmonton, with no fans in the stands to witness his elimination from the playoffs.
Maybe no storybook ending was ever possible. Perhaps one last teary-eyed lap around the X wouldn’t be enough to stop Koivu from playing elsewhere. If Guerin had extended a one-year offer to Koivu, it might be just as sad to see him struggle to be the player we knew. Had Minnesota’s outbreak prompted him to retire today, but in a Wild uniform, would we feel much better?
Who can say? All we know is that this is the ending we got, that it feels empty, and that Koivu deserved better.