MONTREAL – When Mikko Koivu was a young pup with steely blue eyes — as opposed to a grizzled vet with steely blue eyes — he would have been nervous to know Team Finland’s brass was high above examining him.
In fact, that’s the way Mikael Granlund felt Sunday night with the knowledge that Hall of Famer Jari Kurri, the general manager of Finland’s national team, and Erkka Westerlund, Finland’s 2014 Olympic coach, were scouting at Xcel Energy Center.
But a lot has changed in the eight years since Koivu was aspiring to be named to Finland’s 2006 Olympic team. He has gone from being the Wild’s fourth-line center skating most nights alongside Derek Boogaard to being the Wild’s No. 1 center and captain skating next to Zach Parise. He is 23 points from becoming the Wild’s all-time leading scorer.
Koivu, 30, is three months from competing in his third Olympics. Westerlund said moments before watching Koivu score both goals in the Wild’s 2-1 victory over Winnipeg that Team Finland’s captain’s “C” will appear on the chest of either Koivu or his older brother, Saku.
“It’s a question between the Koivu brothers as to who will be the captain,” said Westerlund, who will consult with Kurri and other players such as future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne before deciding. “I’ve known Mikko since he was this high … [holding his left hand four feet off the ground]. He’s a strong leader on our team. He knows what he wants. He can help the teammates play better.”
Leaving a legacy
The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, surely will be the final Olympics for Anaheim’s Saku Koivu, the former Montreal Canadiens captain who has donned the “C” in most international tournaments for Finland since 1998.
But in a large way, this is Mikko Koivu’s time, and after Koivu captained Finland to gold at the 2011 world championships, then-coach Jukka Jalonen said, “this was Mikko Koivu’s team.”
Mikko would be honored to wear the “C” in February in Sochi. But when Westerlund discussed it with him, Mikko endorsed his brother, who turns 39 Saturday.
“My brother’s earned it,” said Mikko, who won a silver medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, and a bronze medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. “It would be their call obviously, but that’s what I told Erkka: ‘I have no problem if Saku gets it.’
“He’s been the guy for me my whole life, so personally, that’s the way I feel. At the end, it’s their call. It’s obviously a huge deal, a huge honor, but if he gets it, he deserves it. You always want to be captain for your country, but the captaincy in the Olympics has a lot to do with the respect for the older players and what they’ve done in their career. So to me, it’s his captaincy. But it’s up to them. I’d be honored, for sure.”
Because Mikko Koivu is a shoo-in to make the team, Kurri and Westerlund really were scouting Granlund on Sunday. Granlund played one of his best games — four shots, eight attempted shots, 8-for-11 on faceoffs, two takeaways — during a strong start to the season (12 points in 21 games, plus-6).
“I know he worked hard — very hard — in the summertime,” Westerlund said. “The first year here, he learned things. He’s very, very clever. He understood what to do so he could play here and get better, so I’m very satisfied that he’s now playing. We are trying to play very fast hockey [in Sochi] and his level of thinking, Granlund is a fast thinker.”
Granlund said he wanted to “make an impression” Sunday and “it would be a dream” to play in the Olympics.
Finland’s brass is most satisfied by Granlund’s role and ice time, with Kurri saying, “He’s not in and out of the lineup or playing five, 10 minutes a game. It’s hard to just turn it on when you go on the big ice surface if you haven’t played all year.”
Making a name
Kurri has known Mikko Koivu since he was a little kid. Koivu spent years attending Kurri’s summer hockey camps starting at age 7.
“You could tell even then how much he wants to win, how much he wants to battle and be good. He’s practiced a lot,” said Kurri, who won five Stanley Cups and is one of 18 NHL players to eclipse 600 goals. “He’s so much an all-around player. People shouldn’t look at the points, the stats. He does so much for the team. Every coach would like to have a player like that — really a team player you can put on the ice at any time in any role, offensively or defensively.”
In 2004, before Koivu made his NHL debut, he competed for Finland in a fourth-line role in the World Cup. That thrust him on to the radar for the 2006 Olympics.
When comparing the 2006 version of Mikko Koivu with the soon-to-be 2014 version of Mikko Koivu, Kurri laughs.
“He was pretty much Saku’s brother,” Kurri said. “There was a lot of pressure on him to play under Saku’s brother’s name. It wasn’t an easy time for him. He wanted to be Mikko Koivu, not Saku’s brother. That’s changed a lot. He’s not just Saku’s brother anymore.”