CHICAGO – It was July 4 in Turku, Finland, and Mikko Koivu figured instead of sitting at a computer hitting refresh for hours, he would hit the links for a round of golf.
Finally, his phone rang with Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher’s number flashing on the caller I.D.
“I still remember what hole,” Koivu said. “Seven.”
Koivu also remembers blurting out a big “Woooo!’’ and a couple of English expletives upon hearing the Wild had landed free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The disappointment of repeatedly missing the playoffs had instantly been replaced by hope.
After last season — the fourth consecutive year the Wild missed the postseason — Koivu reminded Fletcher that when he signed his seven-year, $47.25 million extension in 2010, the summer of 2012 was targeted as the one the Wild would pursue elite players.
And with the age of 30 staring Koivu in the face, “We were honest with each other, and I just told him I don’t want to be at the end of my career when we get good and I’m not at my best.
“I’m not saying I’m old. I don’t think that. But I’m not 20 either. So that’s something you realize. Every day, I feel every practice and every game is more important than when I was 25. I want to win.”
When Koivu takes the ice Tuesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks at the United Center, it will be his first playoff game since 2008. The proud, uber-intense captain knows the significance of the moment.
“In 2007 and 2008, I don’t think at that point I realized how big it is,” said Koivu, the first full-time captain in Wild history. “But when the years go by and you get older, you do realize. The playoffs are cool. You want to be part of a winning team and know that every game every night matters.”
Koivu’s competitive values were evident when Fletcher, out of respect, called his captain around July 1 to explain that based on the market, if the Wild was going to be able to sign both free agents, the contracts would be enormous. In other words, roughly double in term and money to the deal Koivu had signed two years earlier.
“That didn’t bother me at all,” Koivu said. “I signed my contract because I wanted to be here, and I don’t think it can be one guy. Chuck has always been fair to me and always honest. To me, that’s what I respect. And to be a winning team in this league, you need five, six elite players and then the whole crew follows. Winning is all that matters to me.”
He’s the captain
Those who know Koivu understand that few players hate losing more than him.
“Obviously there’s the outside pressure, but from the inside, he’s just upset we haven’t made it,” said Koivu’s former linemate Andrew Brunette, who now works in the Wild front office. “It bothers him extremely. He’s an ultracompetitive, prideful guy. And so it stings pretty bad.”
Walk into the locker room after a Wild defeat, and Koivu is likely to be seething as he rips the tape off his ankles. Ask him the wrong question at the wrong moment, and see the red in Koivu’s steely eyes.
“He’s a type-A personality,” Brunette said, howling.
In fact, coach Mike Yeo said: “I’ll sit here and argue he’s the most competitive person that I’ve ever been around.”
Consider that Yeo has coached Sidney Crosby in Pittsburgh and currently coaches Parise. “Mikko, the only thing that he wants to do is win and he wants to bring a winner here and he wants to be recognized as a winner,” Yeo said.
Koivu, drafted sixth overall 12 years ago, has shouldered a lot of the load for the Wild’s losing. Critics have picked, prodded and dissected his game, some suggesting that he should have had the “C” stripped from his chest last summer and placed on Parise’s because of the prior losing and late-season stumbles.
“Which is wrong,” Parise said. “I understand. I know how it is. Everyone wants to point blame and point fingers and look for excuses when things go wrong. I think it’s unfair. Just for me getting to know Mikko and how much effort he puts in, it’s not justified if someone is blaming him.
“That’s why making the playoffs is a big thing, not just for him, but for the organization and everybody around here. Mikko, as captain, wants nothing more than to lead us into the postseason. He works so hard for us. He does a lot of things that a lot of people don’t recognize, a lot of things that don’t get on the scoresheet. ... To me, everyone should appreciate his intensity and fire. If we don’t play well, you can see it on his face. And we better play good the next game.”
All about team
Koivu is tied with Brunette for second in franchise history with 119 goals and ranks second to Marian Gaborik with 398 points, but he sacrifices his offensive numbers and personal accolades for being reliable defensively. Some contend Koivu focuses too much on defense, at the expense of offense, but Fletcher argues that he should perennially be a Selke Trophy contender as one of the NHL’s top defensive forwards.
This year, Koivu ranked 13th among forwards who took more than 700 draws in faceoff percentage (.540) and was seventh in ice time (21 minutes, 5 seconds a game).
“I knew he was good, but I didn’t realize how good he is,” Parise said. “He [forces]so many turnovers in the neutral zone and his work ethic is unbelievable. For me, I’ve found he gives me at least one, two, three, sometimes four scoring chances a game. For a winger, what more can you ask for? Then it’s up to you to put it in the net.”
Koivu’s skill level does not place him in an elite category, and is not his greatest strength. His work ethic, drive and ability to defend is what sets him apart, Yeo said. Plus his devotion to his team.
“For him, team dinners and team meals, it’s an insult if you don’t come,” Brunette said. “He wants everybody together. If we’re going somewhere to do anything, he wants the whole group.”
In a lot of ways, it’s why Koivu and former teammate Martin Havlat never meshed. Havlat didn’t take part in many team activities.
“[Havlat] probably wasn’t completely in tune to the team as Mikko would have liked,” Brunette said. “It was an adjustment period and it didn’t go all that well, I guess you can say. … I don’t know if [Havlat] completely bought in to our group.”
That bothered Koivu.
“He is Captain Serious, no question,” Yeo said. “But behind the scenes, he is a joker that is a great teammate, loved by his teammates and loves to have fun when he comes to the rink and isn’t afraid to dish it out.”
Winning is the answer
In this series, Koivu will be going head-to-head with one of the league’s model captains, Jonathan Toews. The young star can light you up offensively, and has as a tremendous work ethic as well.
He has also won a Stanley Cup.
If Koivu wants to silence the naysayers — and for the record, he says he only cares what his teammates think about him — he will have to lead the Wild in the playoffs perennially.
“I think the one thing that bothers Mikko a little bit is that he doesn’t get enough respect around the league as far as how good a player he is,” Yeo said. “The reality is we haven’t done enough winning here. It’s not because of him. If people want to blame him for anything, blame him for getting injured at the wrong time the past two years.
“But I’m hoping we get to the point where we start to win, get into playoff games and have more of a spotlight on the team where people recognize just how good he is.”