Mikko Koivu is a rare Minnesota athlete, one who achieved longevity without stardom.
He never became a superstar or a prolific scorer, never won a championship or became an MVP candidate. As an excellent defensive forward known more for reliability than flair, Koivu won faceoffs and respect, one grunt and bump at a time.
Koivu became the Minnesota Wild’s first and only long-term captain, and that position, with its emphasis on responsibility, fit him to a C.
Tuesday night, the Wild honored Koivu for playing in 1,000 games, by far the most of any player in franchise history. Family and former teammates fathered on the ice before the game for a warm but understated ceremony before the puck dropped.
Koivu, injured and out of the lineup but wearing his uniform, smiled broadly. This, for once, was his game face.
Koivu was good and durable enough to play in 1,000 games, and muted enough to avoid fame. In the free-agency era of Minnesota professional sports, is there anyone else quite like him?
In terms of longevity with one team and facial expressions, he compares with Joe Mauer, but their career arcs couldn’t be more different. Mauer spent a handful of years as one of the greatest catchers of all time before injuries battered him into submission. Koivu was never so great, and never so absent.
Michael Cuddyer? He, like Koivu, was a team-first player who led, but he left in free agency, while Koivu appears determined to finish his career with the team that drafted him.
“I’ve got to say thank you for the organization, about, like, everything,” he said after the Wild lost in a shootout to the Ducks. “It’s been first class. That was something that I’ll never forget. Not only for me, but for those guys, too.”
“Those guys” included Marian Gaborik, Niklas Backstrom, Nick Schultz and Kyle Brodziak.
“Gabby and Schultzie were the guys that really showed me the way things are done here, and showed me how we do business around here,” Koivu said. “And Backy coming all the way from Finland, and Brodzy. I tried calling them to talk to them the last couple of days and nobody answered the phone. Now I understand why.”
Gaborik flew 10 hours from Europe to Chicago, then on to Minneapolis, to honor his old friend, who was drafted by the Wild the year after Gaborik.
“We had great times on the ice and off the ice,” Gaborik said. “He’s the face of the Wild, the way he plays.”
What about Koivu made the trip worthwhile?
“What he accomplished, and the way we helped each other grow as players and as people,” Gaborik said. “We weren’t just teammates on the ice; we were friends off the ice. It wasn’t just small talk. We had some serious conversations. I’m grateful I got to play with him.”
Backstrom flew from Finland to honor his countryman.
“I think for all the players who played with him, Mikko meant a lot and helped us out a lot — especially me,” Backstrom said. “ My first year coming in, I was 28, he was younger, but he’s been here so he helped me a lot. So I owe him a lot. I know it means to him a lot to do it with Minnesota.’’
The highlight of the ceremony might have been the portion of the video retrospective that showed Koivu having his name called at the draft.
He had the same haircut. Koivu’s hair still says he’s all business up front ... and that there is no party in the back.
Mullets don’t help you win faceoffs.
Koivu was good enough for long enough that the Wild certainly will retire his number. But will they bring him back?
His contract will expire at the end of the season. Had any of the Wild’s 42 youth movements acdtually worked, it would be time to shove Koivu down the runway for good.
But as was the case Tuesday, the Wild is still better with their stoic than without him.