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Former Canadiens captain Saku Koivu waves to the crowd in Montreal during a ceremony honouring his career on Thursday. The 21,287 people in attendance stood and yelled for more than four minutes ahead of a game with the Anaheim Ducks.

Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS

It's easy to love a superstar; the adulation bestowed on not-quite-all-timers is less common and thus more interesting.

When a hero with regular-human limits manages to earn a place in fans' hearts, the bond can run deep, and it can endure.

For an illustration, you can ask Montreal Canadiens fans about Saku Koivu.

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The diminutive Finn is not, by most conventional measures, qualified for a place in the Habs' pantheon of historically great players.

His jersey will probably never be retired; he might not enter the Hall of Fame. It doesn't matter. Koivu's standing is assured.

The ovation that the Bell Centre reserved for him on April 9, 2002, the night he returned from a lengthy bout with cancer, will live on in Habs lore; it now has a bookend.

Koivu officially retired from hockey in September, but he didn't bid adieu until Thursday; in turn, the 21,287 in attendance stood and yelled for more than four minutes ahead of a game with the Anaheim Ducks, the only other club Koivu played for in his 18-year career.

"Mesdames et messieurs, écoutons, Saku," rink announcer Michel Lacroix said. The cheers kept coming.

It should be remembered that a man once criticized for his inability or unwillingness to speak French in public both began and ended his farewell speech in the language (his remarks earned boisterous cheers and one lusty boo from a fan who was quickly shushed).

"I will always be a Hab at my heart," he said.

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Though he thanked teammates, coaches, staff, executives and his family, the warmest praise was for the fans.

"You kept me going when I was fighting for my life, and there are no words to describe how I felt on April 9, 2002, when I was standing on the blueline right there. What you gave me that night was one of the biggest gifts I've ever been given," he said.

It's customary in these circumstances for teams to offer video tributes of retiring stars; in this case, the presentation provided a synopsis of the relationship between Koivu and the Bell Centre public: It featured snippets of fan after fan saying thank you.

"They always come up to him with smiles," former Montreal winger Brian Savage, one of Koivu's closest friends in the sport, said before the game.

Through no fault of his own, Koivu arrived in Montreal just as the Habs embarked on one of the darker decades in their history.

Though he left Montreal in 2009 as a free agent, Koivu said before the game that returning to the city "feels like coming home."

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"Sometimes you think about why it happened, why they took me in as their own. Some things you can't explain, but there has been a really unique bond between the fans in Montreal and myself," he said.

In truth, the Bell Centre has probably loved some of Koivu's contemporaries more – Alexei Kovalev's name pops to mind – but few players in the Habs annals have commanded the same level of respect.

Fans who grew up with the Habs in the 1990s also adore him for what he might have become, with better injury luck and a smarter front office, and for what he taught them about courage.

The Finns call it "sisu," an untranslatable expression that melds determination, resilience, grit and a good deal more.

Its essence is distilled in Koivu, who wore the C for a decade – matching Jean Béliveau – is also justly famous for his off-ice philanthropy.

His 2001 medical ordeal also led to the creation of a medical foundation that acquired much-needed diagnostic equipment for the Montreal General Hospital.

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"Helping people that way, to me it probably means the most," the 40-year-old said.

Consider that Koivu is 10th on the club's all-time points list despite being limited to 792 regular season games in 13 years.

He is sixth in assists, which is even more remarkable.

Béliveau played with the likes of Maurice Richard and Yvan Cournoyer.

Koivu had Savage, Oleg Petrov, Michael Ryder and Christopher Higgins.

So complain if you must about Koivu being one of only four Montreal captains who never hoisted the Cup as a Hab, mutter about his ability to carry the team on his undersized frame.

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None of it matters. As Thursday's Bell Centre ovation showed, Koivu is sustained the love and admiration of city and a province.

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