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Montreal Canadiens' Saku Koivu celebrates his winning goal against Tampa Bay Lightning during overtime NHL hockey action in Montreal, March 26, 2009.Christinne Muschi/Reuters

It lasted eight minutes, every one of them so deafening and heartfelt as to elbow their way into the illustrious and crammed history of a century-old institution.

As with most seminal events, the number of people who claim they joined in the din when former Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu skated onto the ice that April night in 2002 has vastly outgrown the 21,273 who were actually there.

All Bell Centre ovations shall forever be measured against the one reserved for Koivu, at that time the city's most famous cancer patient.

"The tougher the times were for me in Montreal, the louder the fans got," Koivu said from his living room in California.

He keeps a DVD of the game at his house, but has never watched it to the end; the evening represents a crescendo of sorts for one of Montreal's favourite adopted sons, who is retiring from professional hockey after two decades.

It's a possibility he says he began considering in the summer of 2013 ("way too often I found myself asking the question: Why am I here?")

When he left the ice for a final time in the 2014 playoffs, he knew there would be no encore.

"I haven't skated since then … I had told friends and family and even people I would run into here in California that I was done, but I was starting to think I should probably say something publicly," he laughed. On Wednesday he did, and "it kind of hit me again … now it's real."

When he and wife Hanna woke up, their e-mail inbox was already pinging with well-wishers; calls and text messages from former teammates and other well-wishers began cascading in.

Things have tended to end poorly for captains of the Canadiens over the past quarter-century.

The last to finish his career with the club is Bob Gainey, and though the plucky, undersized Finn showed plenty of mettle and skill, his years in Montreal will always be tinged with a sense of what might have been.

What if he hadn't suffered a knee injury in December, 1996, when he was among the top scorers in the NHL? (Koivu would be plagued by leg problems for years)

What if Justin Williams's stick hadn't clipped him in the eye in the first round of the 2006 playoffs? (The Habs were up two games to none against Carolina, who went on to win the Stanley Cup)

What if he hadn't had the rotten luck of turning up during the unintentionally comedic Réjean Houle era and wearing the "C" on some of the worst teams in franchise history?

In the end, Koivu – drafted 21st over all in 1993 – led the Habs for a decade, equalling Jean Béliveau's franchise record before Gainey, by then the GM, let him walk as a free agent in 2009.

He finished his career in Anaheim, but he'll always be a Hab.

It's no coincidence one of the loudest nights of the 2013-14 season at Bell Centre came when Koivu returned to Montreal as a member of the Ducks.

They went nuts during the anthem – it seemed to catch Koivu by surprise – and wouldn't let him leave the ice after a 4-1 Anaheim loss until he'd taken a bow.

"I called my dad after that game, we were on our way to Ottawa … he saw the highlights in Finland and read the game reports and he said, 'I wish I could have been there.' I told him I didn't know if I was going to retire, but that if that was goodbye, it felt right," he said.

If Koivu professed not to know it would be his last appearance, fans weren't about to take any chances.

Likewise, former teammates sought out Koivu that night – as did David Mulder, the Habs' long-time team doctor, whom he credits with saving his life when it was threatened by non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

He recovered, and his philanthropic efforts on behalf of the Montreal General Hospital are perhaps the most meaningful contribution from his 14 years in Montreal.

As one of a small number of Habs captains who never got to hoist the Stanley Cup, Koivu's most triumphant on-ice moments came not in a bleu-blanc-rouge uniform – on too many nights he was the only good thing about the team – but in a Finland jersey: four Olympic medals, a World Cup silver and a world championship gold.

In his later years in Montreal, the now 39-year-old was criticized for not expressing himself more frequently in French (an issue of modesty and insecurity over his grasp of the language rather than ability), which has fuelled the perception he was never fully appreciated.

He retires having played in 1,124 NHL games, contributing 832 points (255 goals), and another 59 playoff points in 80 postseason games.

Cue the debate over whether his career justifies having his jersey number retired; pro and con were weighing in on social media with typical hysteria on Wednesday.

That such an argument is even taking place, Koivu said, is "a huge honour." This is a man who knows Habs lore as well as anyone and his initial thought was, "No way I deserve it." Given all he's been through and his attachment to the Habs and their fans, it's also not something he would decline.

Koivu's stats are eminently respectable numbers, but his legacy is about more ephemeral things – determination, class, generosity.

There were moments over the years when fans' faith in club and captain were shaken; now that his career is at an end, perhaps it's time for a more fulsome and generous appraisal.

Not that Koivu is much bothered.

"One of the reasons I've survived so long," he said, "is I've never taken anything personally."