Oh the 90s, the days of rushing home from school to watch the Fresh Prince of Bel-air or to play Ken Griffey Jr. MLB on the Nintendo 64. Being a kid during those time, I have witness through the ups of the 93 Stanley Cup run to the downs of the post Patrick Roy era. Though times as a Habs fan were rough for the majority of the 90s, I will always remember growing up idolizing two of the memorable number 11s that have donned the CH, Kirk Muller and Saku Koivu. Both Muller and Koivu were definitely favourites among the fans, with Muller still being cheered today coming back to Montreal as a coach and Koivu being welcomed with open arms at the Bell Centre for his final game in Montreal. Both players defined skill and leadership, which was evident as both were captains of the Canadiens during their time in Montreal.
Muller arrived in Montreal in 1991 from New Jersey and quickly became a fan favourite. Having been traded with goaltender Rollie Melanson (who would later become a goaltending coach for the Canadiens) in exchange for Stephane Richer and Tom Chorske; Muller played a solid two-way game and was influential to the Habs’ last Stanley Cup in 1993. I recollect his Stanley Cup winning goal in game 5 of the Finals vs the Los Angeles Kings, giving Muller the honour having the last winning goal that brought the Stanley Cup back to Canada. I always thought that the line of Muller, Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows was the last legit top line the Habs have had where all 3 players could score 30 goals, while playing a defensively sound game. Sure the Kovalev-Plekanec-Kostitsyn and Pacioretty-Desharnais-Vanek line were great, but both lines were used more in offensive expoiltation scenarios. “Captain Kirk”, as the faithful would nickname him, time in Montreal was unfortunately short however, as soon after Muller was traded to the New York Islanders, in a package that sent Pierre Turgeon and Vladimir Malakhov to Montreal. Muller would then play seasons in Toronto, Florida and Dallas, before retiring after the 2002-03 season. Having always loved the city of Montreal, Muller returned to the Habs organization in 2006 as an assistant coach under former teammate Guy Carbonneau. He would later leave for brief stints in Carolina and St. Louis, to try and jump start his head coaching career, before returning to Habs in the summer of 2016.
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Originally drafted 21st overall at the 1993 NHL Entry Draft, Saku Koivu quickly became an idol to many young Habs fans, myself included, that grew up during the dark era of the franchise. Under the regime of Rejean Houle, the Habs cut bait with many key players that were on the 1993 Stanley Cup roster. During this time, with the team icing lineups that included Patrick Poulin, Karl Dykhuis and Patrick Traverse, Koivu was one of the lone bright spots on the roster. I recall Koivu’s early seasons, when he would be among the top in league leaders for points, but would then miss significant time with injuries. You could say that during this time Koivu was injury prone, but I believe it was more of a factor that he was a smaller guy playing in a time when size dominated the NHL. This was the “dead puck” era where guys like Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Scott Stevens dominated. It didn’t make it easier that he was the only star player on a team and had to carry the team on his back. My most memorable moment of Koivu however, was on April 9, 2002. Before the 2001-02 season, Koivu was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was scheduled to miss the entire season. The Habs had signed Yanic Perreault and later on Doug Gilmour to fill in for Koivu’s absence. To the surprise, with the Habs in playoff contention, Koivu remarkably came back in time for the last few games and the playoffs. That night, playing against my hometown Ottawa Senators, the fans at the Molson Centre gave Koivu a spine chilling eight minute standing ovation. Koivu would also later be prominent in the Habs knocking off the top seeded Boston Bruins in the playoffs that year. Koivu’s time in Montreal ended after the disastrous 2008-09 season, with the Habs celebrating their centennial year. With the Habs collapsing midway through the season and into the playoffs, then GM Bob Gainey decided to cut ties with the past era that had involved Koivu and Alex Kovalev, and let both leave through Free Agency.
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For me the number 11 has and always will be Saku Koivu’s number. Even though Kirk Muller is among my top 20 or so favourite Montreal Canadien, Saku was the ultimate underdog that would always prevail. It’s safe to say, for Habs fans around my age and generation, we grew up watching Saku lead Habs teams, that had no business playing in the playoffs, knocking off higher seeded teams. The 2 series in 2002 and 2004 against Boston comes to mind. And for me, I will always remember that night when Saku returned from his fight with cancer, when nobody expected he would.
Who was your favourite Number 11?