As Mikko Koivu watches his jersey raised to the rafters on Sunday in the arena where he played over 500 regular season games and 27 playoff contests, fans will reflect on the 15 years Koivu played in the green, red and white. Many will celebrate everything he did for the Wild, while some will question whether his numbers make him worthy of the honor of never handing out number 9 to another Wild player.
Some, hopefully a select few, will wonder why the Wild never followed the hashtag and decided to “#StripTheC” from the only permanent captain the Wild ever had, until the team opted not to resign him and let him walk for a one-year deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets — a team for which he played only seven games before hanging up his skates for good in 2021.
Sure, you can look purely at the numbers and say that Koivu’s offensive stats don’t stack up with the elite centermen in NHL history. You can look at the lack of hardware (both team and individual) and claim that Koivu fell short of expectations.
But looking only at raw stats and the lack of Stanley Cups or Selke trophies ignores the greater impact that Mikko Koivu brought to the Minnesota Wild team and its fans for the 15 years he called the State of Hockey home. As the Wild prepare to honor Koivu with the first retired jersey in team history, we look back at the Kaptain’s career, and why I believe the honor makes complete sense.
Maybe you’re someone that believes that jersey retirement should only be bestowed on players that are truly elite, or eventually headed for the hockey hall of fame someday. And I’m not going to argue that fact — many NHL organizations would agree with that methodology. But Koivu’s numbers, and the fact that the team records he set are not likely to be surpassed for a good long time, more than show his importance to the team during his decade-and-a-half in Minnesota.
|#1: Mikko Koivu, 1028||#1: Marian Gaborik, 219||#1: Mikko Koivu, 504||#1: Mikko Koivu, 709||#1: Mikko Koivu, 2270|
|#2: Jared Spurgeon, 748||#2: Mikko Koivu, 205||#2: Ryan Suter, 314||#2: Marian Gaborik, 437||#2: Zach Parise, 1707|
His games played mark, 1028, may never be reached, as the closest active player is Jonas Brodin at 655 games and counting. Same with his assists team record of 504 — Jared Spurgeon would need another 9+ seasons at his current assist clip to reach it. His top rank in points and his second-place rank in goals may be eclipsed by Kirill Kaprizov, if Dolla Bill decides to play a full career here (and let’s hope he does).
With the way the league (and the Wild) operates with regards to the salary cap, it’s unlikely another Minnesota Wild player will play here for a 15-year career, much less play at the kind of level Koivu did. And while there’s no doubt that Koivu’s numbers may not be HOF-worthy, they’re certainly in the upper echelon of Wild players past and present.
Koivu was scouted and selected by the Wild organization in its infancy by a coaching staff and a front office that valued two-way play and defensive reliability. Parise once referred to Koivu as a “Jacques guy”, and as Lemaire, the Wild’s first and former coach, would likely say, there’s “no doubt” that Koivu was made to play a defensive game. Did it hurt his offensive output? Possibly. But goaltenders like Devan Dubnyk loved having him on the ice.
“I always tell people it’s my favorite thing having Mikko on the ice, because it’s mostly in the other end,” Dubnyk said in an interview with Bally Sports North after Koivu announced his retirement. “I don’t think he can not do the right thing defensively. It allows his linemates to kind of freewheel and feel good about it because he’s always in the right spot, he’s always responsible, and he also puts pucks in the net. I think the example he sets as far as positional and how to play and how to limit chances when he’s out there is very impressive.”
The “two-way player” has been kind of a dirty phrase among Wild fans especially at draft time every year, as draft followers take that to mean “isn’t a great scorer.” But Koivu really was the epitome of a player that could be reliable and effective on both ends of the ice. His CF% (once it became a stat people started tracking in 2007-2008) was consistently above 50% and closer to 60% in the peak of his career in the early-mid 2010s. Koivu was also one of the most reliable Wild players in the face-off dot, never having a season under 50% in wins.
At times, the Wild locker room was reportedly a tumultuous place to be during up and down seasons, coaching changes, first-round playoff exits and lineup changes. But through it all, players young and old could count on Koivu’s leadership. Fans may have doubted it from time to time, but the players never did — and that’s what’s important.
“Mikko — awesome leader. He’s great,” Matt Dumba said of Koivu’s leadership. “He’s one of the guys you see day in and day out, even as an older guy, just putting in the work before practice and after practice. He’s a great leader.”
Koivu may be soft spoken in interviews and off the ice, but by all reports, he was the kind of leader that when he spoke up, you listen to. Koivu once told beat writer Michael Russo about his leadership style: “You have to have a message behind what you say.” Some people can scream and yell and smack people on the helmet and call it leadership. But Koivu’s stern style gets just as much attention, just as much respect, and has even more impact than fire and brimstone that fades over time. He led by example, and set the tone.
Just because Koivu had a soft-spoken leadership style didn’t mean that he couldn’t bring the fire on the ice.
The two obvious examples of #AngryMikko are ones that will stay with me as long as I’m a Wild fan.
First, the goal he scored after returning from a cracked fibula at the hands of Vancouver Canucks’ Mattias Ohlund, releasing all of the pent-up frustration and anger after the injury cost him 24 games in the 2007-2008 season. It was a late game insurance goal, but the fury unleashed towards the Vancouver bench just showed that Koivu had that that fire, that drive, and that you shouldn’t ever make him angry.
You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.
Second was the time where Koivu used his exploding shoulder to legally destroy one of the most devastating hitters in modern NHL history, the Detroit Red Wings Niklas Kronwall. For a player who’s name was made into a verb, as in to be destroyed with a punishing check was “getting Kronwalled,” it was fantastic to see Koivu use legal body position to give the Red Wings defenseman a taste of his own medicine.
Shootout goals aren’t going to make or break a player’s hall-of-fame candidacy or earn a spot in the rafters all by themselves — nor should they. But as a fan in my 20s who really began to appreciate the professional game while Koivu’s game grew, watching Koivu in a shootout became appointment television. Would he do it again? Could he do it again? Certainly goaltenders would figure out it out, take that extra stride, make that extra move, flash the glove a little earlier?
And for the longest time, the answer was “no.” No one could stop the forehand to backhand. It was nearly as reliable as clockwork.
In years where it was rough to be a Wild fan, you could always count on Koivu putting on a show in the shootout.
In the end, number 9 truly deserves to be the first player-worn number risen to the rafters of the Xcel Energy Center. Sure, there are players who were more dynamic, or scored more highlight-worthy goals that will be replayed for all time. But you would be hard-pressed to name a player who has had more of a lasting impact on the Wild than Mikko Koivu.
For most of the franchise’s history, Mikko Koivu was the Minnesota Wild. Defensively strong. Offensively sound. Reliable and a hard worker. A fantastic role model for kids looking to be a good teammate on the ice and in the locker room. An example of someone who can say so much more by saying less.
And even though he wasn’t the dynamic kind of scorer that would be a shoo-in for the hall of fame, in his prime, Koivu was really fun to watch for those who love a player that can do a little bit of everything.
Congratulations, Kaptain. Enjoy your honor, every bit of it deserved.
Check out the Top 9 moments in Mikko Koivu’s history, posted after his final season with the Wild.