Toronto is the self-proclaimed Centre of the Hockey Universe. Detroit calls itself Hockey Town. But there can be no debate: Montreal is where the heart of hockey truly resides.
The city and its fervent Canadiens fans proved that once again on Saturday night when they gave a lengthy and loud ovation to welcome back Saku Koivu, their long-time captain, who was making his first return after one-and-a-half seasons playing for the Anaheim Ducks.
The anticipation had been building all week, and when the locals were finally allowed to express their appreciation, it was another memorable Montreal hockey moment. During the pre-game national anthems, the starting line-ups for the Ducks and Habs stood on their respective bluelines.
But as the Canadian anthem was coming to an end, the Anaheim and Montreal players skated to the side boards, leaving Koivu on his own as cheers and chants of "Saku! Saku!" rained down.
More than 21,000 fans stood and roared their love for a player whose calling card was courage and class.
Koivu was talented, too, of course. He skated in Montreal for 13 seasons, and was captain for 10. His emotional connection with the fans was cemented in 2001/02, when he missed the first 79 games while battling cancer.
He beat it, returning for the final three games of the regular season, and received an ovation even more overwhelming than the one on Saturday night.
Although he captained Montreal during one of the low points in franchise history, the 5ft 10ins warrior stood tall through it all, earning the respect of the fans, teammates and opponents alike.
Even his fight with cancer had the unexpected dimension of providing fans with another way to connect with him. Everyone has been touched by the disease in one way or another, and Koivu's courage in facing the fight head-on inspired people in a way the game of hockey never could.
He was brave, he was direct, he was the epitome of what we all want to be when our own mortality is called into question.
His ensuing charity work, specifically the creation of the Saku Koivu Foundation which helped raised US$8 million (Dh29.3m) to buy a PET/CT scanner that has aided in the cancer treatment of thousands of people, speaks of his class and character and continues to be a wonderful gift to the city that loves him so.
R E V I E W
Players of the week
• Nathan Gerbe, Buffalo. At 5ft 5ins, the NHL’s smallest player, below, scored once against Boston, twice in five seconds against the New York Islanders, and again against the Islanders two nights later.
• Tim Thomas, Boston. He is still a hot goaltender beating Carolina twice last week, including a shutout. He was also solid in an impressive away win at Colorado.
Teams of the week
• New Jersey. The Devils rung up a four-game winning streak, including victories over league-leading Philadelphia and a shutout of Pittsburgh.
• San Jose. The Sharks climbed back into the play-off race with three consecutive wins.
• Tampa Bay. The Lightning won four in a row, including three over divisional opponents.
Duds of the week
• Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary. The Flames goaltender surrendered 13 goals in less than eight periods.
• Atlanta. The Thrashers lost three in a row, including a 7-1 thrashing at the hands of rival Tampa Bay.
P R E V I E W
Three games to watch
• San Jose at Los Angeles, today. The all-California battle should be a West best-on-best, but it is a pivotal game for two possible play-off teams.
• Vancouver at Nashville, today. The Canucks are cruising atop the Western Conference, while the perpetually underrated Predators sit in fourth place.
• NHL All-Star Game, Sunday. The mid-season classic brings hockey’s best together for a star-studded weekend. And all the new changes add a level of intrigue that has been missing for years.