Bring up the fact that the Minnesota Wild center will play in his 1,000th NHL game against the Dallas Stars on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; ESPN+, FS-N, FS-WI, FS-SW+, NHL.TV), and you’ll be met with the same stern and stubborn look that he’s worn since breaking into the League in 2005-06.
That’s just Mikko.
“I don’t know,” the 36-year-old said when asked about the milestone. “I think it’s probably something you’ll probably think about it and appreciate it more after you’re done or after the season.
“You’re thinking back and thinking about all the years that you’ve been here, and you’re thinking about the teammates and the friends that you’ve made during the time here. It’s kind of emotional, too, once you start to think about the years and how fast it’s gone.”
All those years and seasons, and all 999 NHL games to this point, have been with the Wild.
Koivu leads Minnesota in games played, points (699) and assists (496), and is within striking distance of Marian Gaborik’s Wild-record 219 goals (Koivu has 203).
“When you think Minnesota Wild, the first thing that comes to anybody’s mind in the hockey world is [Koivu],” goalie Alex Stalock said. “He’s been here, he’s had the ‘C’ on for years now; No. 9, that’s what you think of.”
Koivu was selected by the Wild with the No. 6 pick in the 2001 NHL Draft.
For a moment, Koivu thought there might be a chance he’d join his older brother, Saku, then-captain of the Montreal Canadians, because the Canadiens had the No. 7 pick.
Minnesota got him first.
“I was very happy,” Koivu said. “I knew about the culture of hockey [in Minnesota]. I kind of knew it was similar to what we had back home. …I was very happy.”
Not quite NHL-ready at age 18, he spent the next three seasons with TPS of Liiga, the top professional league in Finland, before coming to North America.
Koivu spent one season in Houston with the Wild’s then-American Hockey League affiliate during the lockout of 2004-05, but that season he also got a glimpse of what hockey meant in Minnesota when he played his first game at Xcel Energy Center.
“I remember being at the St. Paul Hotel in the business center — we didn’t have iPads and laptops back then — I remember going down there and calling home and I said, ‘This really feels like home,'” Koivu said of that home ice debut. “That was my first game here. I didn’t play very well that game. But I could feel that right away.”
Koivu, Minnesota’s captain since 2008-09, has been a model of consistency with the Wild. He had at least 42 points in 11 of the previous 12 seasons before tearing his ACL last February, limiting him to 29 points (eight goals, 21 assists) in 48 games.
He’s played in all 26 games this season and has 11 points (two goals, nine assists).
“When you look at the No. 9 stall, you never have to worry about if he’s going to play or not,” said Wes Walz, Koivu’s teammate from 2005-08. “You know how hard he’s going to work, and you know what you’re going to get.
“If you’re going to be in a foxhole, you want [Koivu] on your side, because you know he’s going to give you everything he has.”
Wild coach Bruce Boudreau, who coached Saku Koivu during his time with the Anaheim Ducks, echoed those sentiments.
“[Mikko] doesn’t do a lot of talking. He’s not a loud guy, but he lets his actions work,” Boudreau said. “He just works so hard, that it’s hard not to get sort of tangled up into that, ‘Hey, if our captain can work this hard, then I certainly have to be able to work that hard.’
“He wants Minnesota to win. And he wants to do whatever he thinks we can do to win, and that’s what makes him such a great captain.”
Koivu made note of a long list of players who helped him achieve NHL success, including former teammates Andrew Brunette, Gaborik and Nick Shultz.
“If there’s one name, Jacques Lemaire,” Koivu said of the Wild coach from 2000-09. “Without him, I don’t think I would be sitting here right now with this team or with the career that I had here. I think he really taught me what it takes to play in this league.
“As a young kid I thought, ‘Well, I got this. I’m where I want to be.’ Not even close. He made me realize that. He was very hard every single day. I started to realize when I got a little bit older that he did it because he cared. I owe him a lot.”
Koivu learned his lessons well, all the way to 1,000 NHL games played.
“The identity of what he brings is part of the Minnesota Wild,” Brunette said. “He’s a big part of the culture there for many years, and he will be for many more to come.”