MONTREAL -- Saku Koivu can't forget about his cancer, and he doesn't want to.
The Montreal Canadiens' captain overcame the illness and made a remarkable late-season comeback last spring. He's ready for a new season, but he also realizes he'll never be able to get last year's ordeal out of his mind.
''There will be days that it will come back and you think about it, but that's a reality -- that's the way it is,'' he said. ''I don't want to push it away.''
The optimism in this hockey-mad city is built greatly on Koivu's recovery.
''I'm really fortunate to be able to just come out here, put my skates on and play games and practice,'' Koivu said. ''I've overcome the illness, so it's a good thing for me, and it's a good thing for the team. The situation looks pretty bright for us.''
The Finn celebrated his 27th birthday last November in the middle of eight chemotherapy treatments for abdominal cancer.
When the Canadiens clinched their first playoff spot in four years on April 9, it was the same night Koivu played his first game since learning he had non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
''When you get close to death, it's just going to change you,'' Koivu said. ''You think differently, and I don't think there's one specific thing that you can say is different, it's just life overall and the way you feel about it.''
Koivu got two assists while seeing limited ice time in the Canadiens' last three games of the season. He scored four goals and had six assists in 12 games during the surprising playoff run.
The Canadiens upset Boston, the Eastern Conference's top-ranked team, in the opening round, then lost to Carolina in a six-game conference semifinal series.
Koivu is concerned how his body will hold up to the demands of an 82-game schedule.
''I didn't take a lot of time off after the season,'' said Koivu, who got married during the summer. ''I just wanted to get back and I had to build the basic stuff after what happened last year. My shape wasn't where I wanted it to be, and we had to make sure I was strong enough, and endurance-wise I was good enough to work out and really work hard.
''I think we worked a little harder and a little more than we did in previous years, but we still had some time off and time to relax and enjoy the summer.''
Will the Canadiens enjoy similar success this season? Much depends on whether Jose Theodore, the league's top goalie and its most valuable player in 2001-02, can repeat his superb performance. And whether the Canadiens can find more offense.
But nothing compares to the uncertainty that confronted the team heading into last season.
''Things could be a lot different right now. I'm really happy and relieved about the way they are,'' Koivu said. ''For sure, when you miss the whole year the timing and the game shape is not where it used to be, but it's going to come with time.
''I'm holding up well physically. I feel good out there and when I get in some more games, hopefully I'm going to feel even better.''
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