Mikko Koivu doesn’t have his intimidating game face on … yet.
The normally private Wild captain is laughing and telling stories. He’s blushing as he admits just how hard he had to work to woo his wife. He’s talking about how relieved he is that having two children has calmed him down from the exhaustion of being a high-strung, no-nonsense guy.
He’s discussing candidly his relationship with teammates Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and the hockey fans of Minnesota, and singing the praises of the Wild’s young players. He’s expanding on what it’s like to be the team’s longest-serving player.
When Koivu begins his 11th season with the Wild on Thursday night in Colorado, he will have played with 152 different teammates.
“Not one guy is left from when I first started here,” the Wild’s career leading scorer said. “The whole team has changed, and that to me is like … ‘Wow!’ It really hit me the other day.”
Koivu’s phone vibrates. He interrupts his lunch, peeks at a text from his wife and … “Uh-oh, I might be in trouble. … No, no, I’m OK.”
Life has sure changed for Koivu, 32, the proud Finnish centerman who was drafted 14 years ago. He used to be all-consumed by hockey.
When he got to Minnesota in 2005, Koivu, best known as Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu’s baby brother, moved into an apartment in downtown Minneapolis, then lived the condo life for years in Nordeast. He enjoyed the neighborhood coffee shops and bars, but his sole focus was learning from coach Jacques Lemaire, absorbing every piece of advice veteran Brian Rolston gave him and getting better as a player.
Now, he lives in suburbia and keeps an eye on the clock because he wants to make sure he’s there when 2-year-old Sofie and 4 ½-month-old Kasper wake up from afternoon naps.
“I left the rink yesterday, and usually you’d go somewhere like get lunch or maybe go shopping,” Koivu said. “Now, you want to rush home because you can’t wait to see the kid’s faces when they see you. You always heard about it. The other guys tell you how it’s going to change you and how it’s going to change life around the game, and now I know.
“I mean, I just love it.”
Koivu could not have imagined those feelings when his future wife, Helena, had no clue who he was. Koivu, who captained Team Finland to the gold medal at the 2011 world championships, had an event in Helsinki before the 2012 NHL lockout. Checking into the hotel with teammates, Koivu stepped to the front of the line and was captivated by the front-desk clerk.
“I was probably a little cocky. I expected her to recognize me,” said Koivu, who a year before was dancing on stage with Finnish President Tarja Halonen in front of a grateful nation. “But she asks for my name. I said, ‘Koivu,’ and she got it totally wrong.
“In my mind, I’m like, ‘You don’t know me?’ ”
Helena, who is from Estonia, mistook Koivu’s first name as the last name “Mikkonen.”
“I never watched hockey, so I had no idea who he was,” Helena said. “He looked at his friend and smiled and said his name again in a stronger voice, ‘MIKKO KOIVU!’ I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is one of our regular customers and he’s upset I don’t know him.’ ”
Koivu said, “I loved it that she didn’t know me.”
Koivu couldn’t get Helena out of his mind. He sent her flowers, asked her to go for coffee, for dinner, desperate to get her to go on a date with him. “Finally she did, and now we’re here,” Koivu said, proudly.
“My first reaction was, ‘No, I’m not going out with a hockey player!’ ” Helena said. “But, after three or four weeks, he tried so hard to get me to go out with him, I finally thought I’ll give him a chance. After meeting him, I was like, ‘Where have you been all these years?’ I felt like I knew him forever.”
Things happened fast. Helena moved to Minnesota with Koivu after the lockout. They had Sofie right before the 2013-14 season and got married the next offseason.
It was the first time Koivu had to navigate a family and hockey.
“For both of us, it was a big learning experience,” Koivu said. “I remember, I was nervous all the time with so much happening.
“Before I met her, I was always like, ‘Yes, let’s go on the road.’ I wanted to be with my teammates. Now you’re always worried things are good at home. ‘How’s she doing? Are the kids OK?’ Things are so much better now. I feel calm. She has a lot of friends, good friends. She is very happy here and loves Minnesota, like big time. It gives me that peace now that I can go on the road on a good note.”
The ice thaws
Fans and media know Koivu as fiery on the ice and serious off it. He’s driven to win; ask him the wrong question after a loss and he’s liable to snap or give you a chilling glare.
But even his closest friends have seen a difference.
“He’s a pro, always has been. But he’s learned to calm down,” equipment manager Tony DaCosta said. “He lets things fly off his shoulders now and doesn’t get as worked up after a bad game. He’s still intense, but it’s not the same off the ice. He’s great with the young guys, goes out of his way to invite them over for dinner or take them out for dinner on the road.”
Koivu says having a family has made me “calm almost around the game.”
“I see the game in a different perspective,” Koivu said. “I’m still passionate about hockey, but I think I was so serious as a younger guy, it can wear you down, especially if you’re losing. I guess I enjoy my life more right now.”
His children are Minnesotans. His wife speaks Estonian to them. Koivu speaks Finnish to them. And they both sprinkle in some English.
“My daughter’s a little mixed up,” Koivu said, chuckling. “If she talks to you, English. Me, Finnish. Helena, Estonian. They say when they turn 5, they can speak all like no problem.”
Helena says fans would be surprised by her husband away from the rink. Koivu loves taking their kids for walks, napping with them. Mikko throws a ball around with Sofie, who has, as Koivu said, “lots of energy!”
“He is very protective of our daughter. I guess there’s not going to be any boyfriends ever,” Helena said. “He is also very loving and kind. When my friends have seen him with the kids, they can’t believe that this kind of soft voice can come out of him.”
A new home
Ten years ago, Koivu took a stall next to Rolston and was assigned No. 21. He played most of his rookie season on the fourth line with Derek Boogaard, logged 13 minutes a night, went 44 games without a goal at one point and never complained.
“He just came in eyes wide open,” Da Costa said. “He saw everything going on but didn’t say much. He was taking everything in, learning and listening to Jacques, who he respects so much.”
Koivu immediately became pals with guys such as Stephane Veilleux, Nick Schultz, Kurtis Foster, Marian Gaborik and Brent Burns, was taken under Rolston’s wing. In the final preseason game, Koivu was kneed by current teammate Thomas Vanek. His long-anticipated NHL debut, four years after being drafted, would be delayed 15 games.
“It was forever before they let me play,” Koivu said. “I remember when I got a letter that I could get my own place. It was a day before my parents visited for the first time here. I could finally breathe easier.
“Minnesota felt like home. … It was like right away. I don’t know why, but the people here, it just felt like home. My first year was tough. I remember around Christmas, every day I was bag-skated. Every single day. I couldn’t understand that, but now I do.”
His skating needed to improve, and so did his overall game. Working hard had never been a problem for Koivu, and he knew he had to earn his keep.
He did. He is now one of two players (Niklas Backstrom is the other) who have experienced the Wild through both owners (Bob Naegele and Craig Leipold), both general managers (Doug Risebrough and Chuck Fletcher) and all three coaches (Lemaire, Todd Richards and Mike Yeo).
Years later, as captain of a playoff team developing young talent, Koivu is overseeing success.
“I really mean this: Our young guys have earned it. All of them, and they’re such good guys,” Koivu said. “They know what it takes and they’re professional. They care about their team, they care about their teammates and they want to do good and want to win.
“It’s an easy environment to be around and fun environment to be around. It’s a lot different than two years ago. They’re confident now. I want the young guys to feel comfortable to come talk to me about life or the game or if they feel something’s not right.”
Working as leaders
Koivu’s relationship with Parise and Suter, who signed free-agent 13-year deals in 2012, has evolved. There were times last season it appeared they weren’t on the same page, but now they seem to be, stemming from a productive lunch Koivu had with Parise before training camp.
“We all want the same thing: to win,” Koivu said. “And that’s the bottom line, especially when you get older. When they first got here, they made my life easier. To be honest, I don’t need [the limelight].
“More important than anything else is the respect I get in the room, and I feel like I have that.”
Koivu says he holds no grudge with Parise over the fact some fans would love the captain’s ‘C’ on Parise’s chest.
“He’s the local guy,” Koivu said. “It’s got to be tough on him. If I was playing in Finland in my hometown, I couldn’t imagine it. So I don’t think that way at all. I think Zach helps my daily routine because he gets the attention, and of course, I’m always available and still get my part.
“The fans with me, they have treated me with such respect and class for all these years. On the streets, it is amazing the way they treat me, and that respect goes both ways.”
Named the team’s first permanent captain by Fletcher in 2009, Koivu says he has worked hard to say the right things, to know when to call meetings, to know when he should deal with different issues.
“I’ve changed some of the ways I do things, but if I believe in something, I do it and I’m always fair,” he said. “Like last year [during a pivotal players-only meeting] in Pittsburgh, you have to have a message behind what you say. And that was one where, ‘Everybody needs to stop, we need to change, we can’t go on like this. It’s enough.’ ”
Koivu is one of 19 players in the NHL who debuted with their current team and played every game of their career there. He is 63 games from passing Schultz for the most in Wild history (744), and has three years left on his seven-year, $47 million contract.
“I never realized how fast it goes,” he said. “I want to get better. I know I have to be better. And I really like this team, and love the fact that the core group is starting the season together again.
“I just can’t believe I’m the last guy here. If you look at the whole picture from 12 years ago, and I am sitting here now and what I have accomplished as a player and even more as a person, I am very happy with my life.
“But you want to enjoy the game more. Every day. It’s a goal for myself to remember to appreciate it.”