ST. PAUL -- It feels like a lifetime ago now, but Wild captain Mikko Koivu vividly remembers his first game at Xcel Energy Center.
It was a one-off as a member of the now-defunct Houston Aeros, and while the NHL was mired in the 2004-05 lockout, thousands of Wild fans showed up to watch the Wild’s minor league affiliate play.
“I remember being at the St. Paul Hotel in the business center,” Koivu said. “I remember going down there and calling home and I said, ‘This really feels like home.’ That was my first game here. I didn’t play very well that game, but I could feel that right away.”
A lot has changed for the Wild since then, but Koivu remains a constant. He’s gone from a bashful 18-year-old fresh out of Finland to a grizzled 36-year-old veteran, but he’s still here — and has adopted the Twin Cities as his home.
On Sunday, Dec. 1, he’s set to play the 1,000th game of his NHL career, all of them in a Wild sweater.
“You try not to think about it too much,” Koivu said. “You’ll probably think about it and appreciate it more after it’s over.”
After a little convincing, however, Koivu allowed himself to go there for about 10 minutes this week, reminiscing about the winding road that has led him to this point.
His first memory of the franchise came before the 2001 NHL Draft when former scout Matti Vaisanen ran into him at the elevator and essentially promised that Koivu wouldn’t make it past the Wild at No. 6 overall.
“I’m like, ‘OK,’ ” Koivu said with a smile. “I kind of didn’t pay attention to it.”
Sure enough, the Wild used their first-round pick on Koivu the following day, beginning a symbiotic relationship that has spanned a couple of decades.
“You think Minnesota Wild and the first thing that comes to everybody’s mind, in the hockey world, is Mikko,” goaltender Alex Stalock said. “He’s been here. He’s had the ‘C’ on for years now. You think of No. 9. That’s what everybody thinks of.”
Other moments that stand out for Koivu, such as his NHL debut on Nov. 5, 2005, against the San Jose Sharks. Or when former teammate Nino Niederreiter went bar down in overtime of Game 7 to win a first-round playoff series at Colorado in 2014.
If anyone were to write a book about the history of the franchise, Koivu would be the perfect author. He has lived through the ups and the downs and everything in between, maintaining an unrivaled sense of competitiveness along the way.
“I think every night someone turns the game on, they know exactly what they’re going to get from Mikko,” Stalock said. “It’s going to be an all-out effort. He’s going to leave everything on the ice, and he’s going to compete every single play.”
As competitive as Koivu is, his demeanor can sometimes be mistaken for indifference; he doesn’t exactly wear his heart on his sleeve, win or lose, leading some to wonder how much he cares. His teammates, and anyone else who actually knows him, don’t.
“He might seem like a quiet guy, (but) in the locker room, he speaks his mind,” defenseman Jared Spurgeon said. “And when he does that, everyone listens.”
“Just to see him working every day, and how hard he’s working, pushes everybody on this team to get better,” center Joel Eriksson Ek added. “I think he’s a great leader and a really good person.”
That leadership style is something Koivu has been refining since he was a kid. Influences include older brother and NHL star Saku Koivu, as well as Finnish NHL players such as Teemu Selanne, Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numminen.
“All those guys,” Koivu said. “They really created that culture for what we have today in Finland.”
He also mentioned some of his former Wild teammates, including Marian Gaborik, Brian Rolston and Wes Walz. His biggest influence? Longtime coach Jacques Lemaire.
“Without him, I don’t think I would be sitting here right now with this team or with the career that I had here,” Koivu said. “He really taught me what it takes to play in this league. As a young kid, I thought, ‘Well, I’ve 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.”
Needless to say, the Wild owe Koivu a lot, too, so much so that there will come a time when his No. 9 is raised into the rafters at Xcel Energy Center, never to be worn again.
For now, though, Koivu is still giving everything he has to the only franchise he’s ever known.
“I’ve always been so prideful for this team and this organization, and I always will be,” he said. “It means a lot to me.”