Koivu’s impact in Montreal went beyond hockey

Photo: Paul Chiasson/CP

“I was in a dark place,” says Raphael Leclaire, and you can’t blame him.

Twice diagnosed with cancer before he turned 16, Leclaire was tired of chemotherapy. During his second fight with the deadly disease, he was scheduled for eight cycles of treatment. “Eight cycles of hell,” his father, Serge, called it.

So, after seven of them, Raphael told the doctors he’d had enough.

“I knew the doctors would force me to do it. It’s not a good idea to stop,” he laughs now. “Physically, I was okay. My body really wasn’t reacting to the chemo. I wasn’t as sick, so I knew that the cancer might be gone.

"It was more mental exhaustion. I wanted to get back to my life."

At the time, the family was invited to a charity fashion show. So was Saku Koivu. They were not strangers. Koivu famously beat non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2002, and knew the Leclaires well.

Serge saw Saku walk up and corner Raphael.

"I hear you are considering stopping before the last one," he said.

Raphael turned and saw his doctors, raising their glasses and smiling.

"I wonder how you found out?" was the reply.

So many times over their nine-year battle, they would see Koivu. The Leclaires say he never ever disappointed them. "Every meeting with him was more impactful than the last," Raphael said.

Serge tells a story of how Raphael participated in another charity event with a big star. For awhile, they sat next to each other at a table. "(The celebrity) never spoke to Raphael. Hardly even looked at him. That was never the case with Saku."

On this occasion, Koivu put his arm on the boy’s shoulder and said, "You’ve got to finish it."

He told him he understood every ounce of emotion Raphael was going through. He told him he’d felt the same way. And, most importantly, he told him that if he didn’t, and the cancer came back, he’d always regret it. He’d wonder, "If only I’d done the last treatment, maybe this wouldn’t have happened."

Raphael was 12 when a lump on his neck was first diagnosed as cancer. He was weeks shy of 16 when he couldn’t shake a sore throat, and doctors found it in one of his tonsils. By that time, Koivu led the charge to raise $8 million for a PET scan machine, a critical component in the early detection of the disease.

Before the goal was reached and the scanner brought to Montreal General Hospital, Canada’s second-largest city didn’t have one. It helped Raphael’s care, because doctors could monitor his remaining tonsil for any further anomalies.

In July 2012, the Leclaires held a massive pool party in their backyard, as Raphael was given the "all-clear," cancer-free for five years. You can imagine the happiness, the emotions as they celebrated.

"The nightmare has passed," Serge says.

Raphael is now 23, a finance student at Bishop’s University. He started his own fund and plans to have some involvement in the financial side of medical care.

He has some nerve issues in his legs from all of the treatment, but it’s under control. That — and previous knee injuries — mean he can’t play basketball, his first love, anymore. But he and his father take 90-minute Krav Maga courses together, a highlight for both of them. (Krav Maga is an Israeli self-defence style, now taught in classes. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are doing it for their next movie, "By the Sea.")

Serge and his wife are going away for the upcoming weekend, so Raphael will house-sit to watch the dogs. Does Serge trust him with the parents away?

"Yes, I do," he laughs.

It’s easier for the Leclaires to laugh now. The worst is over, and they are determined to make up for lost time. On Wednesday, they thought a lot about Koivu upon his retirement.

"Let me guess," Serge said when I phoned, "You’re calling to ask about Saku."

Good call.

"I would just like to say ‘Thank you.’ What he went through in Montreal, about how the captain had to learn French, well, he knew French, he was just shy. He didn’t want to speak it badly. But now, everyone knows what he was really about. Everybody knows what he did for the city.

"When you are fighting for your life, you need someone to look up to, so that you know you’re not alone. Thanks to Saku, Raphael was never alone."

Raphael, asked what he would say to Koivu, pauses. You can tell he doesn’t really want to answer the question. These feelings are intense, and maybe best kept quiet. I’m about to tell him not to worry, when he starts going.

"I’m very thankful for everything. What he did for me was not for show ... it was very real. He’s not just a mentor, but a friend. I hope he has a great retirement; he deserves it.

"I hope we have a drink together sometime in the future, so we can talk about everything."