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At 38, Sakic's still got it

Sunday, 04.27.2008 / 8:31 PM / 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

Back to Denver. Back to the future.

The circumstances have never mattered to Joe Sakic. Big game? You get Big Joe.

The past, present and future have always started with Joe Sakic -- and this year's playoffs were no different, starting with an "ordinary" Joe performance ... one shot, one goal, which was an overtime winner to give the Colorado Avalanche a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Wild in Game 1 of their first-round series on April 9.

And now that the Colorado Avalanche go back home down 2-0 in the Western Conference semifinals to Detroit, Super Joe -- who had no points in those first two games against the Red Wings -- is expected to appear once again.

"You never have to say anything to Joe, he's always one step ahead -- sort of like having another coach on the ice," Avs coach Joel Quenneville said shortly after Sakic returned from missing 38 games with a sports hernia. "He's instinctive. He's so determined. He takes the job as captain and leader very seriously and knows the right time to say the magic words, even if he's quiet by nature."

There's nothing quiet about winning. And for Sakic, there's nothing quiet about his past, either. Sakic learned from his parents that talk is cheap, performance is precious. Hard work wins every battle -- in hockey and in life. So, you see, it's not unusual for everyone to look to Sakic when times are tough.

From the time the Nordiques moved to Denver and became the Avalanche, it's been no ordinary show -- 51 goals, 69 assists in his first season and a Rockie Horror Picture Show for the rest of the National Hockey League as the Avs won the Stanley Cup in their first season in Denver with Sakic scoring an amazing 18 goals in 22 games, including six game-winners.

During that postseason that concluded with a four-game sweep of the Florida Panthers in the Finals, defenseman Uwe Krupp had just the right words to describe the team's captain.

"He's ordinary Joe until he steps out of a phone booth, and it's like he's Super Joe," said Krupp. "Suddenly he skates away from everyone and he's Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway rolled into one, leading the Avalanche up and down the ice.

"His game is self-explanatory. He goes out and competes every night to the best of his ability -- and he's a great leader. The way he handles pressure is so obvious for everyone in that locker room to see and learn from. Big goals in big games. It's all a part of who Joe Sakic is." -- Ryan Smyth, who signed as a free agent last July 1 because he got a phone call from Sakic asking him to come to Denver.
"You shake your head and say, 'Where'd he come from?'"

The magic is in how a two-time 50-goal scorer can be invisible one minute and break into an opening and slide the puck past a stunned goalie the next. In this game, it's often the element of surprise, the time and space a player can create, that is most important.

And nothing has changed, expect his birth certificate now makes him 38 years old.

"Right place at the right time," shrugged Sakic, who has scored a record eight career postseason goals in overtime.

Truth be told, the vintage Sakic needs to stand out now just like he did in Colorado's Stanley Cup runs in 1996 and 2001. He'll tell you this is no retirement run, final farewell tour or anything like that. Like always, he wants to show he can lead this team like he has since he started out as a rookie, first-round pick, 15th overall, in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft.

This time, however, he's had to rally to get into a rhythm after recovering from sports hernia surgery.

"I had enough of that rehab stuff, all day," he said, with a laugh. "I'm getting more and more comfortable on the ice all the time. There is not a lot of difference, on any given night, between teams now."

Never a man of many words, Burnaby (B.C.) Joe has always found a way to let his actions do the talking for him. Since his team is trailing 2-0 to Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals, it seems right for it to be Super Joe time.

"Simply put, Joe's a scorer, a great player, and he knows his way around the rink," Quenneville said.

And with 82 playoff goals and 178 points in 162 playoff games coming into this season, it's obvious Sakic is the Go-to-Joe right now.

There's no hurry in his voice. He looks you straight in the eyes and tells you what he thinks.

"It's all about timing," Sakic told me recently. "After all these years, your experience tells you the puck should be here. Or there."

He smiles, knowing the insight he just provided was a cliché.

Timing, however, has been the key for Sakic, who has been the only constant on the team's offense as of late as Colorado finished the season 5-0-1 to qualify for the playoffs with Super Joe leading the way with two goals and five assists in the last four games.

"His game is self-explanatory. He goes out and competes every night to the best of his ability -- and he's a great leader," said Ryan Smyth, who signed as a free agent last July 1 because he got a phone call from Sakic asking him to come to Denver because he felt something special was about to happen there. "The way he handles pressure is so obvious for everyone in that locker room to see and learn from. Big goals in big games. It's all a part of who Joe Sakic is."

"He's in control at all times," said defenseman Adam Foote. "But it doesn't hurt that he's still one of the smartest players in the game."

This is clearly no ordinary Joe. But Sakic also isn't a prototypical super star. He's only 5-11, 195 pounds.

"They said I was too small," Sakic recalled, kind of snickering under his breath, knowing that 14 players were picked ahead of him and that his names should have been right up there at the top of the 1987 Draft with Pierre Turgeon and Brendan Shanahan, who went 1-2. "Heck, Wayne Gretzky was only 170 pounds and he turned out alright, didn't he? I remember seeing Gretzky do an interview when I was in juniors. He said, ‘The game is too fast to be a thinker. You have to see the play in your head and react. If you are quicker and smarter than the other guy, you will succeed.’ That kind of stuck with me."

And those moments, the moments when Sakic has taken center stage and shined, have shown he is quicker and smarter than the guy across from him. That will never change.

 

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