Warrior. Gritty. Tenacious. Leader.
Those are just four of the more common terms used to describe Avalanche captain Adam Foote.
A rugged, heart-and-soul type of player throughout his 19-year NHL career, the veteran defenseman officially announced Friday morning that he will be retiring from the game of hockey at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.
A well-respected player both in Colorado’s locker room and across the league, the 39-year-old carved out a long, successful NHL career after being selected by the Quebec Nordiques with the 22nd overall pick in the 1989 NHL Draft.
That was a second-round selection at the time, mind you, back when the league had only 21 teams, including franchises in Hartford and Winnipeg in addition to Quebec.
It was fitting in a sense that when Foote first broke into the league after a three-year junior career with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he would play his first NHL contest against the Detroit Red Wings.
There was no way to tell at the time, but that Oct. 19, 1991 tilt would serve as Foote’s introduction to what would become perhaps the most intense rivalry in professional sports for a number of years. It also marked the first of 94 times Foote would line up opposite the Red Wings during his NHL career, the highest number of games he played against any club.
The Avalanche and Red Wings met up in the postseason on five different occasions between 1996 and 2002, including a six-game grudge match in the 1996 Western Conference Finals that Colorado won en route to capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
Known as one of the league’s elite stay-at-home defenders during his prime, Foote spent nearly his entire career with the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise, minus a two-and-a-half year detour with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
In his 16-plus seasons with the Avalanche/Nordiques, he certainly left an indelible mark on the organization.
Only the second captain in Avalanche history, Foote has appeared in more regular season (996) and playoff games (170) than any other blueliner in Avs/Nordiques history. He also ranks second in franchise annals in both assists (203) and points (259) by a defenseman, records he held earlier this season until he was surpassed by fellow defender John-Michael Liles.
Liles, one of Foote’s longest-tenured active teammates, broke into the league during the 2003-04 campaign when Foote was beginning his 13th NHL season. Liles praised Foote’s lengthy career, both for his on-ice performance and leadership abilities.
“He’s been a rock on our blue line for a long time and he’s a consummate professional,” said Liles. “In his prime, he was one of the elite shutdown defensemen in the world. He’s had a great career, and he’s deserved every bit of it. In the past few years he’s also been a great mentor to some of our younger players, and that just goes to show you the type of leader he is.”
While Foote’s primary role has remained essentially the same throughout the years – be a physical presence in the defensive zone, clear pucks from the front of the net and make a clean first pass to help start the offensive rush- he’s seen his other responsibilities expand greatly.
In his early years, Foote was one of many key pieces in a succession of star-studded, veteran-laden teams. But over the past few seasons, he’s also taken on the role of a leader and a mentor for Colorado - an important task considering that he, Liles (30) and Milan Hejduk
(35) are the only players on the Avalanche who have hit their 30th birthdays.
If there is one player who has benefited from Foote’s guidance more than others, it would be Colorado’s leading scorer, Matt Duchene
. When Duchene was selected with the No. 3 overall pick and subsequently made the Avalanche’s roster straight out of training camp at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, it was Foote who opened his home to the youngster and taught him some valuable lessons about life and playing in the NHL.
“He’s been a great help to me, both on and off the ice,” said Duchene. “He really showed me what it means to be a professional, and how you need to carry yourself a certain way, day-in and day-out. He’s a tremendous leader, and I’ve been fortunate to learn so much from him.”
Avalanche head coach Joe Sacco wasn’t a member of the organization during its glory years, during which the team claimed a pair of Stanley Cup championships and nine straight division titles. He did, however, enjoy a 13-year NHL career that began one year before Foote’s and ended following the 2002-03 season. With their playing careers overlapping for such an extended time period, Sacco was plenty familiar with the veteran blueliner before he became Colorado’s head coach.
“Certainly he’s been a long-time soldier here with this team, and he’s been a guy who’s won Stanley Cups here,” said Sacco. “I think the biggest thing the last couple years is his leadership. He’s done a really good job in that department for us. He’s been an extension of our coaching staff here with our younger players. He’s had an outstanding NHL career throughout his tenure. He’s won Olympic gold medals. He’s got a great list of accomplishments individually, but more importantly, team-wise.”
Sacco’s last point is arguably the most important. With Foote, it was never about gaudy statistics or individual recognition. It was all about the team.
Considering the amount of success Foote has experienced throughout his career, both with the Avalanche and on the international stage, perhaps one other singular word should be included in the first line of his career summary.