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Opponents Hail Sakic's Competitive Nature

by Staff Writer / Colorado Avalanche

Joe Sakic won Stanley Cups in Colorado and endless amounts of praise and respect from the players who suited up alongside him, but the mark of a true professional is when your opponents -- the guys chasing after the same ultimate goal -- are equally glowing in their remarks.

Take goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, whose Florida Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final against the Avalanche in 1996, only to be denied by Sakic's Colorado team.

"When Joe came on the scene with Quebec, out of juniors, he had a great rookie season and then over 100 points in his second season, and 20 were probably against me," Vanbiesbrouck told "It was before the carbon-graphite sticks and his wrist shot really stung. I don't think I ever played against anyone else who could shoot the puck like that or hit his teammate's sticks right on the tape so accurately.

"He probably had the best off-wing wrist shot I ever played against. Look at the positions he got himself to: He tried to get to that position all the time and he was deadly from it. His well was deep. He didn't just do that one thing. He had a great combination of speed and quickness.

"One thing that was always underestimated was his competitive nature because he is such a mild-mannered guy. He competed hard. In order to be a professional and do things over a long haul in a team sense, you have to be able to fight hard to get to your favorite spot and shoot the puck from that spot. All the greats did that, Brett Hull, Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky; they tried to get to their favorite spot for their shot.

"Joe was a quiet leader. Look where he sat in his corner in the locker room. He didn't need to be front and center. I like people who speak through their game rather than for their game. I just admired the way he handled himself. His retirement will be a big loss to the identity of that franchise. How do you replace a guy like that? How do they overcome it?"

Pittsburgh Penguins assistant coach Tom Fitzgerald played against the Avalanche in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final and then was traded nearly two years later to Colorado, where he played 11 regular-season and seven playoffs games with Sakic.

"Sakic was their anchor, their captain. Later, I got a chance to play with him. He's just Joe, a fun guy, a personable guy, sincere and happy-go-lucky," Fitzgerald told "He's actually a better person than player and that says volumes about his character and the way his parents raised him. He treated me like I'd been there five or six years and that's all you can ask from a new teammate. He's just so humble."

Fitzgerald was reminded of the great head-to-head competition in the 2001 Stanley Cup Final between New Jersey Devils captain Scott Stevens and Sakic.

"When you get to the Final every year, you've got great players battling each other but those two had battles that people will remember forever," Fitzgerald said. "To look at Joe, he doesn't impress you as a totally physical guy but he was durable because of his conditioning. I remember him lifting weights the morning of a game when that wasn't done then. They told you you'd be too tired for the game. He was doing things in the early 1990s that people do now. Sparking the nervous system, doing squat jumps when that was taboo. He was ahead of his time and he was in great shape.

"He had a high hockey IQ, great hockey smarts and his snap shot was unbelievable. Defending him, I'd be thinking, 'Don't let him get the shot off. Oh darn, he got the shot off. Oh no, it's in.' That shot was so quick and powerful. It was a great asset because he could shoot from anywhere."

Fitzgerald believes the past two injury-filled seasons drained the enthusiasm from Sakic, who had missed only one game in the previous three seasons.

"He wanted to play every game and didn't like being hurt," Fitzgerald said. "He just epitomized the guy who came to play every night. I admire what he stood for."

Tampa Bay Lightning Assistant General Manager Claude Loiselle played with the Nordiques in Sakic's second and third seasons.

"What a great kid. When I played with him, I didn't realize how good he was until I played against him," Loiselle told "Then, I was responsible for checking him but he was so smart and shifty and quick. He wasn't a speedster but he was quick with the puck and his wrist shot was so dangerous. He was an unassuming player and you had to watch him.

Loiselle said it was hard to pinpoint Sakic's best quality.

"I played with Joe and Steve Yzerman, and their demeanor and quiet leadership qualities were very similar," Loiselle said. "He was also similar to Steve in his anticipation, reading the plays. Joe was just a smart player. His shot was outstanding. He had a great wrist shot because of his quick release. It was so hard to check against guys like that, players who went to the right spots constantly."

Sakic's ability to steal a puck and quickly turn the play up ice was reminiscent of former Montreal Canadiens star Jean Beliveau. There are some that say Sakic's top-end speed wasn't great, but it was his ability to quickly separate from his opponents that made the comparison valid. Beliveau was greatly impressed with Sakic.

"It's always sad when the League is losing a great player and person, like Joe Sakic," Beliveau said. "There's no doubt that he was not only a great asset for his team but for the NHL, as well. You can judge by his record. I've watched him since he started here in Quebec and then he went on to a long, great career with the same team. That's the type of player you can build a team around. You need three or four top players and then you add the complementary players."

Alex Tanguay was Sakic's linemate, along with Milan Hejduk, when they beat the New Jersey Devils in the 2001 Stanley Cup Final. The trio had great chemistry, largely based on their excellent passing skills.

"Joe is definitely in a class of his own," Tanguay told "He is a world-class athlete and it was a privilege to have a chance to play on the same team, let alone the same line with him for years. Milan Hejduk, me and Joe Sakic had great years together and Joe was the key to the line. We all know about his skills and his wrist shot but the key to his success was how hard he worked, on and off the ice.

"And, the reason he was able to play so many years was because of how well he used his linemates. Joe could get away from coverage where other players couldn't. He was a really smart player and it was fun for me and Milan to play with him for so long."

It was fun for anyone that played with Sakic during Sakic's brilliant two decade career; but the true testament to Sakic's greatness lies in the fact that those that played against him have as much respect for Sakic -- as a player and a man -- as those that went into games with him.

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