Story By Michael Kelly
Joe Sakic looked like he was gliding down the ice. He always looks like he's gliding. Even at his top speed, he never looks like he's in a rush, which makes him so tough to stop.
On this play, he was even more dangerous. With the Colorado Avalanche clinging to a 3-2 lead and needing a regulation win over Calgary to keep its playoff hopes alive, the 37-year-old showed why he is still one of the best players in the game.
With lightning quickness, Sakic released his trademark wrist shot and beat Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff before the netminder had time to react, and the Avalanche had survived to play another day.
Sakic led the Avalanche on a 15-2-2 run down the stretch and helped Colorado almost pull off one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history. The Avs were 12 points out of a playoff spot when that stretch began and were not officially eliminated until the second-to-last day of the regular season.
Many players contributed to the club's success but it was the Avalanche captain who seemed to lead the charge.
"This is what he's been doing his whole history here," Colorado forward Milan Hejduk says. "What's most amazing is he's not getting any younger, but still he's playing at an unbelievable high level. Most 37-year-old guys, they're slowing down a little bit. It's a normal thing to do. But he's producing almost like he was at age 25 or 26. It's impressive."
It's even more impressive when compared to the all-time greats at that age. Sakic finished the season with 100 points, joining Gordie Howe as the only players in NHL history to reach 100 points at age 37 or older. ‘Mr. Hockey' had 103 points at the age of 40 in 1968-69.
Sakic had a more productive season than Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull did when they were 37. Lemieux had 91 points, Gretzky 90 and Brett Hull had 63.
Moreover, those greats had become role players on their teams. Sakic is the heart and soul of this team, and he is a big reason the Avalanche made a late-season run at a playoff appearance.
"Joe never panicked, never screamed at anybody," forward Ian Laperriere says. "Guys would look at him and think, ‘He's not panicking, so we must be all right.' I've seen leaders stand up and point fingers, but he's the opposite. He goes out there, and in the back of his head he's thinking, ‘If I do my job, the guys will follow.' That's a real kind of leader. You play with just a few in your career, and we're lucky to play with a guy like that."
Had Laperriere played with Sakic 10 years ago, things wouldn't be much different. While people might be wondering what elixir Sakic has been using to be so productive in the twilight of his career, there is no magic potion.
"I haven't changed anything from 10 years ago," he says
No, but he has changed some things since coming into the league back in 1988. Sakic was 19 when he broke into the NHL, but realized early on, that he needed to take better care of his body. This is why, at 37, he is fit and able to skate like a 27-year-old.
"It was my fourth, fifth year, it started to take off," Sakic says of his conditioning. "When you're young, you just play. You don't think about anything. You don't look to the end. When I was young, older players would talk about how time plays, and all of a sudden you're at the end. When you're young, you don't believe them. When you look back, it's gone by pretty quick."
Sakic's definitely on the back nine of his career, but he's not ready to hang up his skates. He recently signed a one-year contract for the 2007-08 season, which will be his 19th NHL season and 15th straight as the franchise's captain. Sakic has said he wants only to sign one-year contracts so he can decide every summer if he wants to play another year. Based on his performance this year, he could play into his 40s without a drop-off.
"He'll play as long as he wants to play, and I think he'll be effective as long as he wants to play," Quenneville says. "There's a commitment to how he wants to play in the season and the summer."
That commitment doesn't go unnoticed by his teammates.
"Usually, guys with skills like that will let themselves go and play with their skills only, but he puts a lot of effort in the gym, stretching, things like that," Laperriere says. "You hear rumors how hard he works, but when you see it, on the road, at home, he'll find a gym to do his stuff. It's really impressive. At 37, it's unbelievable."
Laperriere's not the only one who admires Sakic's commitment to conditioning.
"He takes care of himself better than any player I've ever played with," says Andrew Brunette, who skated on Sakic's line this year. "He's such a competitive guy that he rises to every challenge. For him, if there was a letdown, I don't think he'd be playing anymore. He seems to be playing the best he's ever played."
It has showed in every aspect of his game, and it's something that trickles down to the rest of the team. The Avalanche follows Sakic's lead, and it's a lead-by-example style, not a vocal leadership style.
"I'm not a talker in the dressing room," Sakic says. "What needs to be said, needs to be said. Just get ready to play."
For young guys like Wojtek Wolski and Paul Stastny, Sakic's demeanor has allowed them to be successful in their rookie years.
"He makes sure everyone's loose in the locker room," Stastny says. "When guys are down, he's making sure you keep our head forward."
That was particularly important in the last six weeks of the regular season, when the Avalanche went from mediocre to playoff contenders. Sakic led the way, including an incredible stretch from March 14 through April 3 when he had eight goals and 10 assists to keep Colorado's postseason hopes alive.
"When you look at his career, consistency is one of the things he prides himself on," Quenneville says. "The best thing about Joe all year is how consistent he was."
As strong as that stretch was, it wasn't surprising. Sakic has played like that throughout his career - he now has six 100-point seasons - and Brunette remembers that well from the time he played against Sakic in the 2003 playoffs.
"You couldn't stop him," says Brunette, who played for Minnesota that year. "He has that uncanny ability to get his shot off at the right time. Peter (Forsberg) was such a great player, but he was a little more predictable than Joe. Joe's so unpredictable, you never know what he's going to do next. I don't think you can devise a plan to stop him."
Not many teams have, even when he was the focus of their defensive game plan.
"He has that quick shot, he sees the ice unbelievably, and he can pass wherever he wants," Hejduk says. "His main thing is that great shot or beating goalies with that quickness."
That great shot has been leading the Avalanche deep in the playoffs for a decade. Now, late in his career, with a league MVP, a playoff MVP and two Stanley Cup rings on his mantel, Sakic is a sure-bet Hall-of-Famer. From here on out, every time Sakic steps on the ice he is chasing history. He ended the season ninth on the all-time scoring list and knocking on the door of the top 10 in goals and assists.
But that's not what will keep Sakic coming back. It's the passion for the game, not milestones.
"I don't really think about it," Sakic says. "You just try to play well."