By Michael Kelly - Special to ColoradoAvalanche.com
When Joe Sakic was four years old he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Sitting in the rafters at a Vancouver Canucks game, the young boy from Burnaby, British Columbia, was mesmerized by the game. Right then, he knew he found his calling.
“The only thing I wanted to do after that was to become a hockey player,” Sakic said. “I thank God that I was able to do that.”
So are Colorado Avalanche fans. Thursday afternoon, Sakic, the franchise’s greatest player, said goodbye to his playing career at a press conference that was emotionally hard and a celebration of his NHL career.
It was a tribute to the man who took the Avalanche/Quebec Nordiques franchise out of irrelevance to one of the most respected organizations in the NHL. Sakic led the Avalanche to two Stanley Cup championships, in 1996 and 2001, and he did it with incredible skill, quiet leadership and class that put him in a league by himself.
“The contributions have been invaluable and his achievements speak for themselves,” Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix
The people that came to celebrate Sakic’s illustrious career spoke of his talent, but they also praised him as a person. Sakic has always carried himself with professionalism that set him apart. He was a selfless player who never considered himself bigger than the team – even though there were many times he seemed to be.
When the Avalanche won their second Stanley Cup in 2001, the spotlight was on Ray Bourque, who came to Colorado in search of a championship to cap his Hall-of-Fame career. After the Avalanche’s 3-1 win over New Jersey in Game 7, Sakic took the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman and before hoisting the chalice himself, he gave it to Bourque to do the honors.
“It was one of the NHL’s most memorable moments that united the entire hockey world,” defenseman Adam Foote said.
To Sakic, it was the logical thing to do.
“I thought the best thing to do was give it to him,” said Sakic, who, fittingly, won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship that year. “Like Adam said, he was itching for it.”
That single act struck a chord with not only the hockey world, but the sports world overall. It also left an indelible mark with Bourque.
“He was a true professional and an exceptional athlete, but what I will remember most about him is that he represents one of the classiest people I have been around in my career,” Bourque said.
What made Sakic so special was he treated everyone with respect, whether it was a superstar or a rookie.
“In training camp my rookie year I was quiet and just worked,” defenseman John-Michael Liles said. “After a couple of exhibition games Joe pulled me aside and said, ‘You’ve been playing unbelievably. Keep it up.’ I called my family back home and told them, ‘You’ll never guess who just complimented me.’”
That’s the kind of leader Sakic was throughout his career. Other players might get loud, but Sakic forced the rest of the team to follow by working hard.
He also made them believe in him with his play. He never took a shift off, and when the game was on the line, he was at his best, which is why he has an NHL-record eight overtime goals in the playoffs.
“You’ve got to love being in that moment,” Sakic said. “In overtime, that’s when it’s the most fun to play. You love being in the dressing room, getting ready for an overtime. There’s nothing like it in sports. You go until someone scores. Those are the moments you want to be a part of.”
There were times when Sakic simply refused to let the Avalanche lose. When Peter Forsberg was lost for the final two rounds of the 2001 playoffs, experts wrote off Colorado’s chances at the title. Sakic set the tone for the Western Conference Finals by scoring on a penalty shot in Game 1, and then he finished off St. Louis with an overtime goal in Game 5.
In the Stanley Cup Finals, his hit on New Jersey’s bruising defenseman Scott Stevens early in the series let the Devils know the Avalanche wouldn’t be pushed around.
Those things don’t show up in the record books, but his numbers sure do. He’s 14th all-time in goals (625), 11th in assists (1,016) and his 1,641 points ranks him eighth in NHL history. Sakic won the Hart Trophy as league MVP in 2001, the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP in 1996 and was the MVP for the 2002 Olympics when he led Canada to the gold medal for the first time in 50 years. Moreover, he and Gordie Howe are the only players to have 100-point seasons after turning 37.
His place in history is secure, and while that is important, it’s not how Sakic wants to be remembered most. No, the man who for 20 years dazzled teammates and opponents with his incredible skill wants to be known for being a good father to Mitchell, Chase and Kamryn, and a good husband to his wife, Debbie.
“I’d like to be remembered one way,” he said. “A good family guy and someone who did everything he could and worked hard to be consistent.”
Thirty six years after Sakic fell in love with hockey, he walks away from his playing career. He earned a lot of respect from opponents and teammates – the number of former, current and future Avalanche players on hand for his farewell press conference showed how special he is – and when his No. 19 is retired on opening night this October, it will be the standard all other Avalanche captains will try to follow.
“I’ll always have great memories for things you did,” Foote said. “Thanks for the 20 years you committed. We’re blessed with a wealth of memories.”