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Avalanche adjusting to life without Joe

by Rick Sadowski /
DENVER -- Enter the Colorado Avalanche dressing room, make a hard right and walk past five lockers. There it is, in the corner, an empty stall. No name plate, no uniform, no equipment.

This was Joe Sakic's hockey home since the 1999-2000 season, when the Avalanche moved from McNichols Sports Arena to the new building.

Now, it's a sort of shrine to the future Hall of Famer, a vivid reminder that he really did retire on July 9.

Ryan O'Reilly, an 18-year-old rookie who was born three years after Sakic made his NHL debut with the Quebec Nordiques in 1988, has been given the locker stall next to where the former Avalanche captain once sat.

"It's pretty cool that one of the greatest players ever to play hockey sat in the stall beside me," O'Reilly told "Maybe (his spirit) will rub off on me."

Once a perennial Stanley Cup contender, the Avalanche are embarking on a new era that includes a new management team, new coaching staff, and nine players who weren't on the opening night roster a year ago.

Sakic's absence is the most conspicuous, and veterans like new captain Adam Foote and Milan Hejduk are still getting used to the notion that his playing days have ended.

"Very strange," said Foote, who at age 38 has succeeded Sakic as the team's elder statesman. "But I think what he left will always be in the room. I mean, he created it. The way he carried himself in the room will always be here. His calmness, his professionalism, his work ethic … that's what we want to continue. Not just myself, but all of us together want to continue how this room acted, how this room carried itself on the ice.

"What he did during his stay -- not just here in Colorado, it started in Quebec -- that'll stay here forever."

Among Sakic's accomplishments in 20 NHL seasons: 625 goals and 1,016 assists in 1,378 regular-season games; 84 goals and 104 assists in 172 playoff games; Hart and Conn Smythe Trophies, and two Stanley Cups.

Extraordinary deeds, to be sure, but Sakic's quiet leadership and professionalism also were instrumental in the team's success over the years.

"He was such a tremendous player, but at the same time he was a great guy in the locker room," defenseman John-Michael Liles said. "He was one of the guys that liked to joke around as much as anybody. That's probably something that a lot of people don't know. Obviously we miss him. We've seen him around a little bit and hopefully he'll start rolling in a little bit more once the season gets going.

"Unfortunately, you can't play the game forever."

Sakic will be present Thursday when the Avalanche opens regular-season play against the San Jose Sharks. His No. 19 sweater will be retired and hoisted to the Pepsi Center rafters in a pregame ceremony.

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter has proclaimed the day as "Joe Sakic Day" throughout the state and Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper announced that 19th Street downtown will be named "Joe Sakic Way" through Oct. 19.

"Joe Sakic is one of the greatest hockey players of all time," Hickenlooper said. "Joe's contributions to the Avalanche and to our community through his work with Food Bank of the Rockies and other charities make him a true hometown hero."

Sakic already has been presented with a smaller version of the street sign.

"Joe was the face of the franchise for such a long time," Milan Hejduk said. "Obviously everyone will miss Joe -- the fans, us -- in the locker room and off the ice. But what can you do? If it's time, it's time. We all have to retire at some point. It is a different feeling. The main guy, the key guy, is gone. But after a while, you'll get used to it. It'll be fun to see him honored. He certainly has earned it."

Every team eventually loses a star player to retirement, a trade or free agency. The Avalanche has seen a gaggle of marquee names depart in recent years, including Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque and Rob Blake.

"Now we lose maybe the best one in Joey," Foote said. "For sure it's going to affect your room. We're not going to try and fool ourselves and say it's not, but it forces other guys to step up. We'll need that.

"Selfishly, we wish he was here. But Joey earned the right to decide about his future. Some people looked at it as a sad day, but it was a great day because his career should be celebrated."

Center Paul Stastny, 23 and entering his fourth season in Colorado, remembers hanging out in the Nordiques dressing room when his dad, Peter Stastny, was playing there and Sakic was a young rookie.

"I've been lucky to have known him for such a long time," he said. "We were just really fortunate to have him for so many years."

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