Skip to main content

Body unwilling, Sakic decides it is time to move on

by Rick Sadowski
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – In a perfect world, Joe Sakic would be preparing to play a 21st NHL season and eager to skate in the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, where he was born.

Neither will happen.

Convinced that physical limitations would prevent him from performing at the exceptional level to which he has played throughout his career, the longtime Colorado Avalanche captain officially announced his retirement Thursday, adding that he wouldn't be able to fulfill that Olympics dream.

"I thought this was going to be a lot easier," an emotional Sakic said during a jam-packed news conference at the Inverness Hotel. "You know there comes a time when every athlete … has to decide when it's time to move on."

Sakic, who turned 40 on Tuesday, choked back tears and paused several times during his opening remarks while sitting beside his wife Debbie, Avalanche executives Pierre Lacroix and Greg Sherman and Sakic's longtime agent, Don Baizley.

"I couldn't sleep (Wednesday) night," Sakic said. "I was nervous about falling apart during my speech. (But) it feels good. I know I'm going to miss the game, but I'm at the point where I'm very comfortable with my decision. I'm ready to move onto the next chapter in my life."

Several present and former Avalanche players were in attendance, as was Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who sat in the front row and eventually spoke at the podium to praise Sakic for exhibiting "integrity, grace and humility" on and off the ice.

Sakic began his NHL career in 1988-89 with the Quebec Nordiques, who moved to Denver in time for the 1995-96 season and were renamed the Avalanche.

Nordiques and Avalanche jerseys bearing Sakic's name, his captain's "C" and No. 19 were on display, along with the 14 Avalanche banners – the most prominent commemorating Stanley Cup championships from 1996 and 2001 – that usually hang from the Pepsi Center rafters.

Sakic's jersey will join the banners in the Pepsi Center rafters when it is retired in the Avalanche's home opener in October at a date that has yet to be finalized.

"It's never easy to see somebody that not only you grew up watching but had a chance to be roommates with, to play with, to consider a friend, to see them call it a career," Avalanche defenseman John-Michael Liles said. "At the same time, Joe has not made too many wrong decisions in his career, whether on the ice or off the ice.

"If Joe thinks it's time to call it a career, then I'm going to go with Joe and say he's probably right on that. It's disappointing that he's not going to be around the room in a player role, but you have a lot of respect for the way he carried himself for the last 20 years."

Highlights of Sakic's career were shown during a 10-minute video presentation that included a teen-aged wunderkind skating for the Swift Current Broncos in the Western Hockey League.

"We're here to celebrate the brilliant career of our captain, the face of our franchise for the past two decades," said Lacroix, who gave up a lucrative player-agent business to become Quebec's general manager in 1994 and now serves as Colorado's president. "His contributions have been invaluable and his achievements speak for themselves."

Lacroix, who is using a cane to get around as he recovers from knee replacement surgery, said Sakic told him a few weeks ago of his decision to retire but asked the Avalanche to hold off on breaking the news until Lacroix's health improved.

Lacroix said Sakic told him, "I want you to be there and I want this to be the best for you."

Lacroix paused to wipe away tears. "Here we are, no walker," he said. "That showed a lot of class. It showed the person he truly is."

Sakic leaves as the owner of practically every offensive record in franchise history and sits eighth on the NHL's all-time list for points (1,641), 11th in assists (1,016) and 14th in goals (625). He scored 30 or more goals nine times, ranks seventh for playoff goals (84) and points (188), and holds the League record for overtime goals in postseason play with eight.

A first-round selection (15th overall) of the Nordiques in the 1987 NHL entry draft, Sakic won the Hart and Lady Byng Trophies and the Lester B. Pearson Award in 2001, and the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1996.

Sakic represented Canada in three Olympic Games, won a gold medal in 2002 when he was named the tournament's most valuable player and he captained the 2006 squad.

"I've been fortunate to play with great teams, and this stuff doesn't happen unless you're surrounded by great players," he said. "We've had great players here, Hall of Famers, legends of the game. You can't do that without them."

Aside from the Stanley Cups and Olympic gold medal, Sakic said the Avalanche's once mean-spirited rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings was a personal highlight.

"I am so grateful that I had a chance to be a part of it," he said. "That was the best hockey I've been a part of. For six or seven years we had that rivalry and you could not wait to play each other. You didn't like each other, but I think both teams had the ultimate respect for one another."

If only Sakic had managed to remain healthy in the twilight of his career, he might have amassed even more hardware.  He missed 38 games in 2007-08 to recover from surgery for a sports hernia and played in just 15 games last season because of a herniated disc in his back followed by a snow blower accident in which he damaged three fingers.

Sakic wanted to return to the lineup late last year even though the Avalanche was hopelessly out of playoff contention, but his body didn't allow it to happen.

"When I hurt my back, I kind of had an idea that this probably would be my last year," he said. "I tried real hard to come back and see if I could do it, but over the summer you have to face reality and I just didn't think that I could be the player that I want to be.

"I always said to myself that if I thought I slipped and (could) not be the player that I want to be, then it was time for me to go."

So rather than cash a paycheck while playing below his standards, Sakic made the difficult decision to give up the game he has played since his childhood years in Burnaby, B.C.

Defenseman Adam Foote had an inkling after last season that his close friend wouldn't be returning.

"I was concerned with his injuries," he said, "but I never truly wanted to believe that this day would ever come. The season before the (2004-05) lockout, I remember Rob Blake, Joe and I were talking about what a great group of guys we have, what a great run we've been on, that we hoped it would last forever. It goes quick."
"I couldn’t sleep (Wednesday) night.  I was nervous about falling apart during my speech. (But) it feels good. I know I’m going to miss the game, but I’m at the point where I’m very comfortable with my decision. I’m ready to move onto the next chapter in my life." -- Joe Sakic

Sakic's absence leaves a huge void on an Avalanche team that has missed the playoffs twice in the past three years and since the 2008-09 season ended has undergone a drastic change in management, coaching and player personnel.

"We're going to miss him," Foote said. "You can't replace Joe Sakic. Now we'll all try and do what we can to make him proud."

For now, Sakic will spend time with his wife Debbie and their three children. He'll coach some youth hockey and play plenty of golf.

"We'll love it, the kids especially, to have Dad home," Debbie said. "We've already planned our first fall break trip."

Sakic said he has no desire to coach on a professional level but is interested in learning the business side of hockey.

"I won't have an active role right now, but I'll follow Pierre around and learn what to do," he said, laughing.

Paul Stastny spent the past three seasons soaking up as much knowledge as he could from Sakic and will take over the reins as the Avalanche's top center.

"Just to have been there for a couple years, it's been an honor," said Stastny, whose dad Peter played with Sakic in Quebec. "You learn so much from Joe, on and off the ice. I respect him so much as a player and more importantly as a person, the way he handles himself. It's been an honor to get to know him and to play with him."

View More

The NHL uses cookies, web beacons, and other similar technologies. By using NHL websites or other online services, you consent to the practices described in our Privacy Policy and Terms of Service, including our Cookie Policy.