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100 Greatest Players

Joe Sakic: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Captained Avalanche to two Stanley Cup titles, had decorated career with Canada

by Wayne Coffey / Special to NHL.com

Midway through March of 1974, the Atlanta Flames were in the final stretch of a pedestrian season. The Flames had a big-name coach, Bernie Geoffrion, and a promising young center, Tom Lysiak, but it's not as if they were a major attraction when they visited the Vancouver Canucks on a Monday night at Pacific Coliseum.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the evening was the impact it had one of the young fans in attendance, a kid from nearby Burnaby, British Columbia. He was at the game with his father, Marijan, who had immigrated to Canada from his native Croatia.

The 4-year-old was mesmerized by the speed and the action and the shimmering ice.

 

Video: Joe Sakic captained Avalanche to two Stanley Cup wins

 

"I couldn't tell you who won that game (the Canucks won 3-0), but I just remember after that night thinking I wanted to be a hockey player," Joe Sakic said about four decades and almost 1,400 NHL games later, after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.

Far from the biggest kid on the ice, the 5-foot-11 Sakic grew up emulating his hockey hero, Wayne Gretzky, and didn't take long to make a big impression of his own. In his first full season in juniors, 1986-87, Sakic played for Swift Current of the Western Hockey League, piling up 133 points (60 goals, 73 assists) in 72 games and being named WHL Rookie of the Year, even while surviving tragedy; the team bus hit a patch of black ice on an early-season road trip on the Trans-Canada Highway, careening off of an overpass and landing on its side, killing four young players.

Sakic didn't speak publicly about the horrific accident for more than 20 years, until doing an interview with Roy MacGregor of The Globe and Mail.

 

JOE SAKIC CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,378 | Goals: 625 | Assists: 1,016 | Points: 1,641

 

"You never do forget," Sakic said. "They say time heals, and it does, but you remember everything. You never forget."

Having survived the crash unscathed, Sakic tried to understand and deal with his grief, just as all of the survivors did. Sakic said there was no thought of canceling the season.

"The best thing for us was to get back on the ice," Sakic said. "Once you start playing again, for those few hours you can take your mind off it. You just focus on playing hockey."

Sakic did precisely that, and did it brilliantly, especially the following season, when he hiked his point total to 160 (78 goals, 82 assists) and was named Canadian Hockey League Player of the Year, going to the Quebec Nordiques with the No. 15 pick in the 1987 NHL Draft.

By the time Sakic got to Quebec in 1988-89, the Nordiques were in steep decline -- they won 12 games in his second season and 16 in his third -- but Sakic wasted no time emerging as one of the NHL's top young centers, scoring 102 and 109 points, respectively, in those seasons, earning high praise for his two-way work ethic, his unselfishness and a renowned wrist shot that was honed over years and years by one of hockey's most noted rink rats.

"I would shoot pucks for hours, from all kinds of different positions," Sakic told The Denver Post. "It became something that I had to do every day, right to the end of my career. If I ever missed a day of that, I would stress out shooting."

He also distinguished himself as an exemplary leader, not because of his verbal flourishes but because of the way he worked and his unstinting commitment to the team. By age 23, Sakic was already the Nordiques captain, a central part of a turnaround that made the Nordiques a 47-victory team by 1992-93, progress that would ramp up dramatically three seasons later.

That was when the franchise relocated to the Rocky Mountains, became known as the Colorado Avalanche and brought Denver its first major pro sports championship when the Avalanche swept the Florida Panthers in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Nobody had more to do with the outcome than Sakic, who had 34 points (18 goals, 16 assists) in 22 postseason games and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

Sakic's contributions as captain weren't as tangible, but were just as important, as he relayed in Ross Bernstein's book "Wearing the C: Leadership Secrets of Hockey's Greatest Captains."

 "It's an honor, but it's also a big responsibility," Sakic said. "As captain, you're sort of the mediator between the coaching staff and the players. You spend a lot of time relaying messages back and forth each way, which adds a whole other element to your job in addition to just playing.

 "When they name you the captain, they're doing so for a reason. They like the way you approach the game and what you bring to the table. Every captain is different, and each one has his own style. As for my style, I just tried to be myself. I was more of a quieter kind of a guy, I suppose, probably more of a lead-by-example type of captain."

Sakic was the sort of superstar who not only didn't seek out glory and acclaim for himself, but went out of his way to spread it to others. When the Avalanche captured their second Stanley Cup title five years after the first one, one of the most enduring images was of Sakic being handed the Stanley Cup by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, then immediately turning it over to teammate Ray Bourque, who had waited 22 NHL seasons for that moment.

That 2000-2001 season would be the pinnacle of Sakic's NHL career. His 118 points (54 goals, 64 assists) and 12 game-winning goals helped him with the Hart Trophy as League MVP, and his class helped him win the Lady Bing Trophy as the league's most gentlemanly player.

One year later, Sakic was back at it, leading Canada to the Olympic gold medal with a victory over the United States in the finale of the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Sakic was named tournament MVP, and it was no surprise to Canada's coach, Pat Quinn.

"I will always remember how outstanding he was," Quinn said. "You are scared sometimes -- as a coach, you are scared about things in the game -- but I remember thinking I was never going to take Joe off the ice. He was making the right decision all the time. He scored two big goals. He was just the outstanding player on the ice."

Winning had a way of following Joe Sakic around. A very small club of players can claim to have won the Stanley Cup twice along with a gold medal at the World Junior Championship, World Championship and Olympics, and have won the World Cup of Hockey.

About the only thing that didn't work out as Sakic had hoped was when the Winter Games came to his backyard, Vancouver, in 2010. At age 40, Sakic had missed most of the previous two seasons because of back injuries and a snowblower accident that cost him even more time.

"I always said to myself that the minute I thought I'd slipped, and not be the player I wanted to be, it was time for me to go," Sakic said.

He wasn't going to hang around just to have a ceremonial role in the Vancouver Games, much as it meant to him to play. The Avalanche retired Sakic's No. 19 before the 2009-10 season opener. He finished his 20-season career with 625 goals and 1,641 points -- leaving him behind only Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux -- in 1,378 games.

Sakic's 2012 Hall of Fame class included Pavel Bure, Adam Oates and former Nordiques teammate Mats Sundin. It was another former teammate, though -- Peter Stastny -- who might've summarized Joe Sakic's career better than anyone.

"He was a complete player," Stastny said, "and one of the greatest in history."

 

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