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Sakic was no ordinary Joe

by Rick Sadowski
DENVER -- What a privilege it has been to watch Joe Sakic, who during his 13 seasons with the Colorado Avalanche proved that nice guys really can finish first.

The 40-year-old center, who Thursday officially announced his retirement, accomplished that feat on numerous occasions. He won Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001, an Olympic gold medal for Canada in 2002 -- when he also was named the tournament's most valuable player -- and won gold medals in the 2004 World Cup, the 1994 World Championships and the 1988 World Junior Championships

Sakic, who began his NHL career in 1988-89 with the Quebec Nordiques, leaves as the eighth-highest scorer in League history with 1,641 points; No. 11 in assists with 1,016; and No. 14 in goals with 625.

Only four players -- Gordie Howe, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Wayne Gretzky -- collected more points with one franchise.

A clutch playoff performer, Sakic ranks seventh in League history in career goals (84) and points (188), and his eight overtime goals in the postseason are a record.

Big-time numbers? Absolutely. They would have been even more impressive had injuries not limited Sakic to a combined 56 games during what proved to be his final two seasons.

Sakic owned a wicked wrist shot, skating speed and an uncanny ability to make the right play whenever it was needed most, and he surely will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in three years.

Sakic's place in hockey history is assured, and he'll go down as one of the most popular sports figures in Colorado history -- right along with former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.

Yet as brilliant as he could be on the ice, I'll remember Sakic as much for being so humble, for his professionalism, his class and his easy-going nature.

Remember when Sakic graciously handed the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque following the Avalanche's Game 7 victory against New Jersey in the 2001 Final? After being presented with the Cup by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, Sakic immediately gave it to Bourque, who hoisted the silver chalice for the first time in his career.

He was an ordinary Joe doing extraordinary things.

In an era when so many superstars seem to cherish garnering headlines in the newspapers or face time on television, Sakic steered clear of the public eye as much as possible and preferred to spend quality family time with his wife Debbie and their three children.

He often joked with reporters about his "Quoteless Joe" nickname, a reference to his reputation for frequently giving bland responses to questions. Call him a quiet captain, yet he was dead honest when discussing his play or that of his team after a game -- though he'd never point a finger at anyone but himself following a loss.

Sakic never felt comfortable talking about himself or any of his accomplishments. "Guess I've just managed to play for a long time," became a standard response to queries about an approaching milestone, leaving it up to others to expound on his greatness.

He considered himself "just one of the guys," and enjoyed exchanging friendly barbs with teammates, as well as media members.

Sakic never sought publicity for himself, but he did like drawing attention to his annual golf tournament to benefit one of his favorite charities, Food Bank of the Rockies.

Last August, after deciding to return for a 20th NHL season, Sakic held an impromptu news conference before teeing off at The Sanctuary in Sedalia, Colo., where his tournament has raised funds through the years to provide millions of meals for needy children in the Denver area.

"We feel so privileged and blessed," he said. "We get to play a game for a living, and we do well (financially) at it. We're in the spotlight. Whether you like it or not, you're in the spotlight and you want to do what's right, and what's right is to give back when you're so fortunate to have what you have. It's important to give back to the people that really need your help."

The Sakics have been heavily involved in charitable causes since arriving in Colorado in 1995, and that isn't about to change.

But it sure will seem odd next season when the Avalanche skates onto the ice without No. 19 leading the way.

Wishing we could say it ain't so, Captain Joe.
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