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Sakic's success derived from leading by example

by Rick Sadowski
You can call him "Burnaby Joe" or "Super Joe" or "Quoteless Joe" or "Captain Joe" or "Ordinary Joe," but Colorado Avalanche center Joe Sakic hardly has been your average hockey player during a 20-season NHL career in which he has won just about every individual and team award imaginable -- two Stanley Cups, an Olympic gold medal, and a Hart and Conn Smythe Trophy among them.

Yet Sakic, a sure-fire Hall of Famer whenever he decides to hang up his skates, remains as humble and laid-back as ever, a person whose calm demeanor conceals a fierce competitive nature.

Aside from his obvious talent and rigorous work ethic, Avalanche teammates and players throughout the League are also respectful of Sakic because of the manner in which he carries himself -- with class and a touch of self-effacing humor.

Captains: Driven By Bridgestone will profile Sakic Tuesday night at 7:30 p.m. ET on NHL Network.

"Some stars, you're afraid of joking with them, but everybody looks up to Joe," Avalanche forward Ian Laperriere says. "He's not much of a talker, doing the big speech between periods. Once in a while he'll talk, but people listen more because he doesn't talk that much.

"He's not a guy who is going to break a stick in the middle of the ice and go nuts. He's more like, 'All right, we're sleeping right now. I'll do something special to wake up the team.' That shows great leadership."

Sakic, who turns 40 in July, has been wearing the coveted "C" on his sweater for 16 seasons, making him the longest serving active captain in the NHL. He was named to the position in 1992 at age 23 with the Quebec Nordiques, who moved to Denver three years later and were renamed the Avalanche.

"Certainly it's an honor, and you take pride in it," says Sakic, who also served as captain of Canada's Olympic team in 2006 and for the Western Conference squad at the 2007 NHL All-Star Game.

"Still, as a team, you need a lot of leaders to be successful. We had a young team in Quebec and when you're given that role at that age, you get a chance to learn over the years. You pick up pointers from everybody as you go along."

A captain is responsible for wearing a number of hats -- team leader, spokesman and social director -- while serving as a bridge between management/coaches and players. He's frequently the team's best player, which Sakic certainly has been for most of his NHL career.

"You're kind of the middle man," he says. "You talk to the coaches and management and you get a pulse of the team and things like that. They'll ask captains and the assistants to kind of watch over things in the dressing room."

Sakic hardly is an imposing specimen at 5-feet-11 and 195 pounds, but he's used deceptive speed, smarts and a wicked wrist shot to score 625 goals, 14th on the NHL's all-time list. He ranks eighth all time with 1,641 points and 11th with 1,016 assists.

"It was pretty challenging to play against him, but it was quite an honor to play with him," says Ray Bourque, who joined the Avalanche near the end of the 1999-2000 season and won his only Stanley Cup in 2001. "He's a classy man and I'll always be thankful that I had the opportunity to play with Joe to fulfill what was left for me to accomplish in my career -- win the Cup. He was a big part of that."

Unfortunately, injuries have limited Sakic to 15 games this season and he remains uncertain about his future. He hasn't played since a back injury forced him to leave a Nov. 28 game against Phoenix. Sakic underwent surgery Jan. 7 for a herniated disc, and he needed Dec. 11 surgery after suffering three broken fingers and tendon damage in a snowblower accident at his home.
"Some stars, you're afraid of joking with them, but everybody looks up to Joe. He's not much of a talker, doing the big speech between periods. Once in a while he'll talk, but people listen more because he doesn't talk that much." -- Ian Laperriere
Sakic has been skating and shooting pucks in non-contact drills, and he was hopeful of playing in at least one of the Avalanche's remaining regular-season games, even though the team has been eliminated from playoff contention.

"I'm a hockey player, and you want to play," Sakic says. "You play for pride, and you play when you're healthy to play. I'll decide the future in the summer. I'll need to take a couple months or a month or whatever it will be to decide."

Sakic acknowledged it would be "special" to play for Canada in the 2010 Olympics in his hometown of Vancouver, but he added: "I don't have any long-term thoughts right now about anything."

Nor has Sakic ever enjoyed discussing personal accomplishments. He even jokes about his reputation for giving bland responses to reporters' questions.

Yet teammates say he is quite the prankster in the privacy of the dressing room and is always approachable, even for the most nervous rookie.

"It was pretty nerve-wracking walking into the locker room for the first time and seeing guys like Joe, players that you grew up watching," second-year Avalanche forward David Jones recalls. "But they welcomed me with open arms, made me feel right at home from the very beginning."

Sakic and his family -- wife Debbie and their three children, Mitchell and twins Chase and Kamryn -- have adopted Denver as their home and they have become entrenched in the community. Joe and Debbie are heavily involved in charity work and have a special place in their hearts for Food Bank of the Rockies, which provides nutritious meals for the needy.

"We feel so privileged and blessed," Sakic says. "We get to play a game for a living, and we do well (financially) at it. 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."

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