Of all the things Joe Sakic accomplished in his hockey-playing career – two Stanley Cup championships, Olympic gold medal – the scene that most people remember is a pass. More precisely, a handoff. It happened on June 9, 2001, the night the Colorado Avalanche won their second Stanley Cup championship in five years.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman presented Sakic, the Avalanche captain, with the Stanley Cup. They posed for a moment on the red carpet, then Sakic turned and handed the Cup to Raymond Bourque, so he could be the first to raise the Cup over his head. Bourque had never won the Stanley Cup in a 22-year career. Sakic had, five years earlier. It could have been his moment again. Instead, he made it Bourque’s moment.
“And that speaks to the unselfishness of Joe Sakic,” reflected Rob Blake, who played with Sakic on both Stanley Cup and Olympic championship teams. “To be that great a player, you have to be very secure in yourself and in the way you play. I remember they talked about it at the back of the bus the night before Game 7 and I think Joe gave him a head’s-up, that if we were fortunate enough to win the Stanley Cup, he would let Ray take it. That’s one of the greatest Stanley Cup photos – of Ray with the Cup – and that’s directly a result of Joe.
“The other thing about Joe is, he played with a lot of superstars,” Blake added. “Not every superstar is so welcome to having other superstars with them, because they might not get as much power-play time or stuff like that. But if you look at the history of the Avalanche, never was that ever a question with Joe. Whether it be Patrick Roy or Adam Foote or Peter Forsberg or Bourque or [Valeri] Kamensky, [Theo] Fleury – you name all these guys who they added in deadline deals, never once was there a question of who the main guy on that team was.
“It was always Joe’s team.”
Quiet and self-effacing, Sakic will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday at the head of the class of 2012, the No. 9 scorer in NHL history, a two-time champion and perhaps most importantly to Canadians, the most valuable player of the 2002 Winter Olympic men’s tournament, in which Canada won its first gold medal in 50 years.
The 2002 tournament was a seminal event that started badly for Canada, but improved as the team grew together. Sakic ended up centring two young kids – Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagné – and on the day they knocked off the previously undefeated American team, on home ice in Salt Lake City, he had a four-point day, including the game-winning goal. His influence was critical, even if it was sometimes overlooked in all the Lucky Loonie hubbub afterward.
“All the other talk was about Mario [Lemieux] or Iginla’s goals or [Wayne] Gretzky in the background, and that’s how Joe wanted it,” Blake said. “He just went out there and was the best player he could be and was so obviously very important to us.
“He was a difference maker in all the right ways – preparation-wise, a good team guy, a captain, a leader and clutch. When you needed a big goal or a big game out of someone to change things around, he was it. And then ultimately, a guy who can lead you to a championship. There are guys that have different aspects of that, but only a select few have all those attributes. In my time, Joe Sakic and Steve Yzerman are the two that fit that bill.”
Pinpointing a career highlight is difficult for Sakic, but gold in 2002 along with Stanley Cups in 1996 and 2001 feature more prominently than the individual accolades that came his way – a Conn Smythe, a Hart Trophy, a Lady Byng and a Lester Pearson award.
Colorado won its first championship in 1995-96, after relocating from Quebec, where Sakic spent the first seven years of his career.
“For me, Quebec was a great place to start,” Sakic said. “If you’re a young player and want to go into a hockey environment, there weren’t many places better than Quebec City.
Sakic was the 15th player chosen overall in the 1987 entry draft by the Nordiques, slipping that far back because of the perception that his size might hinder him as a pro. The 11 players chosen directly ahead of him were, in order: Wayne McBean, Chris Joseph, Dave Archibald, Luke Richardson, Jimmy Waite, Bryan Fogarty, Jay More, Yves Racine, Keith Osborne, Dean Chynoweth and Stéphane Quintal. If the scouts had mixed views about his future, Sakic, drafted from the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League, never gave it much thought.
“I knew I always wanted to play hockey,” he said. “I never really thought about the future. I just thought about in the moment. I just played. Growing up, you get to midget age and I got listed by the Lethbridge Broncos, so your focus is, just get through that.
“I never thought, ‘If I don’t make it, what am I going to do?’ I just thought, ‘I’m in Swift now, play the year out.’ Halfway through my first year, you look and you’re on the Central Scouting board. It’s great. After that, you get drafted. So it happened really quick and I just went with it. I was living out my dream, wherever it took me.”
Sakic works as a consultant for the Avalanche now, assisting general manager Greg Sherman and assistant GM Eric Lacroix. His first two years after retiring, he immersed himself in his children’s lives
“My daughter’s in gymnastics, I’m the assistant coach of both boys’ hockey teams. My oldest is 16. He’s playing for his high-school team. My little guy is on a travelling team. Right now, with the kids at this age, the twins are 12, Mitchell’s 16, we’re always with them and I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.
“But hockey is my whole life. Everything I have is because of hockey. Even though I’m not playing, it feels like the norm to go to the rink and still be part of it. I don’t think that’s ever going to leave me. I think hockey’s too important for me ever to want to walk away from it.”