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eric duhatschek

Half a world away from Denver, where Joe Sakic was making official his retirement after a distinguished 20-year NHL career, Peter Stastny was on the telephone from Brussels and in a mood to reminisce.

Stastny is uniquely positioned to discuss Sakic's life and times in professional hockey because he was there at the beginning, when Sakic arrived in Quebec as an 18-year-old first-round draft choice. Stastny was also close by at the end, keeping tabs on the Colorado Avalanche team where his son, Paul, was an up-and-coming star.

That the arc of a professional career can come full circle in that way was not lost on Stastny, who noted of playing with Sakic: "It was fun, a pleasure, an honour, and I love the fact that I was passing the torch to him and then he was passing the torch on to my son.

"I remember when we played together in Quebec, we had a great power play - Joe on the right point, [Michel]Goulet, me and Guy Lafleur. Pretty good, eh?"

Pretty good, all right.

"And do you know what was fun? When Paul came to Colorado, Joe asked specifically to play with him on the power play. Certain players, at certain levels, have great instincts. When Joe played with Guy Lafleur, Lafleur was at the end of his career, but it was still fantastic.

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"You can communicate, your instincts are on the same wavelength. Joe sensed the same thing in Paul.

"And for a time," Stastny continued, "at the start of the year two years ago, when Paul was a rookie, their power play was second or third in the NHL. Then Joe got injured, and it was completely destroyed, they dropped to the bottom three."

Sakic missed 38 games in that second-to-last season, mostly recovering from a sports hernia operation injury. However, he was back in the lineup for the final month and led the Avs to a first-round upset of the Minnesota Wild, a series in which Sakic scored his NHL record eighth playoff overtime goal.

Sakic came back at the start of last year, heartened by that strong finish. As recently as a year ago, he was convinced he could play until 2010 and perhaps represent Canada in the Olympics for the fourth time. Unhappily, injuries limited Sakic to only 15 games last season, and he said yesterday his retirement decision was strictly based on health.

"If it wasn't for my health, I'd be here with a different announcement," Sakic said. "I actually felt good at the start of the year. Then, when I hurt my back, I kind of had an idea that this would be my last year. I tried really hard to come back and play a few games and see if I could do it.

"But over the summer, you have to face reality. And I just didn't think I could be the player I wanted to be. I always said to myself, the minute I thought I'd slip and not be the player that I wanted to be, it was time for me to go."

Even though he was not known for presence in front of a microphone, Sakic gave a heartfelt 12-minute retirement speech, his voice breaking at different times as he acknowledged family, friends and former teammates and trainers. A long-time teammate, Adam Foote, was there to praise Sakic for one of his most selfless acts - handing off the Stanley Cup in 2001 to teammate Ray Bourque seconds after Sakic had received it himself from commissioner Gary Bettman. It was the only Stanley Cup of Bourque's career, and Foote put it pretty well: "That class act of yours might go down in history as one of the NHL's most memorable moments that united the entire hockey world."

The Avalanche will retire Sakic's No.19 at their home opener this year. Apart from the two Stanley Cups, Sakic also led Canada to a gold medal in Olympic hockey in 2002, ending a 50-year drought.

In 1989, following Sakic's first NHL season, Stastny remembers coaxing his young friend to play for Canada at the world championship in Italy, after another disappointing season with the rebuilding Nordiques.

"Last year, 20 years after, somebody was recalling that story and I said: 'See Joe, I personally helped you and Canada and everybody.' He said: 'You know, Peter, you didn't convince me. I was just afraid to say no to you.' I was cracking up, I was laughing so hard. I said: 'Well, it was for a good cause. I don't care if it was from fear, or from my convincing, as long as you went there.'

"It helped the hockey, it helped the country, I'm very proud of that."

He's proud of what Sakic accomplished the rest of the way too.

"You could see he was a real talent," Stastny said. "He had character. He was fearless. Because of who he was, I looked into his background. I remember one story I read, from junior, he needed five goals in the last game of the season [to win a scoring title] You know what? He scored five goals.

"That's a Gretzky-like quality, and there are not too many Gretzkys. When people expect something and it seems almost impossible, that's pressure. That's what makes you uptight. That's what makes you nervous and takes away from your potential. And he was one of the few, one of the rare, that could handle that, and he proved it in his whole career.

"Just having him in the [Colorado]dressing room made everybody better. They are going to miss him."

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