Joe Sakic didn’t remember who won the first NHL game he watched as an excited four-year-old at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum.
He only knew he wanted to come back.
“Sitting in the nosebleeds and watching (the Canucks) play the Atlanta Flames,” Sakic said. “Right after that, I just fell in love with hockey and wanted to play.”
There was a point about 30 years later when people wondered if he’d ever quit. Sakic played more than 1,500 games through 20 seasons and was in the top 10 of all NHL scorers when he retired. Against all odds, he did it with one franchise. Sakic became synonymous with the Colorado Avalanche after their move from Quebec and became the most accomplished Western-based player in league history behind Wayne Gretzky.
Those who knew him best were amazed he never stopped working at improving his game, even as he neared age 40.
He laboured on his left-hand wrist shot, learning to fire it from the right side of the ice.
“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.”
His father Marijan, a Croatian immigrant, instilled a strong work ethic in his son that helped him to a 133-point season with Swift Current in 1986-87. Many of those points came after the tragic December bus accident that killed four teammates. Sakic dealt with that trauma and the loss of his friends by becoming a leader by example. Drafted 15th overall by Quebec (the Nordiques used an earlier pick on Bryan Fogarty as one of six teams between 9th and 15th who looked past Sakic), he was instant gold with the exciting young team.
But when Sakic was first invited to play for Canada at the 1991 world championships, he saw his skating was not up to par on the larger European ice. When he became an early cut at Canada Cup training camp the same year, he dedicated himself to improve his speed, strength and stamina. He certainly impressed a newcomer to the Nords named Mats Sundin.
“Growing up in Sweden, you were not used to seeing a player (like) that, playing both ends. He did everything, not only scoring goals and putting points on the board ... he didn’t really have any weaknesses. For me, coming in as a forward and just being an offensive player, just to watch a player that cares about both ends of the ice and tries to improve every day really helped my career.”
From being worshipped as gods in Quebec, the team arrived in Denver as total strangers in 1995. The state governor mispronounced Sakic’s name at the introductory press conference. But within a year, he was leading the Avs to the first of two Stanley Cup and 10 straight years in the playoffs. In the ’96 Cup, he was the playoffs’ leading scorer and Conn Smythe winner. In 2001, he almost became the first double-winner of the Smythe and the Hart Trophy since Gretzky and the world saw his class act when he took the silver mug from Gary Bettman and quickly handed it to Cup-starved teammate Ray Bourque.
Sakic wasn’t colourful in the quote department, but people didn’t always see the fire that burned beneath. He hated to lose at anything.
“If you were playing pool with him and doing pretty well, but gave him one last shot, he’d eye that table like it was the Mona Lisa,” ex-teammate John-Michael Liles told the Post. “Then he’d go to work and often run the table.
“If you were playing golf, you had to watch it. I thought I had him, coming onto the 17th green with a lead and he hit into the bunker. But then he chips in and beats me on the last hole. We were only playing for less than $100, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it was just five bucks. He had to be the hardest worker every time.”
He came close to leaving the franchise a few times, once in Quebec as the Nords debated which of their young stable should be traded for veterans (Sundin went to the Leafs) and in ’97, when he signed a $21-million front-loaded offer sheet with the Rangers. Cash-strapped Colorado ownership somehow came up with the money to match. General manager Pierre Lacroix dangled Sakic to Tampa Bay in 1998 for the No. 1 draft pick that became Vince Lecavalier, but eventually decided Sakic was a better bet to fill the Avs’ new home, the Pepsi Center. The Rangers had strong interest again after the ’01 Cup, but the Avs tied him up long-term.
Sakic was captain of his team for 16 years. He appeared in three Olympic Games, earning most valuable player honours when the red and white ended its 50-year gold medal drought in Salt Lake City. That put him in the Triple Gold Club of players who have won the world championships, Olympics and Stanley Cup.
“I think you just try and push yourself so you can be the best that you could possibly be,” Sakic said. “A lot of great things have happened and I’m so grateful for that.”