2006 OLYMPICS: Sakic & Co. look to defend title
Joe Sakic is one of the best players the NHL has ever seen. That is a fact. He is the embodiment of all that a hockey player should be. But rest assured, he'd never tell you that.
Sakic's skills glare brightly as he skates upon the frozen glass that he has made his own. The most common phrase that comes to mind when seeing Sakic play is -- "How did he do that!?"
But what is not readily apparent is his demeanor inside the dressing room. While his own-ice play is an eloquent speech, he is a man of few words. But those words he chooses to use have led him to the captaincy of the Quebec Nordiques in 1992 -- a role he continues in Colorado -- and paved the way to help lead Team Canada in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy.
"I'm just hoping to get a gold medal, that's it," he said intensely. "We're only playing to defend our title and hopefully we can accomplish that. Obviously we want to play well."
Short and sweet, but to the point. Sakic doesn't need to say much.
"I'm quiet," he admits sheepishly, "but I try to say what needs to be said. Other than that, it's not my demeanor. I try to lead on the ice."
The notoriously soft-spoken, 17-season veteran who broke in with the Quebec Nordiques, has said a lot there. He recently surpassed Guy Lafleur on the NHL all-time goals list, moving up the list to No. 18 at 561 goals, by tallying two goals against the Calgary Flames on Jan. 24. He has won two Stanley Cups (1996, 2001) with the Avalanche, and has been adorned with enough hardware in gold medals (1994 World Championship, 2002 Olympics), and Hart, Lady Byng, and Lester Patrick trophies (2001), that he'll never need to step into a Home Depot again.
Through it all, he has kept grounded. He has stayed "Joe" -- the quiet leader his teammates and opponents respect.
"I've been very fortunate to play with him a couple of times in these tournaments," said Calgary Flames captain and Team Canada teammate, Jarome Iginla. "He's been a winner his whole career. He is one of the best players who has ever played the game -- a future Hall of Famer. But mostly, he's doesn't have any kind of an ego. He leads by example. He works every shift and he's very talented. He's going to be a great leader, and he already has been for Team Canada. He's just going to continue on."
Four years ago at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Sakic wore the "A" on his Team Canada Jersey. By the end of the competition he added the Most Valuable Player title to his resume after a domination showing in the 5-2 win against the Americans, that clinched the first gold medal for Canada in 50 years. He scored two goals -- including the game-winner -- and two assists. It is no wonder why Sakic, 36, was the unchallenged and expected choice to lead Team Canada in the Winter Olympics. With Mario Lemieux's and Steve Yzerman's absence from the games, it was always Sakic's turn. He's earned it, says Avalanche head coach Joel Quenneville.
"It was a great selection," said Quenneville, "for knowing Joe, and what he's meant to hockey in general. Joe has been tremendous in accomplishments not only for Team Canada, but for the Avalanche over the years. He's a great spokesperson. He's very quiet about his approach but what he says is important and meaningful. He is kind of low key, but he's pretty intense in his ways. He's very business-like. That's his nature."
In a business where NHL rivals must become fast friends on their Olympic teams, Sakic will be guiding a handful of Olympic newcomers, including Ottawa's Dany Heatley, Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, Columbus's Rick Nash, and Calgary's Robyn Regehr, through their first Olympic challenge. Though some aren't so friendly during regular season matchups, many have become fast friends, having played alongside each other at World Cup of Hockey, and World Championships tournaments. Sakic believes it will take no time at all for the team to bond.
Regehr, 25, is happy to be in the company of such "great and experienced players."
Sakic, the MVP of the 2002 Salt Lake Games, scored two goals, including the game-winner, and had two assists in the gold-medal contest.
"I know some people have questioned the leadership of the team over the last month, with Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux declining to play for the team, but there's a ton of guys like Joe Sakic, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, and Marty Brodeur who have a ton of NHL playoff experience. He's (Sakic) as respected as a guy can get in this League and it's a great opportunity for a young player like myself to go over there and be a part of it all."
When asked about Team Canada's roster -- whose goaltending is second to none with Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, and Marty Turco -- what chance, if any, other teams can possibly have against the Team Canada powerhouse, Sakic is modest and diplomatic.
"It doesn't matter what it looks like," he explained. "There are a number of good teams like Sweden, that has some of the best players in our league. They're going to be good. The Czechs are always good, and the U.S. will be good. The Russians have got a lot of good young players. It's not going to be easy -- no question."
Iginla -- a leader in his own right -- says the main strength, the strong-arm of Team Canada is its leadership.
"With Canada, everyone goes in with a level head and being ready to step into any role they're given," he explained. "When we're chasing a Cup, we're all probably playing a lot of minutes, but at the Olympics, the guys aren't sure if they'll be playing a lot of minutes, or in a PK role, or checking role. The guys really do fall in line.
"That's leadership from over the years -- from Wayne Gretzky and back, to Mario Lemeiux and Joe Sakic -- it just carries on."
After winning the gold medal in 2002 and having played a key role making it a reality, Sakic feels the pressures of defending Team Canada's title. Although he says physically his body feels "really good" -- an obvious assessment by his Avalanche stats of 19 goals and 31 assists in 51 games, while averaging 19:50 minutes of ice time per game -- Sakic hopes he can play his best game, even if someone else ends up with the MVP honors. "I'm lucky to go," smiled Sakic. "It's the third time at the Olympics, so I know what to expect and it's definitely going to help. It's a great honor to be captain and I just look forward to going to play."
"He leads by example on the ice," said Avalanche and Team Canada teammate Rob Blake. "If you look at that team, there are a lot of leaders on that team, but Joe is the captain and rightly so.
"He will take us there."