Quiet steadiness defined Sakic's Hall of Fame career
It was an early fall night in Hartford, the opening night of the 72nd National Hockey League season. For Joe Sakic, it was the kind of night of which dreams are made.
Sakic, Quebec's rookie center with the wicked wrist shot, dressed in the smallish visitors' dressing room deep inside Hartford Civic Center shortly before darting out for warm-ups with butterflies in his stomach.
He went back in the dressing room and waited, still nervous and tense, for what seemed like an eternity. The ice was cleaned and fans settled into their seats -- to unknowingly watch the birth of a Hall of Fame career.
"Obviously you love winning and the championships, but I'll never forget lacing them up for my first career game," Sakic told NHL.com about what he remembers from Oct. 6, 1988. "I was so nervous before the game and going out for warm-ups. When I got my first shift I realized, 'You know what, I made it.'"
Sakic assisted on Anton Stastny's goal in the first period, the first of his 1,641 NHL points. Quebec won 5-2, the first of the 749 regular-season victories for Sakic's teams during the course of his 20 seasons in the NHL.
He went on to win the Stanley Cup twice, both with the Colorado Avalanche, in 1996 and 2001.
He went on to win the Hart Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy, the Lady Byng Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award.
He went on to play 1,378 regular-season games and 172 Stanley Cup Playoff games.
He went on to participate in 13 All-Star Games.
He played in three Olympics and won gold with Canada in 2002.
But when asked for the one memory that stands out above all else, Sakic immediately thought of his opening night in Hartford, where he took his first strides toward the Hall of Fame.
Sakic will be enshrined Nov. 12 along with fellow Class of 2012 members Adam Oates, Pavel Bure and Mats Sundin. Among the inductees, Sakic is the only one who scored more than 1,600 points and won the Stanley Cup.
"I've got nothing but admiration and respect for him," Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman told NHL.com. "I got to know him over the course of his career, played with him in World Cups and Olympics, and really liked the person. I enjoy being around him and really admire and always envied the way he played the game."
Envy, respect, admiration -- all three words followed Sakic throughout his playing career.
He became a model captain in the NHL, a role he held for 17 years. According to Joel Quenneville, Bob Hartley and Tony Granato -- who all coached Sakic at different times in his career -- he was also a model student of the game.
"It's like nothing was spectacular with him, just steady greatness," Quenneville told NHL.com. "It's under-the-radar, quiet, tremendously well-prepared, zero maintenance, smiles, do anything for the team, doesn't need attention or to be stroked. He's just the perfect pro, the perfect leader."
After spending the first seven seasons of his NHL career in Quebec, Sakic still hasn't forgotten the life-changing phone calls he received, first from former Nordiques president Marcel Aubut then from former Quebec general manager and current Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix, in the summer of 1995.
He was told the Nordiques were moving to Denver.
"It was tough," Sakic said. "I played [in Quebec] for seven years and it was great. What a great hockey market. And we finally got that team that we felt very, very strongly about. When you hear you're moving there is a little bit of a shock, but then we came here [to Denver] as a team to look around and we realized this is a great city. The excitement of a new city and a new year was starting to build."
It came to a crescendo less than a year later when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup for the first time with a four-game sweep of the Florida Panthers.
Sakic won the Conn Smythe Trophy after finishing with a League-high 18 goals and 34 points in 22 playoff games. That was after he scored 120 points -- third-most in the League -- in 82 regular-season games.
"First of all, just holding the Cup, it's hard to explain," Sakic said. "Obviously it's excitement, but I think for me it was also relief, like, 'Oh, I finally did it.'"
Quenneville, an assistant coach for that Avalanche team, remembers what Sakic was like after the Cup-clinching game.
"There was a lot of satisfaction there. He was very proud, excited," Quenneville said. "It's almost like he was just really happy for his teammates. Joe didn't really express a lot of his feelings. He would smile and you knew there was a lot of satisfaction and excitement, but he didn't really demonstrate it like a lot of people will. That's Joe. He's a cool guy."
Sakic similarly was cool five years later, when he again accepted the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, but this time quickly passed it to retiring legend Ray Bourque, a champion for the only time in his Hall of Fame career.
Patrick Roy won the Conn Smythe Trophy, but Sakic had helped the Avalanche secure the Presidents' Trophy with 54 goals and 118 points in the regular season, and won the Hart Trophy.
"With the team we had, absolutely," Sakic said when asked if he thought the Avs could win the Cup again after 1996. "We were still pretty young. So, yeah, absolutely. When you win once you think we're going to win again the next year and that didn't happen, but it did five years later. We had a really good hockey team then."
They almost didn't have Sakic, who was swayed enough by the New York Rangers in 1997 that he signed a heavily front-loaded three-year, $21 million offer sheet.
"I got a call and my agent said, 'Here is their offer, do you want to sign it?'" Sakic said. "It didn't take long to think about it. Obviously was a deal that we were excited about."
Sakic figured he couldn't lose.
"I was either going to go play with the Rangers and have a chance to go play with Wayne Gretzky, who as a kid I always idolized," he said. "If Colorado matched, which it happened to do, it was perfect. To me, really, it was a win-win."
In hindsight, Sakic said it was the best thing for him and his family that Colorado matched the offer. After all, he continues to live in Denver and work for the team today as the executive advisor and alternate governor.
Nobody -- not even during that odd time when he almost became a Ranger -- ever miscalculated Sakic's leadership and skill.
He was named captain of the Nordiques in 1992, kept the "C" after the move to Denver and held on to it until he retired after the 2008-09 season.
"When you use the word captain and you think of what a captain is supposed to be, he's the first thing that comes to my mind," Granato told NHL.com. Granato played with and against Sakic and also coached him. "He's a tremendously classy person, a great family man, an unbelievable teammate and just, all in all, the full package. He's the real deal.
"Usually you could find a way to not like an opponent, but it's pretty hard to find a way to not like Joe."
Hartley, Colorado's coach for its 2001 Cup run, told NHL.com Sakic is "by far the best player I have ever coached," but not just because of what he did on the ice.
"I can talk about Joe Sakic for a week," Hartley said. "He was just great -- great off the ice, great in the community, great to coach. If you get 20 Joe Sakics on one team, you don't need any coaches. He was a treat to coach, it's as simple as this."
Sakic's former coaches most appreciated his work ethic.
"I would be watching video and he'd walk into the office and say, 'Bob, can you bring the game back to the 12th minute of the second period? Look, I lost my man,'" Hartley said. "Very few players would come in the office, and he would come in and want to see a specific shift. He was always right on with whatever happened. He was dominating the game but he was still looking for ways to get better."
His focus in practice became legendary.
"I'd step on the ice 15 minutes before practice and Joe had a bucket of pucks at the other end -- wrist shot, wrist shot, wrist shot," Hartley said. "We'd finish practice, still more wrist shots and little drills. He was a great student of the game while he was teaching the game to most everyone in the NHL."
Granato said Sakic never was much for morning skates, but he would be working harder than most of his teammates.
"He'd go do his routine in the weight room, squatting, stretching, all the exercises, right to the day he retired," Granato said.
And not even a debilitating, career-ending back injury stopped Sakic from doing everything necessary to prepare to play.
The problem is once he got hurt 15 games into the 2008-09 season -- -- a herniated disc in his back -- there was pretty much no way for him to play again.
"I worked hard to get back, but I hurt my back and I ended up with back surgery and lost all my leg strength in my left leg, and it wasn't going to come back to 100 percent," Sakic said. "Yeah, I would have liked to play a few more games down the stretch, but I knew when I lost my leg strength and it wasn't going to come back that I wasn't going to come back. I didn't want to come back unless I could play the way I could.
"But it was also a blessing that it happened at the end of my career and not in the middle of my career."
Sakic announced his retirement July 9, 2009 -- two days after he turned 40 years old and 7,582 days after his childhood dream came true in Hartford.
"I will always remember my first game; that's what you dream of doing as a kid," Sakic said. "Obviously over 20 years you're going to have a few more memories, but that's when you realized your dream, that you made it."
The Hall of Fame is next.
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Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer