Thursday, 1 October 2009

Joe Sakic Day

Nothing like a good Quebec Nordiques picture to lead off today's story. Today, in case you missed it, is Joe Sakic Day in the state of Colorado, and the Colorado Avalanche are honouring their long-time captain tonight before the Avalanche take to the ice against the San Jose Sharks. Sakic decided to hang up the skates after last season, and announced on July 9, 2009 that he would not return to the NHL this season. With all the icons that I grew up watching now retiring, Joe Sakic stands out as one of the special guys that the NHL will miss. I'd like to take some time to honour Joe Sakic today, much in the same way that the Colorado Avalanche are honouring their superstar tonight.

Joseph Steven Sakic was born on July 7, 1969 in Burnaby, British Columbia. The son of Marijan and Slavic Sakic, Croatian immigrants to Canada, was raised with Croatian as his first language until he started grade school. His parents were hard-working individuals, a trait that clearly rubbed off on Joe. After watching a game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Atlanta Flames, little Joe Sakic wanted to play hockey.

Sakic was a prolific scorer, and the result was a roster spot with the WHL's Swift Current Broncos. Sakic modeled his game after Wayne Gretzky, using his skill and agility to overcome his diminutive stature. Because of his keen hockey sense, Sakic lit up the scoreboard in his rookie season with the Broncos, scoring 60 goals and adding 73 assists on his way to winning the WHL Rookie of the Year Award during the 1986-87 season.

Tragedy struck the team during his rookie season when a patch of black ice caused the team bus to veer off the road and crash just outside of Swift Current. While most of the players suffered only minor injuries, four of Sakic's teammates were killed in the accident: Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Chris Mantyka and Brent Ruff. Ruff was the brother of Buffalo Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff. To this day, Sakic has not commented about the accident. Understandably, this may still trouble the quiet Sakic.

His prolific scoring continued in the following season as he tied for the WHL scoring lead with Moose Jaw's Theoren Fleury. He scored 78 goals and added 82 assists, and his season ended with Sakic being named as the WHL's Most Valuable Player and Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year. NHL scouts loved his scoring ability, but there was some concern about Sakic's slight frame.

The Quebec Nordiques decided that they couldn't pass up on the scoring phenom, and selected Sakic with the 15th overall pick in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft. While Quebec was anxious to see what Sakic could do, he instead opted to go back to Swift Current to help him prepare for his NHL career. While playing for Swift Current, Sakic represented Canada at the World Junior Championships in Moscow, USSR. Sakic helped lead the Canadian teens to a gold medal, retribution for the 1987 World Junior Championships aptly named the Punch-Up in Piestany.

When he finally arrived in Quebec, he recorded a point in his first game. On October 6, 1988, Sakic assisted on the second goal scored by the Nordiques that night. Anton Stastny scored the goal with assists to Randy Moller and #88 Joe Sakic. That's right: #88. Sakic's familiar #19 was already being worn by veteran Alain Coté, so he opted to wear #88 for the 1988-89 season. Sakic didn't wait long to add some goals to his scoring total either. On October 8, 1988, Sakic scored his first NHL goal as the opening goal against the New Jersey Devils at 6:50 of the second period off a feed from Robert Picard. Sakic would play 70 games in the 1988-89 season for the Nordiques, scoring 23 goals and 39 assists. However, he was a team-worst -36 for the season, showing that he needed a commitment to the defensive end of the ice.

1989-90 saw Sakic don his #19 jersey after Coté retired in the off-season. He ended up ninth in scoring with 102 points, but was saddled with an abysmal -40 on a team that really had no clue where their defensive zone was. The Nordiques employed seven goaltenders that season, and none ended with a goals-against average of less than 3.00. Ouch. Ron Tugnutt started 35 games that season, posting a record of 5-24-3 with a 4.61 GAA while allowing 152 goals in those 35 games. To give you an idea of how bad the Nordiques were that season, Tugnutt's five wins led the team. OUCH.

The 1990-91 season saw Sakic assume the captaincy for home games while defenceman Steven Finn wore the captaincy when the Nordiques traveled. Sakic would score 109 points to end up sixth in league scoring, but the Nordiques struggled to win games. The Nordiques used five goalies this season, but none had a GAA lower than 3.87. Tugnutt was the go-to goalie, posting a record of 12-29-10 in 56 games with a 4.05 GAA. The other four goalies recorded four wins combined. OUCH. 1991 saw Sakic pick up a silver medal at the IIHF World Championships in Finland.

The 1991 NHL Entry Draft saw the Nordiques draft Eric Lindros first overall. However, Lindros' refusal to sign with the team irked some of the players, Sakic included. When asked of what he thought of Lindros' stance, Sakic snapped at a reporter, "We only want players here who have the passion to play the game. I'm tired of hearing that name. He's not here and there are a lot of others in this locker room who really care about the game", showing solidarity with his teammates over Lindros' holdout. The 1991-92 season saw the Nordiques struggle again, and Sakic played in only 69 games.

The 1992-93 season saw the Nordiques finish second in the Adams Division. Surrounded by good, young talent such as Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, and Andrei Kovalenko, the Nordiques had changed immensely after trading Lindros to Philadelphia. They set a franchise record for most wins in a season. Joe Sakic was named as the sole captain this season, and would have his first taste of NHL Playoff action. However, the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens would dispatch the Nordiques in six games to end Sakic's season.

The Nordiques regressed in 1993-94, missing the playoffs after the previous season's promising results. Goaltending was the Achilles' heel in this season as all four goalies that the Nordiques used struggled. Stephane Fiset was the starter for most of the season, posting a record of 20-25-4 and a 3.39 GAA in 50 games. Sakic's production also dipped as he recorded 92 points in 84 games. Sakic returned to the IIHF World Championships where he helped Canada win a gold medal in Italy.

With the strike shortening the season in 1995, Sakic and the Nordiques came out flying. His 62 points in 47 games landed him in fourth in the NHL scoring race, just eight points behind the leading scorer, Jaromir Jagr. The Nordiques followed Sakic's lead by winning the Northeast Division. However, the playoff jinx continued as the New York Rangers knocked off the Nordiques in six games in the first round. On the horizon, however, things were about to change dramatically for Joe Sakic and his team.

In May of 1995, the team was sold and moved to Denver, Colorado where the Nordiques were renamed as the Colorado Avalanche. Sakic was on fire all season long, ending in third place on the league's scoring list with 120 points. The Avalanche finished first in the Northwest Division, and Sakic's inspired play led the team to the Stanley Cup Final. It was there where Sakic showed his mettle as the Avalanche swept the Florida Panthers to win their first Stanley Cup. Sakic scored 34 points in 22 playoff games, including a record six game-winning goals, and his 18 playoff goals was one goal short of tying the NHL record for goals in one playoff year. Because of his play in the NHL Playoffs, Joe Sakic was named as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Injuries over the next two seasons limited Sakic's production, but he still saw the team win their first President's Trophy in 1996-97. He earned a silver medal at the first World Cup of Hockey with Team Canada. Based on his play and leadership, he was invited to play in Nagano, Japan with Team Canada at the Winter Olympics in 1998. A knee injury at the Olympics limited his play both in the event and in the NHL. His team lost in seven games to the Dallas Stars in the Western Conference Final in 1998 despite Sakic playing hurt.

The 1999-2000 season was one of milestones for Sakic. On December 27, 1999 against the St. Louis Blues, Sakic became the 56th player in NHL history to reach the 1000 career point total with an assist. March 23, 2000 saw Sakic score a hat trick against the Phoenix Coyotes to give him 400 career goals and 1049 points, breaking the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche's franchise record for points held by Peter Stastny. Sakic's season ended, however, when Avalanche fell to the Dallas Stars once again in the Western Conference Final.

2000-01 saw a healthy Sakic return to his high-scoring form, notching a career-best 54 goals and 118 points, good for second in league scoring. Sakic's play was noticed around the league as the Avalanche stormed to a 52-16-10-4 record to win the President's Trophy. The Avalanche would win their second Stanley Cup in seven games over the New Jersey Devils, and Sakic was honoured with the Hart Trophy, the Lester B. Pearson Trophy, and the Lady Byng Trophy at season's end. In what may be one of the most selfless acts ever, Gary Bettman handed the Stanley Cup to Joe Sakic after the Avalanche had won Game Seven. Instead of hoisting the Cup, Sakic immediately turned it over to Ray Bourque. Bourque had played 22 seasons without ever hoisting the Stanley Cup, and Sakic made sure he was the first to do so after the Avalanche had won.

2001-02 saw Sakic participate in his 1000th NHL game on March 9, 2002. He was sixth in league scoring, and led his team to the Western Conference Final where the Avalanche eventually fell to the Detroit Red Wings. However, Sakic made a huge impact on the international scene. Team Canada battled their way to the gold medal game in Salt Lake City against the Americans. Sakic was a star in the game. He recorded four points in the gold medal game, giving him four goals and six assists for the tournament. More importantly, Canada won their first gold medal in 50 years in men's ice hockey. Because of his inspired play in the gold medal game, Sakic was named as the Olympic tournament MVP.

2002-03 saw Sakic limited to 58 games due to injuries, and this resulted in his lowest point total of his career, posting only 58 points. 2003-04 saw Sakic rebound and end up in third place in league scoring with 87 points.

With the strike in 2004-05 wiping out the entire season, the Avalanche were forced to cut costs. Despite losing several core players, Sakic was still a prolific scoring threat. In 2004, he was a member of Team Canada that won a gold medal at the World Cup of Hockey. On February 15, 2007 in a game against the Calgary Flames, Sakic scored his 600th career goal. He also recorded 100 points that season, making the 37 year-old Sakic the second oldest player to record 100 points behind the ageless Gordie Howe. October 21, 2007 saw Sakic record his 1600th career point with an assist on a Ryan Smyth overtime goal against the Calgary Flames. March 22, 2008 saw Sakic record his 1000th career assist against the Edmonton Oilers. Injuries reduced his playing time considerably in the last few years, but he still scored at nearly a point-per-game pace.

Sakic's accolades are many. He is one of a handful of men to have won the Stanley Cup, a World Junior Championship gold medal, an IIHF World Championship gold medal, a World Cup gold medal, and an Olympic gold medal. He is a Hart Trophy winner, a Lester B. Pearson Trophy winner, a Lady Byng Trophy winner, and was MVP in the 2002 Winter Olympics men's ice hockey tournament. He was named as Rookie of the Year in the WHL, the WHL MVP, and the Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year with the Swift Current Broncos. He was named to the NHL All-Star Game 13 times, and captained the Western Conference All-Stars twice. He was named as the All-Star Game MVP in 2004, and is still the NHL All-Star Game leader in assists with 16. He also won the NHL Foundation Player Award for his charitable work in 2007. 19th Street in Denver is now known as Joe Sakic Way.

Sakic retired with 625 goals and 1016 assists to his name, good for eighth spot in the NHL record books. He is the franchise leader in goals, assists, points, and games played for the Nordiques/Avalanche. He is first all-time in the NHL with eight overtime playoff goals.

Enjoy your retirement, Burnaby Joe. You are an inspiration to me, and you've inspired many kids across this continent to play hockey like you. Your kindness and generosity with your time has touched many people, and that says a ton about the quality of person you are. Thank you, Joe Sakic, for representing this country so well, and I look forward to hearing about your next adventure!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Jim BC said...

I was never a Nords fan but always respected Sakic's class, work ethic etc. What a thrill it was to see Joe hoist the Cup for the first time!

Anonymous said...

Brent was Lindy's brother. Not son.

Teebz said...

Good catch, Anonymous! I'm not sure how I got it in my head that Brent was Lindy's son. Thanks for that!