Powers far beyond mortal men
Colorado captain Joe Sakic continues to thrive in the NHL despite constant turnover on the Avalanche roster.
By Larry Wigge | NHL.com columnist
Mar. 30, 2006
There's no hurry in his voice. He looks you straight in the eyes and tells you what he thinks.
"It's all about timing," Joe Sakic said after scoring off a quick passing play from Rob Blake in overtime to give the Colorado Avalanche a 3-2 victory in St. Louis March 25. "After all these years, your experience tells you the puck should be here. Or there."
He smiles, knowing the incite he just provided was a cliche.
Timing, however, has been the key for Sakic, who for most of the Avalanche games of late has been the only constant on the team's offense.
A lot has changed in the life of Sakic since 2000-01, when he scored 54 regular-season goals and had 118 regular-season points before leading the NHL with 13 goals and 26 points in 21 playoff games. Those numbers were good enough to propel the Avalanche -- without center Peter Forsberg -- to the Stanley Cup in 2001.
After that Cup celebration, defenseman Ray Bourque retired. The next year, Chris Drury was traded. Two years later, goaltender Patrick Roy retired. Then, after the lockout, the Avs couldn't fit Forsberg and defenseman Adam Foote under the salary cap and they left via free agency. In recent weeks, rookie winger Marek Svatos was lost for the season. Then, Alex Tanguay also was sidelined with an injury. And on this night, Milan Hejduk was out of the lineup.
"Joe must feel like all eyes are on him ... because I guess they are," Blake said. "It seems like he's there every time we need him."
"I haven't changed the way I play the game or my approach," Sakic said. "It was the same when Peter was here and now. You just do the best you can. You miss a guy like that. But what can you do?"
Grin and bear it, like Sakic always has.
This is clearly no ordinary Joe. But Sakic also isn't a prototypical super star. He's only 5-foot-11, 195 pounds. There were 14 names called before his at the 1987 draft.
"They said I was too small," Sakic recalled, kind of snickering under his breath, knowing that his statistics were far better than most of those picked ahead of him (He should have been right up at the top of that draft with Pierre Turgeon and Brendan Shanahan, who went 1-2). "Heck, Wayne Gretzky was only 170 pounds and he turned out alright, didn't he? I remember seeing Gretzky do an interview when I was in juniors. He said, 'The game is too fast to be a thinker. You have to see the play in your head and react. If you are quicker and smarter than the other guy you will succeed. That kind of stuck with me."
I'll never forget Patrick Roy taking me aside after the 2001 Stanley Cup celebration and telling me, "They talked about Joe's size for far too long. The important thing is the size of his heart."
Too often, people get hung up with the more than 550 goals he's scored or nearly 1,500 points -- and even the two Stanley Cups. But, like Roy, I think the measuring stick goes far beyond a performance- driven answer.
I remember the first time I interviewed Joe after his draft day was four years later, when the then-Quebec Nordiques were struggling mightily. It was early in the 1991-92 season and Eric Lindros was sitting at home, saying he didn't want any part of the team that drafted him first overall the previous June.
I'll never forget the quiet man's very sharp words: "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."
That was an eye-opener for me. If you are struggling to describe what it takes inside for a player to be a leader, that's it in a nutshell.
But then, again, Sakic, your typical superstar. He puts on no airs. Just carries around a gut that is burning with desire and a brain that outthinks most players when the going gets tough and knows how to use his extraordinary passing and shooting skills.
Former Avs teammate Uwe Krupp helped this reporter a while back when I was trying to get someone to tell me which great athlete Sakic reminded them of. Krupp said Joe was hockey's Clark Kent.
"He's ordinary Joe until he steps out of a phone booth and it's like he's Super Joe," said Krupp. "Suddenly he skates away from everyone and he's Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway rolled into one, leading the Avalanche up and down the ice.
"You shake your head and say, 'Where'd he come from?' "
The magic is in how a two-time 50-goal scorer can be invisible one minute and break into an opening and slide the puck past a stunned goalie the next. In this game, it's often the element of surprise, the time and space a player can create, that is most important.
Former Avs teammate Uwe Krupp comments on Joe Sakic:
"He's ordinary Joe until he steps out of a phone booth and it's like he's Super Joe. Suddenly he skates away from everyone and he's Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway rolled into one, leading the Avalanche up and down the ice. You shake your head and say, 'Where'd he come from?' "
The unassuming Sakic shrugs and smiles when asked about his ability to be so elusive. Then he remembers a conversation he had with Hall of Fame winger Michel Goulet, the Avalanche's director of player development, at breakfast in April 1996, the team's first season in Colorado.
"I left the table in silence," Sakic once told me. "Michel said I was as good as Mario Lemieux, but that I just didn't know it yet. He said, 'I know you don't believe me, but you've got that kind of leadership inside of you. You can lead this team to the Stanley Cup. Now it's time to show the world how good you are.'
"My mouth must have been open in awe. No one had ever said that to me before."
Avalanche coach Joel Quenneville just raves about his captain.
"You never have to say anything to him, he's always one step ahead -- sort of like having another coach on the ice," Quenneville said. "He's instinctive. He's so determined.
"When I was here (Quenneville left Colorado as an assistant coach to become head coach in St. Louis from midway through the 1997-98 season before coming back to the Avs this season) 10 years ago, Joe hardly said a word. Now, he takes the job as captain and leader very seriously and knows he has to open up a little more than he used to."
There's nothing quiet about winning. And for Joe Sakic, there's nothing quiet about his past, either.
Truthfully, Sakic grew up quickly on a gray and snowy Dec. 30, 1986, on an old bus taking him and his Swift Current Broncos junior teammates to Regina, Saskatchewan, for a Western Hockey League game. No one paid much attention to the weather, because it was typical of the travels for these teenage boys playing hockey in western Canada. As a result, the day started out lighthearted. Soon, however, the tone changed dramatically. Sakic was seated in the front of the bus with teammate Sheldon Kennedy. As the driver lost control of the bus and it slid toward a railway overpass, he yelled, "Hold on!"
The bus skidded off the end of the overpass, scattered sign posts and hurtled into the air before crashing onto a side road. The driver went through the windshield, and the bus toppled onto its side.
After everything seemed secure, the players started to file one-by-one through the windshield -- not knowing what had happened at the other end of the bus.
Teammates Trent Kresse, Scott Kruger, Brent Ruff and Chris Mantyka were playing cards in the back when the bus crashed. Two of the four, Ruff and Mantyka, were thrown from the bus and pinned underneath it. Before the players found out about the condition of their teammates, many were rushed to the hospital. It was there they learned that all four had died.
Those close to Sakic say he became the team's true leader for the rest of the season. It was an emotional time; the Broncos were given a standing ovation in each rink they played in after the accident.
Once you hear Sakic's story, you learn to appreciate the man for who he is, not what he says. The most important things in life are obviously burning in his big heart.
"Clearly, you grow up in a hurry after something like that," Sakic once told me of the crash. "It changes your whole outlook on life and makes you appreciate what you have even more."
To know and further appreciate Sakic, you have to meet his parents. Marijan, his father, is a carpenter and commercial fisherman, and Slavica, his mother, a housewife. Both settled in Burnaby, just outside Vancouver, after leaving their native Croatia. The language of choice around the house was Croatian. So you can imagine a timid youngster blending into the crowd of children in school, listening and learning another language, another culture, in silence.
"We never had it easy growing up," Sakic said. "Dad worked for everything we had. He never let me off the hook. In hockey it was the same thing: 'Get out there and work.'
"Even today, after a bad game, there are times when I won't answer the phone. I know who it is. Even though I'm all grown up, I know it's my dad calling to tell me he had seen the game, and he's going to tell me I didn't work hard enough."
Sakic learned from his parents that talk is cheap, performance is precious. Hard work wins every battle -- in hockey and in life. So, you see, it's not unusual for everyone to look to Joe Sakic when times are tough.
And if the Avalanche survive this heated battle for the final playoff spots in the Western Conference, you'll know that the rest of the players drew a lot of their passion to win from this not-so-ordinary Joe.