Super Joe has decided to go. Oh no!
The longtime Avalanche captain is retiring after playing 20 remarkable seasons in the NHL. Tip your hat to Number 19. Denver owes Joe Sakic more gratitude than he’d ever be willing to accept.
It is difficult to articulate the degree to which Denver will miss Joe Sakic. See, words were never really Sakic’s thing. Sakic, a consummate leader, was one of the quietest players in the Avalanche dressing room. He preferred to lead by example, letting his wrist shot, Claude Lemieux’s fists, and Patrick Roy’s pads and mouth do all the talking. Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg combined to form one of the most effective 1-2 punches in NHL history, not to mention the least boisterous captain/co-captain tandem in the league for several seasons.
Sakic is humble, but he is not shy. His demeanor is formal and considerate. He possesses a strong handshake, always looks you straight in the eye, and never forgets to say ‘thank you.’ He is a gentleman first and an All-Star second. His reverence for his teammates and coaches was only surpassed by his respect for his opponents. Sakic was a smart player, who kept his friends close and his enemies closer. Maybe that is why he was so effective on the power play? Nah. His wrist shot was just that good.
Replacing Sakic’s wrister will be far easier than replacing his quiet confidence. Stoicism goes much further in hockey than it does in other professional sports. The Stanley Cup playoffs are as mentally draining as they are physically grueling. Sakic guided the Avalanche through each postseason with unmatched grace. Anyone who has ever played hockey will tell you that there are only two cures for losing a playoff game by one goal: ice cold beer and a stoic captain. Joe Sakic kept his teammates from knocking back these bittersweet beers because his scoring touch gave the Avalanche a chance to win every night. His presence has allowed his teammates and fans to dream about champagne each season for the last two decades.
I worshipped the Avalanche as a kid, but Sakic was never my favorite player on the team. I think this was because I understood how great he was. I never wished to own a Sakic jersey. Everyone had one, and I wanted to be original. Yet, my desire to stand out came as a result of Sakic’s greatness. His name and number were everywhere, so I wanted to don another player’s. I subtly honored Sakic every time I pulled on my Team Sweden jersey before a hockey practice or wore my Hejduk sweater to the Pepsi Center.
Growing up I played for a Denver area hockey team. Every Saturday and Sunday during the winter my friends and I gathered to play general hockey at a local outdoor rink. I was skating in my Team Sweden jersey one weekend when something caught my eye. As I skated up the boards, I recognized a man standing next to the glass. His curly, unkempt mullet fell upon the shoulders of his black leather jacket. A foxy blonde stood at his side. It was none other than Avalanche rookie Milan Hejduk.
A voice came over the loudspeaker ordering us off the ice. We had to leave the premises because a private party had reserved the rink for the remainder of the afternoon. We promptly skated off the ice, but we were saved before we could remove our shoulder pads. Adam Deadmarsh and Joe Sakic stopped us from leaving. They explained to the rink manager that we were now their guests at the Colorado Avalanche’s annual Christmas party. Deadmarsh then proceeded to rent a pair of figure skates because his wife bet him that he could not successfully play broomball in them. I teamed up with Deadmarsh and we squared off against Shean Donovan and my little brother. Deadmarsh and I lost. With Deadmarsh stumbling over his toe pick, we simply could not compete against Donovan’s blazing speed and my brother’s crafty stickhandling. I shook off the defeat over appetizers with Scott Parker.
I remember recounting the day’s events to my father at home later that evening. He is not a sports fanatic by any means. He does however admire the Avalanche and he loved watching me play hockey. With one look at the width of my smile, my father knew it had been the best day of my life. He smiled right back at me and told me I would never forget skating with those guys. And I haven’t. I still recall every detail from the three hours that my heroes were my buddies. Joe Sakic made it happen.
When the Broncos let Denver down in the ’95-’96 Wild Card Game, Sakic picked the city up. He took us all under his wing and led the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup Finals. After defeating the Florida Panthers, Sakic proudly presented Colorado with Lord Stanley’s Cup. It was our state’s first world title. The image of Sakic hoisting the Cup in Civic Center Park still gives me goose bumps.
The ’95-’96 Colorado Avalanche was a special team. I think the players loved playing in Denver because even though they were winning games they could still walk down the streets of Cherry Creek completely unnoticed. These guys did not demand attention or expect admiration. They quietly went about their business and got the job done, earning our respect and winning our hearts in the process. This team’s selfless attitude was a reflection of its noble leader. The franchise flourished for the next decade because Sakic navigated the team to victory in ’96. Sakic, of course, would defer such enormous praise.
It hurts me to see Super Joe walk away. This morning I watched a Sakic tribute video on the internet; it was like watching “Rudy.” Then I texted my father and brother to remind each of them to watch these tribute videos alone because tearing up in the presence of friends and family is awkward.
Watching Sakic’s retirement press conference tomorrow will surely remind me of the Stanley Cup victories. But the captain’s words and face will also serve as a reminder that we all grow up. This past season’s team was not the ’95-’96 Colorado Avalanche. I’m also not 12 years old anymore. I applaud Sakic for being honest with himself and the franchise by not sticking around for too long. The franchise needs to start over. However, the Avalanche could not begin re-building in the presence of the man who has held them together for the last 20 years.
Goodbye and good luck, Super Joe. Thank you for the goals, the Cups, and the birth of a franchise. We will never forget your wrist shot or your poise.
In fact, I think it’s time I head over to the mall and pick up a Sakic jersey.
I leave you with one of my all-time favorite Joe Sakic moments. He had a great wrist shot, but he was also tough as nails…