DENVER – Stoic Joe Sakic finally cracked, allowing for a rare show of emotion.
Delivering a speech that had kept him up most of the night fretting, the longtime Colorado Avalanche captain broke down, his voice betraying him as he stared into a room packed with family, friends and teammates – even the governor of the state.
Sakic officially hung up his skates Thursday, ending his standout 20-year career. Try as he might, he simply couldn’t get through his prepared speech without choking up.
“So many great memories,” Sakic said, fighting back tears.
The pride of Burnaby, B.C., Sakic had hoped to play one more season, possibly culminating his career by suiting up for Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
His body simply wouldn’t allow it.
Sakic missed most of the 2008-09 season with an aching back that required surgery to repair a herniated disk. He tried to make his way back onto the ice before the end of the season, but couldn’t.
That’s when he suspected his career was finished.
“I didn’t think I could be the player I wanted to be,” said the 40-year-old Sakic, who has been the face of the franchise since the team moved to Denver in 1995. “I always said to myself that the minute I thought I’d slipped, and not be the player I wanted to be, it was time for me to go.”
Sakic announced his retirement in the same room of a Denver hotel where John Elway did. Only fitting, since both were icons in the Mile High City.
“We can’t put into words what he meant to this franchise and to our hockey fans,” Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix said.
Sakic’s No. 19 sweater will also be retired, getting raised to the Pepsi Centre rafters during a ceremony at the season opener, which is not yet scheduled.
It will be just the third in the 14-year history of the Avalanche, joining Patrick Roy (33) and Ray Bourque (77). The organization also retired four when they were the Quebec Nordiques.
“He’s such a great leader. He made the team top-notch,” Paul Stastny said.
Sakic once played alongside Paul Stastny’s father, Peter, the two on the same power-play unit in Quebec.
“He was a complete player and one of the greatest in history,” Peter Stastny said in a statement.
Sakic certainly had an impressive resume.
He wore the captain’s “C” for 16 straight seasons and guided the team to Stanley Cup titles in 1996 and 2001, won league MVP honours in 2001, was a 13-time all-star and led Canada to an Olympic gold medal in 2002.
Sakic also won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship in 2001, showing his true character by handing the Stanley Cup over to Bourque after winning the title and letting the longtime defenseman hoist the trophy.
It was a moment that friend and longtime teammate Adam Foote mentioned in his speech Thursday.
“A humble superstar that you are, you stood back, you let a gray-bearded, 22-year seasoned veteran, who was waiting patiently like a young boy on Christmas morning, hoist his first Stanley Cup,” Foote said.
“That class act of yours might go down in history as one of the NHL’s most memorable moments that united the entire hockey world.”
Foote will remember Sakic as much for his class as his clutch play on the ice.
So will Lacroix, who choked up repeatedly when giving his speech. Sakic waited to announce his retirement until Lacroix was healed following complications from a knee replacement surgery.
“My family and I are privileged to know you. We’re better people because of that,” Lacroix said. “You make everyone around you so much better.”
Known for his lethal wrist shot and precision passing, Sakic leaves the game among the NHL’s career scoring leaders. He’s eighth in points (1,641), 11th in assists (1,016) and 14th in goals (625).
He was never an intimidating presence – he’s only five-foot-11 and 195 pounds – but made up for it with determination and intelligence.
There are only four players in league history that have scored more points with one franchise than Sakic: Gordie Howe (1,809) and Steve Yzerman (1,755) with Detroit, Mario Lemieux with Pittsburgh (1,723) and Wayne Gretzky with Edmonton (1,669).
Sakic was originally taken by Quebec with the 15th pick in the 1987 draft. He made his NHL debut on Oct. 6, 1988, picking up his first assist against the then Hartford Whalers. Two nights later against New Jersey, he scored his first goal.
That would be a familiar occurrence for the quiet superstar.
“I’m sad to see him leave the game,” former teammate Peter Forsberg said in a statement. “I’m glad I got the chance to play alongside him for many years … He’s a very classy person and a great team leader.”