TORONTO – Joe Sakic didn’t mind the losing.
The Quebec Nordiques’ 1987 first-round pick went through plenty of it early in his career, and it didn’t knock him off track.
“It wasn’t tough because I was so excited to play in the National Hockey League,” Sakic said.
The Nordiques missed the playoffs in each of Sakic’s first four NHL seasons, going a combined 75-205-40. In his eighth season, after the team moved to Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche, Sakic raised the Stanley Cup as the captain.
In his first year as Colorado’s executive vice president of hockey operations, the Avalanche look like they’re ready to rebound much faster. They’re 6-1-0 as part of the second-best start in franchise history, topped only by the 1985-86 Nordiques that pre-dates Sakic’s pro career.
Speaking before his induction into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame Wednesday evening, Sakic conceded he didn’t predict the Avalanche would be undefeated after their first six games. But he didn’t have trouble explaining why they’ve been so good early on under first-year coach Patrick Roy.
“Our goaltending has been incredible,” Sakic said. “(Semyon) Varlamov’s played great, (Jean-Sebastien) Giguere came in and played in Boston, he was the first star. The guys are playing hard and they’re playing for one another, and the goalies are there to back them up, so it’s been a total group effort.”
Naturally, Roy is getting a lot of the credit. He tied the record for best start by a rookie NHL coach at 6-0-0, set by Mario Tremblay with the 1995-96 Montreal Canadiens.
Hiring Roy was Sakic’s first move in charge of the Avalanche. Their playing careers intertwining in Colorado, when the Avalanche won two Cups, played a huge role in that decision, as did Roy’s experience behind the bench in the QMJHL.
“I played with him as a teammate and he’s a tremendous leader,” Sakic said. “I knew what he was doing in Quebec and the time he spent and how well he coached the younger guys. And for me, I thought he’d be a perfect coach for a younger team.”
The Avalanche have an average age of 27.6, including 18-year-old No. 1 pick Nathan MacKinnon and 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog. But others, like Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly and Paul Stastny are far from rookies.
“I know we still got some real young guys, but we also have some guys that are going into their fifth, sixth, seventh year,” Sakic said. “They’re starting to learn how to win, and just that experience is helping them out.”
The Avalanche lost their first game of the season Thursday night, 4-2 to the same Detroit Red Wings that Roy and Sakic had so many memorable battles against. Former Red Wings goaltender Chris Osgood is now a television analyst, and the man he once fought is in the spotlight for his emotional coaching style.
But that’s how Sakic wants Roy to be.
“I think that’s what you need,” he said. “He knows how far he can push. He’s a fiery competitor and he wants to win. That’s what you want as your coach.
“I know he knows how to deal with a younger team and teaching. He’s been a great teacher for these players and really including them. He says a word, he wants to be ‘partners’ with them and right from training camp it’s developed with him and the players.”
Sakic said Wednesday that he “couldn’t be any happier” about Roy’s relationship with his players. But he also knows there will be adversity, and he’s pretty confident this group will be able to recover quickly.
“We’re going to lose some games, and it’s just a matter of bouncing back from those games and how quick and not getting your heads down,” he said. “Just get up in the morning and get ready to get back to work.”