On a few wonderful occasions, a pro athlete’s entire existence has been personified by the defining aspect of his game.
What weapon would be more appropriate for Bobby Hull, ‘The Golden Jet,’ than a wind-whistling slapshot? An ox of a man with a gregarious personality, Bobby just blew it past you, even when you knew it was coming.
Brett Favre, legendary NFL quarterback, probably hasn’t heard his name in a sentence without the word ‘gunslinger’ in 10 years. A farm-boy tough southerner playing sports’ most glamorous position, Favre – for right or wrong – always had faith his rocket of an arm would lead him out of danger.
At the other end of this sporting spectrum you’ll find Joe Sakic: the human wrist shot.
Quick, quiet and deadly, Sakic’s NHL career is perfectly symbolized by the shot he used to score so many of his 709 career goals over 1,550 regular season and playoff games.
Colorado fans probably best recall the one he whipped over Martin Brodeur’s glove in Game 7 of the 2001 Stanley Cup final, when the Avs won their second championship with Sakic as captain.
Less than a year later, Sakic was making more memories, this time for his home and native land. Canada was already looking good to beat Team USA for gold in the 2002 Olympic final, but the party really started after Burnaby Joe burned Mike Richter with a wrister on the stick side late in the third period, his second goal of the contest, salting the Salt Lake City win.
You’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian hockey fan who doesn’t remember longtime CBC play-by-play man Bob Cole simply and succinctly shouting, “JJJJoooooe, Sakic, scores!”
Isn’t that just like Joe, letting his play and another person do his talking for him?
And when his fellow players do speak about him – whether teammates or foes – the word ‘respect’ invariably pops up, usually in the context of ‘most respected player in the game.’
While Sakic may have driven some in my line of work mad with his ‘Quoteless Joe’ persona, he’s said to be capable of putting those close to him in stitches with a wicked sense of humor when the spotlight is somewhere else.
Sakic’s legacy as a leader is unique because, as pointed out in the Denver Post, despite being the undisputed face of his franchise, No. 19 wasn’t always the main focus on his own team.
That’s what happens when you play in front of a goalie, in Patrick Roy, who has more Conn Smythe Trophies (three) than anybody who has ever worn skates and with a center, Peter Forsberg, who was the game’s most dynamic two-way physical force for an extended period of his career.
Wayne Gretzky had a moose of a man riding shotgun with him in Edmonton, but until he left town, the Oilers were always The Great One’s team, not Mark Messier’s. Phil Esposito scored a whole lot of goals for the Boston Bruins, but that was still Bobby’s bunch.
Even Steve Yzerman, the superstar whose career most closely resembles Sakic’s, was a touch more entrenched as the undisputed engine of his team.
But occasionally playing second fiddle likely suited a person with Sakic’s modest demeanor just fine. And let’s be clear about this: while others took their turn calling Colorado’s shots, Sakic should and will be remembered as the team’s leading man. When you’ve got eight career playoff overtime time goals – more than any player in NHL history – it’s safe to assume you’re equipped to deal with the expectant glare of teammates.
Sakic has been captain of the franchise since 1992, five years after the Quebec Nordiques used the 15th pick in the ’87 draft on a 5-foot-10, 160-pounder from the Western Leagues’s Swift Current Broncos.
Speaking of Broncos, Sakic beat Denver Bronco legend John Elway to the punch when, during his first season in Colorado, he and the Avs provided their new city with its first-ever big-league championship.
Sakic won the Conn Smythe that year for his trouble. He also claimed the Hart Trophy, Lester Pearson Award and Lady Byng Trophy a few months after the Avs won their second title in 2001. And aside from a gold medal in ’02, Sakic also skated off with Olympic MVP honors.
All these accolades are actually going to come back to bite Sakic because, three years from now when he’s eligible for the Hall of Fame, the reserved, classy captain will finally be forced to lead with his mouth and give a speech.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Thursday and his column, Top Shelf, appears Wednesday.
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