JOE SAKIC: THE GIFT OF PATIENCE

by Ron Spence

Will Joe Sakic play another season for the Avalanche?

Will he retire?

(Does he have things to do in Denver?)

We know that he won’t sign to play anywhere else. That’s a given. Burnaby Joe’s loyalty is up there with Steve Yzerman’s.

And as Joe Sakic ponders what to do, I remember a feature which I wrote – for Hockey Illustrated – ironically, about his patience:

*****

If patience is a virtue, Joe Sakic should be a candidate for sainthood.

THE Hockey Scouting Report writes: “Sakic’s most impressive gift is his great patience with the puck. He will hold it until the last minute, when he has drawn the defenders to him and opened up ice, creating…time and space for his linemates.”

Equally impressive is Sakic’s patience off the ice.

First of all, he waited and waited for his team to improve. Finally, after years in the basement, Colorado (formely Quebec) elevated themselves to the penthouse when they won the Stanley Cup in 1996.

Joe also waited for people to recognize his talent. Vancouver’s Dave Babych calls Sakic “the quietest superstar there ever was.” Joe had been fifth in NHL points during the 1990’s, yet didn’t win an NHL award until the Avalanche took the Cup. It was the Conn Smythe Trophy.

And, Joe waited patiently for the financial compensation he rightfully deserved. He recently signed a contract for $21 million, making him one of hockey’s wealthiest players.

Joe Sakic was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and first caught people’s attention when he played midget hockey. Joe lead his lackluster team to the Air Canada Cup championships. Next, Joe played Major Junior in Swift Current and accumulated 133 points in 72 games the 1986-87 season. Joe was named the WHL East Division Rookie of the Year and was drafted 15th overall by the Quebec Nordiques. He would have been drafted higher, but his size and speed were a concern.

Former junior rival, and Team Canada linemate, Trevor Linden recalls Joe in junior: “Nothing really bothered Joe or got him off his game. He was very solid and a very good two-way player and worked very hard in all the areas of the ice … Joe leads by his actions. He’s just a great player. A good, all-around player. He’s highly-skilled and very quick. He’s got a great shot”

Joe’s next junior season, he accumulated a remarkable 160 points in 64 games and was named the Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year. He also collected a Gold Medal as a member of Canada’s junior team that winter.

But, Joe’s glory seasons in junior were followed by humbling years in Quebec. His first NHL season, Quebec stumbled to a pathetic 27 wins and 46 losses. The 19-year-old was one of the few bright spots with a respectable 62 points in 70 games. The following three seasons, the Nordiques totaled: 12 wins and 61 losses; 16 wins and 50 losses; and 20 wins and 48 losses. Yet, Joe tallied a remarkable 102, 109 and 94 points (That last year, he played in only 69 games.).

Martin Gelinas was briefly Joe’s team-mate in Quebec.

“He’s a great person,” remembers Marty. “A down-to-earth kind of guy. Off-ice he’s got this quality where all the guys like him and want to be with him. And I think he’s one of the top three or four players in the NHL right now. Skill-wise when I played with him, he was unbelievable. He’s a great passer. He’s got great vision. He reads the ice so well. It seems like when he came to Colorado, he stepped it up a notch or two. He became an All-star player. He was a great player before and he’s become one of the best players in the league.”

Jyrki Lumme played against Sakic when he was with Montreal. He describes the difference between Joe then and now: “Now he has better players around him, so he doesn’t have to do everything himself. Back in Quebec, he was pretty much the only guy. When you have a guy like that, and you put some good players with him, he’s going to make everybody so much better.”

Hard work was the major reason for Joe’s improvement. He decided to increase both his speed and strength, after being cut from the 1991 World Cup team. The following summer, he practiced plyometrics. This is a jumping, hopping and bounding technique that builds explosiveness  in the legs.

Canucks’ defenseman Grant Ledyard marvels at Sakic’s speed: “He plays at a very high level. Anyone who can skate as fast as they can go and handle the puck so smoothly as he does, you have to respect. And he’s so level-headed. He holds the puck to the perfect time and he’ll make that great pass. Not many of his passes will get knocked down or taken away. He puts it where he should. In the last minutes of the game, he makes great plays. Whether they’re down or they’re up. He’s just a great, great player.”

The 5’11”, 185 pound Sakic also built himself into one of the league’s strongest (pound for pound) players. He can bench press more than 300, and squat more than 400 pounds.

Goalie Corey Hirsch notes Sakic’s toughness: “Joey is very hard-nosed and quick. He’s got a quick release. If the puck’s in the corner, he’s hard after it. He doesn’t let you beat him to it. When he’s got the puck, it’s off his stick. Boom! Smart! He’s a really good hockey player.”

Jyrki Lumme agrees: “He’s just a great talent and he plays the price too. He really wants to be the best, just like Paul Kariya. They’re not the biggest guys, but they don’t give up. A great talent level with a great work ethic. You can’t ask anything more. They get their noses dirty. They don’t give up the puck just because the other guy might be bigger. They battle for the puck with their skills and speed.”

Joe also worked on his two-way game. Brian Bellows played against Sakic when he was with the Canadiens. “He’s a supreme offensive player who’s really developed his defensive skills,” Bellows says. “One of the all around best players in league.”

Another reason for Joe’s improvement was his international experience. This was because Quebec was at the bottom of the league, and didn’t make the playoffs most years. So, Joe was selected to represent his country. One post-season, he helped Canada win the Silver Medal by scoring 11 points in 10 games. Two years later, he helped Canada finish fourth, and the year after that he led Canada to the Gold Medal.

Finally, Quebec started to turn things around. Their high draft picks, plus the players they received for Eric Lindros were paying off. The Nords achieved 47 wins and 27 losses and Joe had 105 points. But, the next year, Joe had 92 points and Quebec fell to 34 wins and 42 losses.

Then, the strike-shortened season, Quebec rebounded to an impressive 30 and 13 record and Joe tallied 62 points in 47 games. Also, in the playoffs against New York, Joe scored two game-winning goals and had a third called back.

Things turned around completely by the following summer, when Marcel Aubut sold the Nordiques to Comsat Corp. Then, the Colorado management traded for: veteran characters Claude Lemieux and Mike Keane, offensive defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh and all-star goalie Patrick Roy. The result was 47 wins and 25 losses.

That was also the season that Joe’s play really came together. Joe tallied 120 points and was behind only Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in the scoring race. But, more important, Sakic played his best against the better teams, and was second in league in short-handed goals.

Arturs Irbe explains why Sakic can be such a force: “An explosive guy. Very quick hands. An unbelievable release. His shot is the shortest snapshot I’ve seen and the hardest one. He might not have the hardest shot in the league but the quickest release. I don’t know if there’s anybody better to get the shot off, and it’s comparable to a slap shot.”

“What happens is he holds onto the puck, and knowing he has the fast release, you always have to be in the right position and far out enough to make a stop. And he waits and waits and he keeps you on edge. And then he passes, and a often there’s no time to recover and to get to the pass, and if it’s a one-timer, a lot of times it’s in. He keeps you on edge all the time.”

In the playoffs, Sakic scored 18 goals and 16 points in 22 games (He was within one goal of the all-time, single-season mark for playoff goals. He also set a playoff record with six game-winning goals.). Colorado won the Cup and Joe received 9 out of 10 first place votes to win the Conn Smythe Trophy.

“He went to a new level of leadership,” coach Mark Crawford told Damien Cox. “We added some experienced guys who had won … and I think they really helped Joe’s game. They showed him there’s more than one way to lead … He sensed those guys knew when it was time to crank it up and when to rise to the occasion, and that’s what we got from him.”

Last season (1996-97), Sakic was hampered by injury and played in only 65 games. He tallied 74 points.

But, Joe played well in the playoffs, scoring 8 goals and 17 assists in 17 games. Once again, Sakic’s patience had paid off.

A patience that will guarantee him sainthood in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

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