Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Joe Sakic, The Quiet Hero

The tributes to him have been numerous of late, for good reason: he was a tremendous hockey player, and also an honorable man. He could have continued for another year, one in which he was a shoe-in for captaincy at the Winter Olympics, played near his home town of Burnaby, BC, but, gentleman that he was, he decided that wasn't a good enough reason to stay.

In the late '80s, I was a fan of the Québec Nordiques. Barely a handful of us, in a 600-student school, didn't root for the hometown Montréal Canadiens - I guess we were rebels.

I remember my parents being nice enough to arrange small weekend trips to Québec City just so I could see my favourite team play. 1988-89 may have been the season where we went the most often, perhaps 5 times, for maybe a total of 6 games. The memories are vague, but I recall #88 (that's the number he first wore) being most impressive, even more so than Peter Stastny, another player I really liked.

Sakic had moves and a charisma in full hockey gear that he somehow gets to hide when in plain clothes. He's like Superman that way - he has to wear civilian clothing to appear normal when, in fact, he's leagues ahead of even other professionals. And he oozes leadership - a fact confirmed by his being the captaincy during only his third pro season.

As a teen, I'd always wear my #88 Sakic jersey whenever I'd play outside - whether the rink or the alleyways, or the street. People around the neighbourhood would actually call me Sakic, even when I wasn't wearing the shirt. My good friend Jean-Martin, on the other hand, was Yzerman - the only other player not named Gretzky that displayed a kind of masculine grace to go along with even personalities and an amazing set of skills - and another captain wearing #19 who stayed with the same franchise for his entire career.

Burnaby Joe had the best wrist shot in the game, one of the best backhand shots too - and he could pass like few others in his time (there was Gretzky, Oates, and then Sakic, with maybe Thornton and Koivu to finish the top 5 of the past 10-15 years). His adversaries did everything they could to get him off his game - some attempting to injure him, some succeeding, but he never retaliated. He'd score the game winner instead, as he was wont to do - he holds the all-time playoffs record for most game winners.

It's just a shame he had to wait until the team moved to Denver to win the Cup - and the Playoff MVP Award (Conn Smythe Trophy); I would have loved to go see him hoist that salad bowl at the Colisée.

It's weird; I'm 30 and have lived in an era where I've witnessed records that were considered timeless fall - the (juiced) home run record in baseball, most of Roy's and Gretzky's (and Sakic's) NHL records, the Michael Phelps phenomenon - and I've seen them all retire. Them and Mario Lemieux, Joe Montana, John Elway, Guy Lafleur, Mark Messier. I saw it happen and I saw it come to an end.

It makes one feel small.

Sad to see you go, Joe.

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