No average Joe - Sakic quietly moving among NHL all-time greats

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The Quebec Nordiques' general manager knew he'd be vilified for parting with fan favourite Dale Hunter before the 1987 draft.

This kid, though.

Filion kept seeing images of the kid in his mind. Defenders couldn't knock him off the puck and he had a wrist shot that completely froze goalies. Everything was telling Filion he needed to make the deal with the Washington Capitals.

So the Nordiques sent Hunter to the Capitals for the 15th pick in the draft, and Quebec selected centre Joe Sakic.

Filion now laughs at his trepidation.

"We got a pretty good player, huh?" he said from his home in Quebec City.

One of the elite.

Sakic is nearing the end of his playing days. It's been a career even he couldn't have imagined. He's been MVP of the league, won two Stanley Cup titles with the Colorado Avalanche, led Team Canada to an Olympic gold medal in 2002 and now is the elder statesman of a young team pushing hard for a playoff spot.

"You just hope to play," Sakic said. "You don't think of goals and accomplishments. I just wanted to play in the NHL."

Sakic did more than just play - he's 10th on the NHL career scoring list (1,541 points heading into this weekend), recently passing Paul Coffey. He's 17th in goals scored (594) and 12th in assists (947).

His goal against Detroit on Jan. 20 allowed him to reach the 20-goal mark for the 17th time in 18 seasons. The only time he didn't was in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, when he had 19 goals.

Yet the 37-year-old Sakic is showing no signs of aging. Retirement isn't even a consideration - at least right now. He signed a one-year deal at the start of the season and will continue to do that, so he can re-evaluate his performance after every season.

"At this stage, it's the best way to handle it," Sakic said.

He's the quiet, unassuming superstar on a Colorado team filled with rising stars. However, this team is a far cry from the glory days just five years ago when the Avalanche were a veteran-laden - and very talented - group that were perennial Stanley Cup contenders.

But Sakic doesn't mind this role. He started his career with the Nordiques when the team - which relocated to Colorado in 1995 - was undergoing a youth movement. It culminated with a Stanley Cup title in 1996.

Sakic can visualize similar results with this bunch, but whether he'll see it through remains the mystery.

"We've got a lot of talent," Sakic said. "Do I have a timetable of how long I'll play? No. As long as you feel like you're contributing, you play. Once that stops, you stop."

Sakic's the pride and joy of Burnaby, British Columbia. The town even named a street for him - Joe Sakic Way - which runs right in front of a youth hockey rink. His popularity is such that he's known by two nicknames - Burnaby Joe to the fans in the Vancouver area and Super Joe around Colorado.

He may not be an intimidating presence - he's only five foot 11 and 195 pounds - but he has one of the most lethal wrist shots in the game, and his speed and intelligence always have him in proper position.

"We're very proud of him," Burnaby Mayor Derek Corrigan said. "The way he's playing, he could play until he's 60. He's got the Gordie Howe gene."

Sakic holds Nordiques/Avalanche team records in virtually every offensive category. Only five players have tallied more points with one franchise - one being his boyhood idol, Wayne Gretzky.

Turns out, the Great One is also a big Sakic fan.

"There's a few guys who are automatic Hall of Fame, and he's obviously one of them," Gretzky said. "I always tell younger guys, if you want to model yourself after a good centre, he's the perfect guy."

Sakic blushes at mention of Gretzky's praise.

"Wow, that's an honour when he says something like that," said Sakic, who made his 12th all-star appearance Wednesday night as captain of the Western Conference squad.

Adds Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock: "He's the most complete player in the NHL."

No one seems to speak a bad word about Sakic. He's one of the good guys in the game. He's as humble as pro athletes come.

"He's not a nice guy at all," teammate Ian Laperriere deadpanned.

Then he smiled.

"Only kidding," he said. "You hear rumours about the guy. But until you're around him every day, seeing the hours he puts in, the work he does, you see how remarkable he is."

When Sakic was called up to Quebec in 1988, Hall of Famer Peter Stastny took him under his wing. Stastny was so impressed with the kid that he went to management - after being traded the following season - and told them they needed to make Sakic the captain.

"If you needed him to do something, he did it. He always came through," Stastny said. "A lot of scouts are banging their heads over how they let him pass."

Sakic is now mentoring Peter Stastny's son, Paul, who was drafted by the Avalanche in 2005.

"He's great for Paul," Peter said.

Hanging in Sakic's locker is a pair of shoulder pads he's had since 1989. The pads are stained with years of sweat and held together by a patchwork sewing job. They're so bad he can't wear them in games anymore - he retired them to practice only last season - but can't bring himself to throw them away. They hold too many memories.

Yet he won't admit to it outright.

"I wear them because they're comfy," he said.

Gretzky doesn't see Sakic retiring any time soon.

"As long as he enjoys going to the rink every day, he should (play)," Gretzky said.

There's only one thing that seems to rattle Sakic. Mention the bus accident, and Sakic glances at the floor. He still recalls that night of Dec. 30, 1986, with vivid detail.

On the way to Regina for a game, the 17-year-old Sakic, playing for the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL, was sitting in the front of the bus when the driver skidded off the road in bad weather. The bus tumbled down an embankment. Sakic was showered in glass and climbed out through a window, but was unhurt. Four teammates died.

"A tragedy like that opens your eyes," Sakic said.

It made him appreciate life and hockey, and how it can be taken away at any time. That's why he works so hard on the ice.

"He brings meaning to every game," Avs coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's a great leader."

Avalanche president Pierre Lacroix used to receive trade proposals for Sakic. But then the offers stopped. Not because teams lost interest in Sakic, but because they realized he wasn't for sale.

"Everyone wants a player of his calibre, " Lacroix said. "The idea of trading him, though, never crossed our minds."

To this day, Lacroix's favourite memory was when Sakic took the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman after beating New Jersey in Game seven of the 2001 final and handing it to teammate Ray Bourque, who was playing in his final season, to skate it around the ice.

"Some people think I'm not too sensitive," Lacroix said. "But when he gave Ray the Cup, that gave me goose bumps. That's Joe. Great hockey player, even better human being."



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