There are two ways to look at the hockey scene in Colorado – Before Joe Sakic and after Joe Sakic.
For 14 seasons, he’s come to represent everything the Colorado Avalanche organization represents, forever changing the way the state has supported its professional teams while epitomizing what team sports truly stand for. After all, it wasn’t John Elway who brought Denver its first major professional sports championship. It was Sakic and the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche.
“My dad always said to me, ‘leave a place better than you found it.’ Joe Sakic has left Denver better than he found it,” long-time Denver Post sports columnist Woody Paige said during Thursday’s farewell press conference.
“We couldn’t keep a hockey team. We were not a hockey town to the world, and Joe Sakic and the Avalanche came here and not only proved that this city could have a championship team for the first time in any of the major sports but also could produce a fan following … Denver is now considered among the great sports cities in all of America.”
For 11 seasons, the Avalanche sold out every game at McNichols Arena and the Pepsi Center, making the 487-sellout streak the longest in NHL history.
Hockey at the youth level in Colorado has also benefited from Sakic’s presence. While he hails from Burnaby, British Columbia and is a three-time Olympian for Team Canada, his affect on the game in the United States, specifically in Colorado, is undeniable.
“I am absolutely convinced that the type of person he was and the way he carried himself certainly on the ice but also off the ice – he was a great role model for the community for the 15 years he’s been here,” said Phil Paolilli, president of the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association. “It’s one of those things that’s hard to quantify, but I have no doubt it was a tremendous positive influence on the growth of the sport here.”
Sakic’s two sons are USA Hockey registered players, and while his playing schedule limited his availability to coach, Sakic is a Level 3 USA Hockey registered coach.
Since “Super Joe’s” arrival in Colorado, the number of hockey players at the youth level in the state has almost doubled, growing from 4,776 to more than 9,000.
“When we came here, there was really only one or two good organizations for youth hockey,” Sakic said. “And now, following my kids around, it doesn’t matter where you play, you’re going to have great competition. You have so many kids who want to play. We’ve been here for 15 years and from Midget teams to Bantam teams to Peewee teams, they go on and are successful and winning state championships. There are so many more kids playing. It’s been a great thing for youth hockey.”
Sakic’s involvement in the local community earned him the 2007 NHL Foundation Player Award, annually presented to the player who “applies the core values of hockey – commitment, perseverance and teamwork – to enrich the lives of people in his community.” The winner of the award is granted $25,000 to donate to the cause of his choice, which Sakic used to help the pediatrics oncology unit at the Children’s Hospital.
On the ice, Sakic was known for his lethal wrist shot and reliability in clutch situations. He ends his career as the eighth-leading scorer in NHL history with 1,641 points and as the league’s second-longest serving captain.
“I thought this was going to be easier,” an emotional Sakic said of his retirement. “The older you get, you know you’re going to have to face this moment one day. There comes a time for every athlete when you have to decide it’s time to move on.”
While Avalanche fans may not see their captain on the ice for home games at the Pepsi Center, Sakic won’t be completely out of the game. When asked about coaching possibilities, Sakic laughed, “Youth hockey, yes. Pro hockey, no.”
Sakic’s No. 19 jersey will be raised to the rafters at the Pepsi Center on the opening night of the 2009-10 season, joining former teammates Ray Bourque and Patrick Roy. While his playing days are over, Colorado’s favorite hockey dad will carry a legacy in Colorado as not only one of the game’s best, but one of it’s classiest. And that legacy will forever be cemented in the youth hockey culture in Colorado.