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Dater Column: Joe Sakic Going All In on a Stanley Cup in 2022



Joe Sakic
Graphic by @tonycaya

The Colorado Avalanche is the top team in the NHL right now, just five years after posting one of the worst seasons in NHL history. The Avs have a young team still too, with all the core players still under 30. They have a player on defense who is already being compared with Bobby Orr, and a front line that includes some marvelously talented players, led Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabe Landeskog.

But, as Joe Sakic showed this week on a team that was all of those things before the NHL trade deadline, he’s made the team even better with two recent acquisitions. The additions of Josh Manson on defense and Nico Sturm have made the already formidable Avs a bigger, more physically intimidating team.

The Avs believe they are a better team than they were a few days ago. That doesn’t mean they aren’t still looking around for maybe one or two more pieces to solve that Stanley Cup-winning puzzle that has eluded Sakic since 2001, when he last won it as a player.

Which is why, at the close of the day Friday night, the Avs and Sakic still were in the hunt for Philadelphia Flyers veteran captain Claude Giroux. It’s complicated, but basically the Avs have an offer on the table for Giroux. Thing is, Giroux reportedly wants to go to Florida if the Flyers are going to deal him, which he really doesn’t want to have happen. He would rather stay a Flyer, for some reason (OK, loyalty, which is an admirable trait).

Reportedly, the Avs’ offer for Giroux is better, in the mind of Flyers GM Chuck Fletcher, than Florida’s. But Giroux has the final say on any of this, with a full no-trade, no-move clause to his contract. Also, the Flyers thought they had a deal worked out with the Panthers the other day, my sources tell me, but then Florida pay a king’s ransom to acquire D-man Ben Chiarot from Montreal, with some of the assets going to the Canadiens that the Flyers thought would be coming to them for Giroux.

The Chiarot trade made the Flyers reconsider the offer on the table from Florida and suddenly want more. If the Panthers were going to give up that much for Ben Chiarot, Flyers brass said, what should the new benchmark be for Claude Giroux?

Laying in the weeds, the whole time, has been Sakic. If the Flyers want to consider his offer, great. But he’s not going to make anything more than his last, best offer. What exactly that offer is for Giroux, nobody by Sakic can actually say.

Sakic has taken a page from the media relations playbook of management mentor, the late Pierre Lacroix, in rarely giving the press anything to write about with his quotes. As much as when he was a player for 20 years in the NHL, Sakic remains Quoteless Joe, a man who will talk to you, sure, but he’s not going to fly off the handle about anything. He rarely raises his voice about anything, preferring a blend of understatement mixed with the occasional Will Rogers observation about life, and hockey. For him, it’s almost always been intertwined, since he was a little kid who spoke only in the ancestral tongue as an immigrant to Canada with his family, from Croatia.

Sakic has always been more comfortable having a beer and unwinding with true friends after a game, rather than mixing with members of the powerful old boys club that still, by and large, runs the NHL. He has never been all that comfortable with the fame and money that comes with all he’s done in hockey. Yet, he’s used to a very nice lifestyle by now, having made multiple millions of dollars every single year since 1993 or so. He lives in a very well-appointed mini-mansion in Cherry Hills, and has a waterfront summer home in his native British Columbia.

But you would still be hard-pressed to spot any moneyed privilege with Sakic. Sure, that’s kind of easy to say when you don’t have any financial concerns. It’s easier to seem worry-free and above all the tumult and shouting when you know have tons of money and a Hall of Fame playing career already on your side.

But Sakic still seems to enjoy a hard day’s work. He suffered from a whispered reputation that he maybe didn’t want to put in the effort of some 24-7 workaholic GMs when he first started. But ask people around the team still, and they’ll still say Sakic is one of the first guys to arrive and last to leave. Besides, Sakic has always been something of a late bloomer. He needs a little time to figure things out, but once he does, he’s very confident in himself.

He’s very loyal to those he feels have shown loyalty to him. He well remembers the days as a rookie in Quebec when he stuttered through interviews and some doubted him as a 5-11, 185-pound first-round pick of the Nordiques. Two Stanley Cups, one Olympic gold medal victory and MVP of the tournament, one Hart Trophy and one Conn Smyte Trophy later, and Sakic remains probably one of the 25 greatest players ever to lace up the skates.

The people who helped get him there, he’s never forgotten. That starts with his parents, who are still with us, and his wife of more than 30 years, Debbie. The two continue to give untold amounts of time and money to local charities, starting with the Food Bank of the Rockies, which Sakic has been associated with since the 1990s.

Probably no athlete in the history of Denver sports has given more time and money to local Denver causes than Joe Sakic, along with Debbie. But, Sakic never makes a show of it. It’s just something he really likes to do. It’s not a PR thing.

Yet, Sakic is not easy to get to know. You have to put in your time with him for him to trust you with anything. Sure, he’ll be amiable with anyone. But to get to know the more private Joe Sakic takes some time.

Sakic is comfortable, finally, mixing with those from the C-Suites of the NHL. He battled against some conceptions from others in NHL GM circles that he might be just another ex-jock who didn’t really understand the full inner-workings of the hockey business. And, Sakic would probably tell you he was a bit under-prepared when he first took over the GM job in 2013. Throw in a partnership with Patrick Roy that ultimately dissolved over personnel disagreements in 2016, and Sakic’s first few years as a GM were not easy.

But Sakic is now looked at as the architect of maybe the most envied organization in the league, when it comes to the talent on hand and the prospects ahead, for the near- and long-term future.

He made a vow to himself to trust his own instincts fully again, starting with the hire of Jared Bednar as his new coach in 2016, and having faith in him despite a disastrous 2016-17 season. Then, it was a belief that, to do things really right, he needed to remake the team with a more longer-term view. No more shortcuts or quick-fix solutions. He drew on his experience as a player with Quebec, when the formerly laughable Nordiques were remolded into a great team built on youth and speed, with the occasional addition from somewhere else. The Avs have been a playoff team every year since. But, of course, he and the team are still battling a reputation as a team that can’t get over the hump.

Three straight seasons in which the team has lost in the second round of the playoffs has cast a dome of worry and doubt over the fan base, despite a marvelous season for the team this year that included yet another win Friday night, 5-3 in San Jose.

And, even with a gaudy record and a stacked lineup, Sakic still has irons in the fire for potential strong added personnel. It’s why the Avs are still in the hunt for Claude Giroux. And if Sakic doesn’t get him?

It might well still be OK. The Avs believe they addressed two needs already at the deadline, with the additions of Josh Manson and Nico Sturm. If Giroux wants to hop on this wagon, great.

If not, this team might still well be good enough to win its third Stanley Cup since coming to Denver in 1995. For Sakic, it would be the culmination of a charmed professional career. There are some who wonder if Sakic might be planning to step into some other role with the team, especially if it wins in 2022. Assistant GM Chris MacFarland did not interview with a couple of NHL teams that had recent openings for GM jobs, leading some to wonder if Sakic might not hand off the GM reigns to him and take perhaps a new title like Team President or, basically, whatever he wants to be called.

Because, as much as Sakic has grown into the role as a GM, it’s a pressure-cooker that even he might be tiring of. He’s been under a microscope in hockey since 1988, and he doesn’t much like all the attention it brings. If he wins a Cup as GM, he’ll pretty much have nothing left to accomplish in his hockey career.

He may well want the good, more leisurely life of early retirement, of traveling with Debbie and relaxing more with a good piece of salmon and a good glass of wine, of every night not being a win or a loss in the standings.

Until then, though, Sakic is seeming as focused as he’s ever been, about getting his name chiseled into the Stanley Cup for the third time.

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