Changes, Avs' rocky season can't shake Sakic
Guy Lafleur didn't have to be polite about it. But he was. While rooming on the road with a young Quebec Nordiques center, Lafleur always stepped into the hotel room's bathroom and shut the door before he lit up his cigarette.
"To me, it didn't matter," Colorado Avalanche captain Joe Sakic said with a laugh, years later. "I mean, what am I going to say to him? You see him come to your team, and you remember watching him flying out there against Boston and everybody. I was nervous at first to be around him, but he's a great guy. He was so nice to me, a good teammate."
This week, Sakic scored his 561st career goal in a Colorado victory over Calgary to pass Lafleur and take sole possession of the 18th spot on the NHL's all-time goal-scoring list. Before passing Lafleur, he also jumped past Maurice Richard, Michel Goulet, Ron Francis and Johnny Bucyk this season.
At 1,552 points, 36-year-old Sakic is No. 12 on the all-time list, and he has overhauled Dale Hawerchuk, Doug Gilmour, Adam Oates and Bryan Trottier in 2005-06. "Young Joe just doesn't want to get old," Trottier, a fellow former Swift Current Bronco, said from his home in the Pittsburgh area.
Among other things, what it all means is that Sakic will continue to pass retired players whose names -- and summoned memories of their play -- remind him not only that he has illustrious company but also that the calendar pages are turning.
"It's more that I'm honored," Sakic said. "It's an honor to, first, be around this long, and if you're getting to these guys, you know you're getting old, too. You're not going to catch these guys quick; you have to have longevity. Looking back and realizing you used to watch these guys, catching them is a special feeling."
That's not blowing smoke.
Sakic's two-goal night against the Flames ended a 10-game scoring drought for him. That streak of frustration again raised the issue of whether his up-and-down season -- especially in the wake of the altered rules and obstruction standards -- has been underachievement for a team trying to compensate for the loss of Peter Forsberg to unrestricted free agency and the Flyers.
The biggest change is that Sakic now more often sees the opposition's top -- and most physical, albeit under the new standards -- defensive pairing. Through 50 games, Sakic is at a point-per-game clip with 19 goals and 31 assists; Alex Tanguay, now playing left wing on the second line with Ian Laperriere and Brett McLean, is leading the Avalanche with 58 points.
"I've missed a lot of chances," Sakic said. "But I've felt good on the ice."
The catch to any assessment of Sakic's up-and-down season is that the Avalanche have scored the most goals in the Western Conference and are second only to the Senators overall. So even in the first season without the pick-the-poison, one-two punch of marquee centers, scoring hasn't been the Colorado problem as much as substandard goaltending (at least early in the season) and sometimes chaotic play in its own end.
"I haven't changed the way I play the game or my approach," Sakic said. "It was the same when [Forsberg] was here and now. You just do the best you can and that's it. You miss a guy like that who can dominate any game when he's feeling good, and that's great to watch. That rubs off on everybody. We don't have him now, but my approach is the same.
"It's different now. The league isn't being played the same way now, and that definitely helps. You're not always seeing checking lines anymore. We're seeing a lot of our line" -- at even strength, Sakic is playing with rookie phenom Marek Svatos and Antti Laaksonen -- "against the other top lines, especially at home. It would be easier to compare now and then if we were still playing in the same league as before."
Colorado coach Joel Quenneville hasn't had the luxury of having Sakic and Forsberg as a head coach, but he served as an assistant under Marc Crawford when the Nordiques and Avalanche had both.
"I don't know if this has changed the challenge for Joe," Quenneville said. "I think Joe has done a nice job and he's handled the situation pretty well. Productionwise, we've had some contributions from a lot of people we weren't sure about. We haven't had to rely just on Joe. In the past, the opposition probably was concerned about who they would cover, who they would check. And Joe a lot of times has taken the brunt of that. He's handled that situation fine, but I think it alleviates some pressure on other guys.
"Joe's adjusted to whatever situation he has had. He's played with a number of wingers and line combinations, and he's handled whatever the other team has put in front of him."
This is all playing out against Sakic's looming duty as Canada's Olympic captain, four years after he was the tournament MVP in his nation's gold-medal victory at Salt Lake City.
"In Canada, it doesn't matter whether you have a 'C', an 'A' or nothing," Sakic said. "We're expected to win, so to me, the pressure is the same. It's more an honor and a privilege to be able to wear the 'C.'"
Sakic's father, Marijan, and wife, Debbie, will be in Torino, watching Joe play, while Joe's mother, Slavica, comes to Denver to babysit 5-year-old twins Chase and Kamryn. For Marijan, it will be a return to his native continent, where he was born in Croatia (then part of Yugoslavia) during World War II. A stonemason by trade, Marijan decided to flee oppression and a dark future by sneaking across the border into Austria, then traveling to Canada. The funny part: He landed in Quebec City, then went across country to Vancouver, where Joe was born in 1969. (The NHL records saying Sakic was born in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby are incorrect.)
That's a heartening story of emigration, ethnic diversity in a new nation and assimilation. The man wearing the "C" in Torino spoke Croatian as a young boy and initially was shy in school because of it. (He is also a huge fan of the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners, and he still sounds like a 12-year-old when the subject of the Super Bowl comes up.)
He started playing hockey, getting his big chance when his parents scraped together $300 so their daughter, Rosemarie, could figure skate at the North Shore Club. The membership allowed brothers Joe (to this day, he is "Joey" to his parents) and Brian to skate, as well, and begin their development. Also, Marijan built a miniature rink in the backyard.
So, if Sakic can last long enough to play for Canada in 2010 at Vancouver, the native son will come full circle.
"Right now, I don't know," Sakic said. "People brought it up to me early in the year, but I'd like to get in a couple more seasons and then see. I just want to see how I feel and how I'm playing. Am I shooting for it? No."
First up: Torino.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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