Commentary

This time around, there are no guarantees Sakic will return

Updated: May 5, 2008, 12:38 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

DENVER -- Joe Sakic let Joel Quenneville know.

The Avalanche's veteran center wanted to be on the ice for the final seconds of Colorado's embarrassing 8-2 loss to Detroit in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeJoe Sakic
Michael Martin/NHLI/Getty ImagesJoe Sakic had 13 goals and 40 points in an injury-shortened 44-game season.

Quenneville went along with it.

So when the final horn sounded, and the Red Wings had finished off the resounding sweep of the overmatched and ultimately injury-wracked Avalanche, it was entirely reasonable to speculate Sakic's gesture symbolized more than a captain going down with his ship.

It might have been Sakic's final NHL shift.

"I'm going to take my time and think about it over the summer," Sakic said a few minutes later. "It's something that, obviously, I have to make a decision about. I'll discuss it with my family and we'll see where we go. But right now, I'm going to take some time and reflect."

Chances are strong that Sakic, who turns 39 in July, will confer with his wife, Debbie, and others close to him, and ultimately decide to sign another one-year deal with Colorado and return for a 19th season with the Quebec-Colorado franchise next fall.

But there are no guarantees.

He truly hasn't made up his mind, and that's a significant contrast to a year ago, when Sakic had a terrific 2006-07 season, finishing sixth in NHL scoring with 100 points, at age 37. It was a foregone conclusion he would keep playing. The Avalanche orchestrated the expected announcement of his re-signing only two days after the end of the regular season, in part to help ease the public-relations sting of missing the playoffs for the first time in the franchise's tenancy in Colorado.

This time, it's different.

Sakic missed 38 games this season because of a hernia problem that ultimately required surgery, and he says he wasn't anything close to full strength before he gave in and left the lineup, and for several weeks following his return.

"I missed three months, and the big thing during that time was that I wasn't allowed to do the explosive stuff that you want to do," he said. "Once you get back playing and start doing that, it starts to come."

He finished with 13 goals and 40 points in his 44 games this season, but he had four of those goals in Colorado's first five games. In late October and early November, he went 11 games without a goal, one of the more frustrating personal stretches of his career. His shots per game were down slightly, dropping to under three, and that lethal wrist shot wasn't as noticeable. Every once in a while, backchecking seemed a major chore, harder for him than ever before.

It was slippage. But nothing major. Nothing embarrassing.

The biggest issue might be whether the hernia problem can be written off as an aberration in Sakic's largely injury-free career … or a sign of things to come.

In the interim between the end of the regular season and the opening of Colorado's first-round series against Minnesota, I sat down with Sakic and talked at length about the possibility that he might retire, and what would go into the decision. He made it clear he wouldn't address the issue again once the playoffs started and parried all questions about retirement from the waves of reporters covering the Avalanche's two series. Even after the Avalanche's elimination, he made it clear the emotional moments immediately after an ignominious, but predictable, loss weren't an appropriate setting to go through the possibilities at any length.

Sakic was the Avalanche's leading scorer in the postseason with two goals and 10 points in Colorado's 10 games. The point-a-game pace wasn't a glittery total for the Conn Smythe Trophy winner of 12 years ago, but it might be advanced as part of the argument for a return.

After the Avalanche's season ended Thursday, there were reminders of the twilight stage of Sakic's career. Chase Sakic, 7, one of Debbie and Joe's three children, tried to navigate the traffic in the crowded Pepsi Center hallway to reach the Colorado dressing room to see his father. A kind Red Wings official, noting the Sakic jersey and figuring out who this kid was, helped direct him. It was before Chase was born that this official, Scotty Bowman, was on the bench for the most acrimonious days of the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry -- enmity that didn't diminish the respect the fans in both cities had for the opposing No. 19s. Near the Pepsi Center's loading dock, Debbie was introducing Chase's twin, a very shy Kamryn, to Sakic's former teammate, Mike Ricci, now a San Jose scout. When Ricci left the franchise, the Sakics hadn't yet started their family.

And then there is the fact that when Sakic does retire, he likely will pass the torch to center Paul Stastny -- whose father, Peter, was a young Joe Sakic's teammate with Quebec.

It's difficult to imagine Sakic ever living a significantly diminished on-ice profile with the Avalanche. There will be no third-line or spot duty for him, if he can help it. He won't let it come to quibbling with a coach's difficult decision, or having to suggest that he'd go along with diminished ice time. If Sakic sees that coming in a next season, whenever that is, he will quit.

Yes, he has his eye on a possible fourth Olympic appearance for Team Canada in his hometown of Vancouver in 2010. But even then, the possibility of becoming a "mercy" or "honorary" choice to any degree horrifies him. He won't let it come to that, either. "You have to make sure you're still playing at a certain level," he said. "You still have to earn your spot on the team."

Finally, the outlook for the Avalanche undoubtedly will come into play, even if it's a peripheral consideration. Colorado's bizarre injury sieges during the regular season and playoffs shouldn't be allowed to obscure the reality that the Avalanche are a step or two (and big steps) below the Red Wings, and perhaps others in the Western Conference.

If one of the dreams is of pulling off a Bourque, or in this case raising the Stanley Cup as a captain for a third time to retire on top, Colorado's future and maybe even early offseason decisions and moves could affect Sakic's thinking.

Whenever he goes out, it will be on his terms.

More power to him.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."