The name Joe Sakic and the word “class” have appeared in the same sentence countless times since Burnaby Joe’s retirement announcement on Thursday. In this case, the term doesn’t begin to describe him. It’s an understatement.
After sneering, moaning and lecturing about what a me-first person Dany Heatley is this week, it was an interesting emotional intersection for me when I sat down to think about Sakic bidding farewell.
Sakic’s NHL career speaks for itself and has been well-documented since he made it official he’s hanging up the blades after 20 NHL seasons. He’s a sure-fire hall-of-famer. The numbers, all of the personal awards and the Stanley Cup rings are on the record for all to see. He was a special player.
Having known Joe since his first season with the Swift Current Broncos in 1986-87, I can tell you without any reservation, he’s an even more special person. That’s saying something.
Framed by all the talk about Heatley, specifically the criticisms I and others have offered in terms of his selfishness and sense of entitlement — I’m not sure I’d be any different had I been a millionaire by the age of 21 — Sakic’s virtues seem even more vivid.
In a sport that’s filled with wonderful young men when compared to other pro leagues, Sakic stands out as one of only a handful of players I know who isn’t one iota different today than he was when he was a kid riding the bus to and from Swift Current.
For all the millions of dollars he’s made, for having earned a place in the record books as one of the greatest players to skate in the NHL, Sakic is very much the same guy today as he was 20 years ago. Of the players I know, I can only put a handful — Mark Recchi and Jarome Iginla, to name two — in the same category.
Class? The epitome of it.
Taking the time
There are lots of NHL players who give greatly of themselves in the communities in which they live. Oilers captain Ethan Moreau was honoured for his good deeds this season when he was named recipient of the King Clancy Award. The list of nominees for that award is a long one.
Sakic is one of those players who believes in giving back, who makes an effort, who realizes he’s lucky to be healthy and wealthy and famous and that he can make a difference.
While I can’t do the moment justice in words, I’d like to share a snapshot from three or four years ago at the Pepsi Center that tells you something about Sakic.
On this trip to Denver, a little fellow from Edmonton — I want to say his name was Matthew — who was a staunch Oilers fan, met up with the team at the arena for the morning skate. The little guy, he was six or seven, had bone cancer in one of his legs.
Wide-eyed, just as you’d expect, Matthew had his face pressed up against the glass watching the Avalanche skate. I made a remark to Colorado PR man Jean Martineau about Matthew and asked if it might be possible if he could get a signed puck or something from somebody like, say, Joe. Jean said he’d pass it along.
A couple minutes later, Joe, who’d been off the ice awhile and was on his way home, poked his head out of the dressing room door. He spotted Matthew and motioned to me with one finger — not that finger — as if to say, “Just a minute.”
Not long after, Matthew was quietly guided down a hall to a room wear Sakic was waiting. No cameras. No reporters. Nothing on the record. This wasn’t a photo-op. Joe introduced himself and shook Matthew’s hand.
To say the kid was beaming is to understate. Joe spent at least 10 minutes talking to him, He handed over a signed photo, personalized of course, and a puck and some other stuff.
I’ll never forget the look of joy and excitement on that little boy’s face when he walked back down the hall as Joe headed the other way. Never.
— Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m. on Just A Game with Jason Gregor on Team 1260.