February 24, 2002: the day fifty years of Canadian suffering ended.
Millions cheered, many cried, countless beers spilled, strangers hugged and high-fived. The world stood still as Canadians coast-to-coast erupted in spontaneous celebration.
Joe Sakic scored two goals that day, including the game-winner, leading Canada to its first Olympic ice hockey gold medal in half a century. For any other player that would be the topper—for Sakic, just another jewel in the crown as the greatest hockey player born and raised in British Columbia.
The son of Croatian parents, Sakic spoke very little English before kindergarten. At age four he attended his first hockey game at the Pacific Coliseum, sitting way up in the nosebleeds as the Canucks plodded on the ice below against the Atlanta Flames. From that moment on, all he ever wanted to be was a hockey player.
He learned the game on the streets with buddies and the rinks of the Burnaby minor hockey association, patterning his game on the skill and precision of his idol Wayne Gretzky. Even The Great One would be impressed with Sakic’s early stats: 156 points in eighty games his last year of minor hockey and 160 points in only sixty-four games his final year of junior with the Swift Current Broncos. The Quebec Nordiques drafted him fifteenth overall in the 1987 NHL entry draft.
Sakic remained with the franchise his entire twenty-year NHL career, the team relocating to Colorado in 1995. At the age of twenty-one, he was named captain, one of the youngest in NHL history, holding this title until his retirement nineteen years later. Many have spoken about his leadership on and off the ice, perhaps the most memorable example in 2001 handing off the Stanley Cup to Ray Bourque before actually raising it first himself, as is the captain’s traditional right.
Individually, he must be regarded as one of the greatest players of his generation, the eighth-leading scorer in NHL history (625 goals, 1016 assists, 1641 points in 1378 games). Possessing perhaps the best wrist shot in the game, twice he topped fifty goals in a single season and six times eclipsed 100 points. His most dominant year was 2000-01 compiling 118 points while winning the Hart, Conn Smythe, Lady Byng, and Lester B. Pearson Trophies. Thirteen times he was voted into the NHL All-Star Game and three times honoured with selection to the NHL’s First All-Star Team.
Few players can match Sakic’s resume in terms of team success. Twice he captained the Avalanche to Stanley Cup triumphs (1996, 2001) surpassed only by Team Canada’s gold medal victory at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, where Sakic earned tournament MVP honours. Along the way he helped Canada capture the 1988 world junior championship, 1994 world championship, and 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Where previously a sparse sprinkling of BC-born players dotted NHL rosters, the elevation in quantity and quality since Sakic’s arrival is nothing short of remarkable—think of Niedermayer, Kariya, Recchi and more. Some of the credit must go to “Burnaby Joe” who raised the bar top shelf for those who followed.
Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.