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The snub between the Avalanche and the Red Wings wasn’t the first rivalry Joe Sakic found himself in. He began his NHL career in Quebec City with the Nordiques, the least successful team in the Quebec Hot Battle. Over the course of 11 years, the Nordiques and Montreal Canadiens have played each other five times in the playoffs, including once in Sakic’s football career. A few years before Sakic entered the NHL, a postseason match between the two ended with 11 disposals. There was harsh criticism between the two clubs. hatred.
However, when Sakic—the final captain of the Nordiques before their move to Colorado—was introduced in the 2022 NHL Draft in Montreal, he heard nothing but cheers. As he walked to the stage to accept the Jim Gregory Memorial Award for General Manager of the Year, fans in red Canadiens jerseys rose to their feet to express their opinions. The noise in Bell’s center amplified as he began to speak.
This is the reception you get as one of the most beloved figures in sports.
“Merci beaucoup,” he said, dusting off some French he learned while with the Nordiques.
Sakic is not only one of the best hockey players of all time, as he finished 13th in Athletic List of the greatest NHLers of the modern era. He is also one of the most universally respected people. Fans in Quebec City have been adoring him nearly three decades after the Nordiques left town. Canadiens supporters still cheer for him. He was even respected by the Red Wings. Mike Ritchie, who played with Sakic in both Quebec City and Denver, recalled that Sakic and Detroit captain Steve Yzerman were “left pretty much on their own” during the competition. Even opponents held them in high esteem.
“You respect the other team’s king,” says Darren McCarty, who was with Detroit at the height of the rivalry. “We all loved Joe Sakic. We all thought he was amazing.”
“The rest of us would love to hate,” Richie adds.
And, of course, there are the people in Denver, where Sakic has quite the reputation. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff Most Valuable Player in 1996, the team’s first year at Colorado. He led the team to a pair of Stanley Cups, won the Hart Trophy, and the Lady Byng Trophy and finished his career with 1,641 points. His success – along with that of his team – helped their fan base take off. Then 13 years after his playing career ended, he led the Avalanche to another Stanley Cup as the team’s general manager.
He is the face of Colorado sports, and has been since the team’s arrival. He ushered in a new era of professional sports.
“John Elway was obviously the guy in Denver at the time and always will be the guy in Denver. I know that,” says broadcaster John Kelly, who called the Avalanche games after the team moved on. “But Joe Sakic, from day one, was definitely Denver’s hockey guy.”
At first, Richie wrote the rumours. He didn’t think Nordique would actually make a move. But as the 1994-95 season progressed, talks began to look more serious. The team was having financial troubles, but not because of a lack of fan support.
“Marcel Aubot, the owner, had dinner with us,” Richie says. “You could tell, the way he was talking, it was terrible.”
The chatter proved correct. Aubut sold the team to COMSAT Entertainment Group, which also owns the Denver Nuggets. COMSAT has moved the team to Denver.
“It was a kind of unsettling time but an exciting time,” Curtis Lechien says.
They were leaving a city with a large, stable fan base and heading somewhere most players didn’t know much about. How could they fit into a market with three other major professional sports teams, where the NFL’s Denver Broncos were the Kings? There was a passionate fanbase, but the players didn’t know it at the time.
By the time of the transition, Sakic was the face of the Nordics. On the one hand, his performance was exceptional, even when the team was struggling. He had three 100-plus-point seasons for Quebec City, two of them when the North won 12 and 16 games. Lechien notes that fans in Quebec are familiar with hockey and know how to spot talent. Sakic obviously had it.
Then there was the way he carried himself.
“A captain all the way,” says Quebec City native Christian Robitaille, who grew up rooting for the Nordiques.
“He was always respectful of the Nordiques fans,” adds Ritchie. “He loved being out there. He loved the fans out there. There was no clue he wanted out, even when they were bad. He stuck with that, stuck with the bad and turned him into what he is today.”
Towards the end of the team’s days in Quebec City, the roster began to gather. Sakic was a star, and the Nordiques’ trading Eric Lindros brought in a host of chops, including Peter Forsberg, who won the Calder Award in 1994-95. The Nordiques persevered through their terrible seasons and made the 1995 playoffs, only to lose in the first round to the New York Rangers.
“This is what we did in Quebec: we learned how to lose and eventually learned what it takes to win,” says Lechien.
Unfortunately for Nordiques fans, they never got to see those lessons pay off. Sakic and the Nordiques were headed to Denver, ready to take the next step as a Stanley Cup contender.
Want to know how to gain a new fan base? Start winning games.
The Avalanche did just that in its first season. This wasn’t an expansion team without top talent. This was a club with star power, a proven leader in Sakic and, thanks to a mid-season hit, Hall of Fame goalkeeper in Patrick Roy. They were, says longtime employee Jean Martino, ready to explode.
The Avalanche was young and dynamic—which Martino, who handled team communications in both Quebec City and Colorado, felt matched the energy of Denver in the mid-1990s. And although the Avalanche was new, the town already had hockey fans. The University of Denver is a traditional NCAA powerhouse, and the city had an NHL team from 1976 until 1982, when the Colorado Rockies moved to New Jersey and became the Devils.
Existing fans had a great showing in their inaugural season. Thanks in large part to Sakic’s fast, powerful shooting and his career-high 120-point season, the Avalanche finished the regular season with the second-best record in the league. This led to a stage where Sakic became a household name around town: the playoffs.
“Away from the real hockey fans, the market really started embracing the team during the Stanley Cup run,” says Martino, now a travel and communications consultant.
The run could have been a lot shorter if the second round had gone a little differently. In the second round, Colorado trailed 2-1 in the series and got into a triple overtime game 4. Early in the third overtime, Richie found himself on the ice with Sakic. He says he often played with more skilled players because the matches got so long. The fast players slowed down, but he joked that he could stay the same, not too fast for a 20-period if need be. And when he was on the ice in those moments, all he wanted to do was get Sakic’s puck.
Ritchie got the puck in the attacking zone, and then passed it along the boards to Alexei Gusarov. Meanwhile, Sakic cut toward the net, where Gusarov hit him with a bar-to-bar pass. The captain redirected the feed to the net and threw his arms over his head in excitement.
“That was the biggest goal of the playoffs for me,” Kelly says, adding that it was probably the most memorable game because of all the pressure on Colorado.
“We really didn’t want to lose 3-1,” Sakic said on TSN after the match.
Colorado won the next two games, including double overtime in game six. Sakic didn’t score the game-winner that night, but had a minor assist on Sandys O’Solins in overtime. The Chicago series, in which four games went to overtime, was when Martino saw the hype around Denver extend beyond the hardcore fans.
“You come in and win that way, and in the first year people just gravitated to it,” says former defender Adam Foot.
Sakic’s heroics continued. In the Conference Finals against Detroit, he scored two goals in the deciding Game 6, including a go-ahead run in the second period. He then led Colorado to a sweep of the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final. After Game 4, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman called him forward to accept the Conn Smythe Trophy for Playoff Most Valuable Player. He averaged nearly a goal per game in those playoffs (18 in 22) and has since scored a record-breaking six winning goals.
“He knew how good it was,” Richie says. “He didn’t feel the need to tell anyone or talk about it.”
He didn’t need to earn praise with Avalanche. In large part because of his heroics, Denver claimed its first professional championship in any sport. He raised the Stanley Cup above his head, his mouth open in a wide smile.
Sakic continued to shine. He led the Avalanche to another Stanley Cup in 2001 and never left the Nordiques/Avalanche franchise. The team retired his number, and he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.
“He was blessed with so many natural talents,” says Lechichin. “But he also worked hard at his craft and became very successful. Not by accident or dumb luck. He got every accolade he ever achieved.”
During Sakic’s heyday, kids mimicked his game across Colorado. Anaheim Ducks standout Troy Terry, who grew up in Denver, wears #19 for the Great Avalanche. He also remained a fan favorite in Quebec, even after the Nordiques moved on. NHLers Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Marchessault, originally Nordiques fans, kept up with their favorite players—including Sakic—after the team moved on.
During the Denver portion of his career, Sakic held onto the reputation he built in Quebec City. He was not arrogant or arrogant. He was simply a world class athlete with his head in the right place.
“I always say that if people don’t know anything about hockey and come up to talk to him, you’ll never know he was a Hall of Famer with three Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic medal,” Lechichin says. “It didn’t come across that way.”
But he also received these awards. He’s still the face of hockey in Colorado, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
“It’s up to the rafters, man,” says Foote. “It all speaks for itself.”
(Top photo: Elsa/Getty Images)