Rocky Mountain highs: What was Sakic's greatest triumph?

The outpouring of emotions and honors for Joe Sakic's retirement today has been tremendous, partially because we're at that point in the offseason where a story like this becomes gargantuan and also because we've been spared another summer of tediously frustrating "will he/won't he" Sundin-style ruse. Now that's a reason to celebrate.

That aside, Sakic retiring is a significant moment. As generic as some of their tributes were, when is the last time you can recall Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Ray Bourque, Steve Yzerman and Patrick Roy all chiming in on a given subject?

(Gretzky: "I think he's had an outstanding career, a brilliant career ... The thing about Joe is he did it with so much class and so much dignity. Very humble, almost shy, but when he got on the ice he was dynamic, very unselfish.")

Your heart goes out to Colorado Avalanche fans today, as the announcement is awash in the bittersweet reality that the reset button's been slammed down on the franchise. But there's too much nostalgia, too many memories flooding back to worry about the 2010 draft lottery the near future.

Mile High Hockey has a definitive collection of articles and blogs covering Joe Sakic's legacy today, and there's a common theme for some of them: What was his greatest achievement as a player?

CBC Sports is running a poll that asks that every question, offering four options:

1996 Stanley Cup (Conn Smythe award)

8 playoff OT goals (NHL record)

2001 Stanley Cup (Art Ross, Lady Byng, and Lester B. Pearson awards)

Olympic gold in 2002 (tournament MVP)

The incredible thing about Sakic is that there are so many other options beyond that foursome. So what's your favorite Sakic moment? And please don't tell us it's handing the Cup to Ray Bourque.

Don't get us wrong: Sakic's handoff to Bourque after the legendary defenseman won his elusive Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 2001 is an iconic moment in NHL history. It also symbolized the selflessness Sakic exhibited throughout his career. But it's Bourque's moment; it's a small footnote in Sakic's career. Eh ... maybe this is just our intense disdain for Bourque's number hanging from the Colorado rafters just shining through.

Of the four achievements listed above, the eight overtime goals is a knock-you-on-the-rump stunning record to hold. Granted, Rocket Richard's six OT playoff goals came before the expansion of the postseason tournament; but it doesn't detract from how clutch Sakic was when it counted most. He had two OT game-winners in the 1996 Cup run, had one in 1998, 2001, 2006 and 2008; and two in 2004. He retires seventh in NHL history with 84 playoff goals. Absolutely clutch.

In Adrian Dater's terrific review of Sakic's playoff exploits, the clutch label is explained:

"I take more pride in having had the reputation as a playoff player than anything," said Sakic's former teammate Claude Lemieux, "and Joe proved himself as a clutch player. I remember that first year, he scored some real big goals for us in the playoffs. He won the Conn Smythe, and he deserved it."

Avs fans can debate Sakic's biggest playoff goals, but one stands above the others: a redirection of Alexei Gusarov's pass that got past Chicago Blackhawks goalie Ed Belfour to give the Avs a triple-overtime victory in Game 4 of the 1996 Western Conference semifinals.

The Avs would have been down 3-1 to a tough, veteran Blackhawks team, and it would have been their third OT loss in the series. It also would have made Colorado's collective playoff record to that point 5-5. But after that goal, the Avs were a different team, going 10-2 the rest of the playoffs en route to the championship. "If we had won that game, I don't think there would be that banner hanging up in the Pepsi Center, for the (1996) Stanley Cup," former Blackhawk Jeremy Roenick said. 

Terry Frei of ESPN chronicles the top 10 memorable moments for Sakic -- interesting to see the geographical and cultural influence on the list, as his gold medal and tournament MVP with Canada in 2002 ranked just eighth -- and it's an intriguing list. While the following can't trump anything Sakic did on the ice, it's certainly part of his legacy:

6. The offer sheet

Sakic's affinity for Colorado wasn't unconditional -- at least not in 1997. He signed an offer sheet with the New York Rangers that called for him to make $21 million over the next three seasons, with $15 million paid up front. The deal was designed to make it even more difficult for the cash-starved Avalanche ownership to match, but Colorado, after lining up an infusion of capital from a couple of media operations, did just that eight days later to retain Sakic. The entire scenario left Avalanche management embittered at the Rangers, but not at Sakic, who shrugged it off as "high finances" he isn't a part of and didn't put the $15 million check through the washing machine. The contract was cited as one of the benchmarks in the subsequent escalation that led to the NHL lockout seven years later.

So while we all laud Sakic today, remember: The lockout was all his fault!

Jokes. Sakic was a consummate professional, brilliant player and a hockey legend. We've all done this before with guys like Gretzky and Yzerman, but it's genuinely difficult to imagine an NHL without Joe Sakic playing in it (or mending from an injury to once again play in it). His impact on hockey in Colorado is unquantifiable; his impact on a generation of hockey fans around North America is undeniable.

What a legacy. All that, and he's the guy who woke us up to the dangers of demonic snow blowers, too ...

Our thanks to Robert for passing along this YouTube clip of TSN's "Top 10 Joe Sakic Moments":

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