|Monday, December 2
Updated: December 3, 10:18 AM ET
Sakic: What you see isn't what you get
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Fuss over milestones sometimes is a contrived salute to society's adoption of the base-10 decimal numbering system. In this era of all these marketing morons (a.k.a., "gurus") going to league meetings and producing generic screaming game-night "presentations," sometimes we expect these scoreboards and public-address announcers to implore the crowd to give a second-year winger a standing ovation for reaching his "ONE HUNDREDTH GAME PLAYED! COME ON, GIVE IT UP BEFORE WE GET TO THE TRIVIA QUIZ!"
Just think: If the highest single number was 7, not only would round-number milestones come more often, but Wayne Gretzky would have worn 77 as he racked up three-digit goal seasons. And beyond hockey, the song would be "77 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," and Barbara Feldon of "Get Smart" would have been Agent 77.
But in significant issues, such as goal scoring, reaching a nice, round milestone truly can be meaningful. Colorado's Joe Sakic is poised to become the 31st NHL player to reach 500 goals, and that still means something. The way the enigmatic Avalanche are going, he could get the requisite three goals this week or -- if he continues to not get minimal help -- in March.
But it will matter, and be worth a tip of the fedora to Sakic and New Jersey's Joe Nieuwendyk, who opened the season at 494 and added only two goals in the Devils' first 21 games.
Sakic's response the other day when asked about the approaching 500th goal was characteristic. He has politely declined to pose for any pre-packaged photo shoots, commemorating 500, and he only will talk about it when the questions swoop in from the left-wing side.
"Let me get it first, then ask," Sakic said, smiling. "It's something I'm looking forward to, no question."
OK, in general, what does 500 mean in today's NHL?
"It's a goal scorer's milestone," he said. "Not a lot of guys have gotten to that, it will be an excitement and a relief if it happens.
"You have to play a long time to accomplish that, unless you're Mario or Wayne. The rest of us, we have to play a long time to achieve that. I've been pretty lucky in my career, with not too many major injuries. And I've been playing with some great players."
Last season, a former Sakic teammate, now with another team, was involved in a social conversation with your correspondent. At the end, he passionately argued that "you guys" -- and he said it as if he considered the Fourth Estate roughly the intellectual equivalent of a puck -- never have sufficiently grasped how good Sakic is. The former teammate meant it both on the ice, where he does a lot more than get off those uncanninly quick wristers, and off the ice, where he is effective as a subtle leader with a sardonic sense of humor that rarely is displayed in public.
But, it was pointed out, Sakic was coming off a Hart Trophy season, certainly not a sign of under-appreciation. The player's point? "You guys" acted as if it that season was resoundingly extraordinary for Sakic. It is there that Steve Yzerman and Sakic can be almost taken for granted in an era in which Gretzky and Lemieux have eclipsed everyone else.
Sakic's subtlety sometimes is misunderstood. Because he doesn't dispense fire and brimstone, or snap sticks, e-mailers and talk-show callers accuse him of lacking the requisite passion of a leader. Because his effectiveness sometimes is like his shot -- you can miss it if you're taking a sip or even blinking -- it almost takes sustained, big-picture viewing to "get it."
He doesn't make those shake-of-the-head-inducing moves, as does Peter Forsberg, so in that sense he suffers in comparison to his own teammate. And that's another reason, though, the two have been complementary all these seasons, even now that Forsberg is playing on the wing -- sometimes on the same line with Sakic, but more often not.
It all goes back to the fall of 1988, when a 19-year-old played his first regular-season game in the Colisee, against New Jersey -- appropriately enough, in the city where his father, Marijan, first landed in Canada after riding in steerage from what now is Croatia. Already on that night 14 years ago, Joe was being called "Giuseppe" and the "Croatian Sensation" in Quebec City.
"Second period, first home game," Sakic said. "I took a faceoff, won the draw, it went to Robert Picard, I went to the net, he threw it back to me and I just tipped it through Sean Burke's five-hole."
Of course, that puck was retrieved.
"But I couldn't tell you where it is," Sakic said. "I don't know. It must be somewhere, but I haven't seen it in 15 years."
The other thing: Sakic is a "young" 33 in the sense that he isn't prone to major injury (as he noted and figuratively knocked on a wooden stick), and he also is one of the bigger physical fitness nuts in the league. So depending on how long he wants to play and how the league's enforcement of obstruction/interference standards affects scoring, he could reach 700.
Which would mean at least a couple more milestone commemorations.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," was released Monday by Simon and Schuster. It also can be ordered from many online outlets, including Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com.