It's when he was at his best. Which is saying a lot.
In the winter of 2002, there wasn't a better hockey player in the world than Joe Sakic. He was coming off a season in which he scored what would be a career-high 54 goals and totaled 118 points, which would be the second highest of his 1,378-game career. The previous spring, he captained the Colorado Avalanche to their second Stanley Cup, scoring a playoff-best 13 goals in 21 games. That season he won the Hart, Lady Byng and what is now the Ted Lindsay Award.
But in February 2002, he was trying to do something in Salt Lake City that had eluded his hockey-loving country for 50 years: win an Olympic men's hockey gold.
Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky had assembled one of the most impressive rosters in hockey history to try to win a tournament in Utah. And on the day of the gold-medal game against the U.S., Gretzky walked through the Canadian dressing room.
"It was like they were playing the game in the backyard. To these guys, they were playing the game they loved," Gretzky recently told ESPN The Magazine. "That's the kind of guy you want on your team in a big game."
That's the kind of guy Sakic was. In that game and so many others like it.
But to really understand how Sakic helped lead Team Canada to that moment, you have to rewind to the point when it looked like Canada wouldn't get that chance.
Nine days earlier, the Canadians were blown out by Sweden. A young Jarome Iginla was already anticipating the backlash from the loss. He wondered if he might regret ordering all those Lemieux, Yzerman and Sakic Team Canada jerseys for friends and family back home. That those mementos might become a sad reminder of a colossal underachievement.
The day after losing to Sweden, Iginla walked into the dressing room and saw coach Pat Quinn's new lines. He saw his name next to Sakic's, along with Simon Gagne, one of Canada's other young forwards.
Gretzky said later that the Team Canada coaching staff thought Iginla would be especially good at getting the puck out of corners and finding Sakic, and that Gagne's defensive instincts would complement the line perfectly. Iginla didn't know any of that at the moment. His concerns focused more on what a future Hall of Famer such as Sakic might think of playing with a couple of the most inexperienced players on the roster.
He didn't have to wonder long.
"[Sakic] came over right away and he made a point of saying, 'I'm excited about this. Playing with two young guys,'" Iginla told ESPN The Magazine. "It was such a big relief. We had a good tournament, and it was so disarming right away and so humble. It helped me relax."
That coaching decision and Sakic's perfect touch of leadership helped lead to Olympic gold.
After Paul Kariya scored Canada's first goal in that Sunday afternoon gold-medal showdown against the Americans, Iginla and Sakic scored the rest of Canada's goals in their historic 5-2 win. Sakic scored the eventual game winner on a wrister, but it was his breakaway goal in the third period that clinched it. A breakaway goal every player on that team -- and probably most Canadians -- remembers vividly.
"When he got the puck, I was [thinking], 'All right, that's over.' I knew he was going to score," Team Canada goalie Martin Brodeur told ESPN The Magazine. "We counted on the best player to have the puck at the best time to clinch the gold medal."
Said Yzerman: "As soon as he picked up the puck on the breakaway, you knew it was going to be in the back of the net."
The best player, making the biggest play.
"You could see him assert himself," Yzerman said. "That game, that to me would be the quintessential one."
'Very much a natural'
When Sakic arrived in Quebec after the Nordiques made him 15th overall pick in the 1987 draft, he wasn't joining a great team. But it was a great place to learn how to become a professional hockey player. The soft-spoken kid from Burnaby, British Columbia, watched closely those first couple of years exactly how veterans such as Guy Lafleur and Peter Stastny conducted themselves.
"I would listen to Peter Stastny about positioning on the power play. The plays to make. He would say things and then you'd watch him do it and it made sense," Sakic told ESPN The Magazine. "Instead of just playing to play, you'd look at different things that were successful."
Stastny immediately noticed that this kid was different. He looked up Sakic's stats with the Swift Current Broncos, where Sakic scored 78 goals in 64 games his final season in the WHL, and couldn't figure out why any team would pass on him in the draft. He knew somewhere scouts were shaking their heads.
He asked for Sakic to be put on the Nordiques' power play, and not just to drive down the average age of the group.
"He was very much a natural," Stastny said.
The raw skill and lightning-quick release impressed Stastny. And that calm demeanor at nearly every moment -- it was like he'd been in the league for years.
"Most of the time he's smiling, relaxed," Stastny said of the young Sakic. "He brought that attitude on the ice. He was relaxed and that's when you're at your best. You have a lot of control when you're enjoying it and relaxed. With his vision and skills and that snap shot ... Joe had it. It was almost immediately fun."
The losing, however, wasn't.
The Nordiques finished fifth in the Adams Division each of the first four seasons of Sakic's career. In 1993, he finally made his playoff debut and played in 12 playoff games with Quebec before his career and his franchise shifted to Colorado.
Sakic has scored so many big goals in big moments that some get lost in the passage of time. In all, Sakic scored 625 regular-season goals. In 172 career playoff games, he scored 84 goals.
In 1996, he won his first Stanley Cup, scoring an astonishing 18 goals in 22 games during the Avalanche's run -- one shy of the playoff record held by Philadelphia's Reggie Leach and Edmonton's Jari Kurri.
That season, the Avalanche drew an experienced Vancouver Canucks team in the first round, with each team winning twice in the first four games. In Game 5, both Sakic and Trevor Linden scored hat tricks, but Sakic's third goal was the overtime winner. And the one that propelled the Avalanche on their way to his first Stanley Cup. It was a performance that changed the course of history for an entire franchise.
"Had we lost in overtime, I'd hate to think. You're probably not talking to me today," said former Avalanche coach Marc Crawford over the phone from Switzerland. "We needed to get through. It was just getting over that first hump."
It was also during these years when Sakic helped create one of hockey's most memorable rivalries.
It's one thing to join a Nordiques franchise that already has a built-in rivalry with Montreal. It's quite another to start one from scratch.
"This felt different," Sakic said of developing the rivalry between Detroit and Colorado. "Probably because those two teams created it. Us and the Red Wings went head-to-head for six straight years. We just respected each other and didn't like each other."
Goalies fought. Coaches fought. Blood was spilled and bones were shattered. Both teams knew the road to the Stanley Cup usually went through the other.
But even when that series was at its nastiest, Sakic was above the fray. It was hard to build up a hatred for a player who competed with such elegance and conducted himself with such class.
"He was that kind of player, he played hard," Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman told ESPN The Magazine. "You wanted to try and stop him, which wasn't easy. ... [Yzerman and Sakic] didn't get involved in that [rivalry] stuff. I think it was their hockey intelligence. They knew their strength, and why get involved in that?"
From 1996 to 2002, either Colorado or Detroit won five of seven Stanley Cups and Sakic's performance in leading the Avalanche to the championship in 2001 was as impressive as any of them. Perhaps more, considering the injuries that affected his team during that stretch.
Sakic battled through a shoulder injury so severe that linemates Alex Tanguay and Milan Hejduk had to take faceoffs for him because of the pain early on in the playoffs. And at 3 a.m., after the Avalanche advanced to the Western Conference finals in beating the Kings, Peter Forsberg had his spleen removed, sidelining him for the playoffs.
The pressure to win a title fell on Sakic's already sore shoulders.
"There was even that much more emphasis on our line and mostly Joe. He was the guy that people were watching," Tanguay said. "He certainly stepped up big time."
When the Stanley Cup finals came down to Game 7 in 2001 against the Devils, Avalanche coach Bob Hartley pulled Sakic aside the day of the game and told him he was putting 24-year-old Dan Hinote on his line for one of the biggest games of either's lives.
Hinote provided energy and somebody to aggressively fore check Devils defensemen Brian Rafalski and Scott Stevens, but it was a bold decision and one Sakic accepted without a hint of dissention when he was told the news.
Hinote still remembers the nerves while he stood on the ice during the national anthem of a Stanley Cup finals Game 7 and looked at the future Hall of Famers on the ice with him waiting to play the biggest game of the season. Getting him through it was the calm advice provided earlier that day by his captain.
"You just do what you do," Sakic told Hinote.
"He came up to me and made sure I was going to play my game and not do something out of character and try to fit into that line," Hinote said.
Hinote assisted on the first goal of the game, when Tanguay scored 7:58 into the first. Sakic assisted on Tanguay's second of the game. And it was Sakic's power-play goal that gave Colorado a 3-1 lead it would never relinquish. Another Stanley Cup. Another championship. Another incredible combination of leadership and skill when the stakes were highest.
"When you talk about the book -- how to be a good pro, how to train like a pro, how to behave like a pro: Joe Sakic," Hartley said. "He's the perfect player."
Sakic would retire in 2009 as a member of the Triple Gold Club, with titles in the Olympics, world championships and the NHL.
"It was just a goal of mine, really, to make the NHL," Sakic said. "The championships -- the Olympic gold. Obviously those are the best memories for sure. Just enjoying 20 years of hockey."
'He's just like us'
"You hear this a lot, but actually it really is true with Joe," Gretzky said. "He is a better person than he was a player."
Sakic remains active with the Food Bank of the Rockies charity in Denver, working closely with his wife, Debbie, to provide food for the less fortunate. But so much of his generosity is done quietly.
"He always took care of everyone, but in a silent way," Hartley said.
Hartley remembers Sakic helping with Christmas dinners for the homeless at the Denver Chop House and the manager telling him Sakic cut a check for $25,000 to buy the homeless clothes.
"Nobody knew," Hartley said. "That's Joe."
He also loved messing with teammates. Usually it was Adam Foote or Rob Blake who were racing off the bus to sprint to a teammate's hotel room in order to move all the furniture into the hallway. But Sakic wasn't innocent.
"You get him on a card table or in the locker room and he's the first to jab guys. He's not Mr. Perfect sitting back in the weeds. He's right there in the mix," Hinote said. "For a young guy, it's like 'Joe is just like the rest of us.' He's a Hall of Famer, but he's just like us."
His mischievous side wasn't just in the dressing room or on team flights. Iginla recalled times where Sakic's low-key trash talk found its way into the corners of the ice.
"You're on the ice and trying to be intense and into the game and he's like, 'Here I come, what move you got coming?'" Iginla said. "A lot of guys aren't talking play-by-play when you're skating."
After years of an intense rivalry, former Red Wings center Kris Draper was surprised when Sakic started laying down ground rules during faceoffs.
"We would have challenges. 'You can't tie up this side' or 'You have to win it clean,'" Draper said, laughing. "Here I am thinking, 'I'm taking big draws against one of the best players in the game and we're laughing about it. That's not supposed to happen.'"
One of Draper's favorite pictures is of him and Sakic at center ice, shaking hands after Sakic's Avalanche faced the Red Wings for the last time in the 2008 playoffs.
Draper spotted the photo in the local paper and had to have it. Sakic signed it, "To Kris, thanks for the great memories." It hangs in Draper's home, in his 10-year-old son Kienan's bedroom.
When a young Paul Stastny joined the Avalanche late in Sakic's career, it brought the hockey cycle of life full circle. Like Peter Stastny did with Joe in Quebec, Sakic requested power-play time with the talented young center.
He passed on everything he learned to the young Stastny.
"My dad, he's a pretty strong critic. When he speaks highly of certain people, it's few and far between," Paul Stastny said. "Certain players are a certain caliber and Joe Sakic was one of those guys. He praised him not just for what he did on the ice. It's how he raised his family and kids. What kind of man he is."
On Nov. 12, Sakic will be inducted into hockey's Hall of Fame. It's recognition for a career of greatness that was, at times, overshadowed by flashier stars of his era but never overlooked by those whose opinions mean the most.
"He had the utmost respect of every player who played against him or played with him," Gretzky said. "I don't think there was a player who would not consider him to be one of the best players who ever played. Not only of his era, but any era."
The Hall is the highest honor for a man whose career and life was filled with it. The first-ballot induction next to hockey's immortals wasn't something Sakic actively worked for during his hockey career; it's the natural result of a sustained, relentless pursuit of greatness.
"But once you retire, then you have time," Sakic said. "You look back and you realize, the accomplishments. You're like 'Wow, good things happened.'"