Baugh, Peter. Force of Nature: Joe Sakic, A Star-Studded Team, and How the Colorado Avalanche Built a Stanley Cup Winner. New York: Triumph Books, 2022. Pp. 288. $19.99 paperback and e-book.
Sometimes everything you need to know about a book is right there in the title and subtitle. Oftentimes authors try to make their books about something more. But Peter Baugh, a Denver-based sports journalist, promises the story of one particular team and its triumphant season, with digressions involving its star-turned-general-manager and the backstory regarding the construction of the roster. One might say that Force of Nature is just a book about a sports franchise and, although it never intends to be anything more, it still serves as a perfect representation of the importance of luck in any aspect of life, not just in sports. It also shows that there is no such thing as individual success without collective sacrifice. That sacrifice, while not meaningless, would not amount to much if it was not for luck––the many breaks that came along the way just so that one season could end in such a special way.
The central character of the story is Joe Sakic, a former Avalanche great, true legend of the NHL, and two-time Stanley Cup winner. The second chapter of Sakic’s career as general manager was unexpected. If unsuccessful, it may have been considered unnecessary, as his legacy was secure without him assuming leadership of the only professional team he ever played for. And yet, him taking on the challenge was an extension of the attitude that made him such a great player in the first place. His devotion to the Avalanche was so strong that, although he deliberated with his wife, Sakic simply had to jump on the opportunity. After two years in the front office, from 2011 to 2013, he was named the general manager. His first decision was drafting Nathan MacKinnon, a fiery, tough competitor whose lofty ambitions often got the best of him. Playing the center position, the Nova Scotia native has been reliable season after season, yet, as he put it eloquently himself, “[has] not won shit,” up until 2022 (p. 4). Sakic took the patient approach in constructing the roster around MacKinnon. Following a playoff push in his first season as general manager, the Avalanche had to endure three losing seasons before making it into the postseason again. Then came three consecutive second-round exits, shortcomings which could have broken many weaker bonds but not the one Sakic has with the Avalanche ownership group due to his exceptional status in the city of Denver. As observed by assistant general manager Chris MacFarland, “Joe is a Hall of Famer and an icon, he wasn’t going anywhere” (p. 9). Indeed, Sakic left only when his job was done. After winning the Stanley Cup, he left the team in the hands of his successor, Chris MacFarland, who started the job with the promise that one day he would take Sakic’s place.
As observed by Baugh, “when approached properly, losing breeds both hunger and experience” (p. 26), but not all of the players will be around for the lows and highs. With 23 active roster spots available, the general manager must factor in team chemistry, egos, injuries, and the salary cap, making it impossible to keep the same team season after season. What is most important is keeping the core intact. But that does not always work out. For Sakic’s Avalanche, one such case was Matt Duchene’s trade demand in 2017. Duchene, who idolized Sakic and thus dreamed of playing for the Avalanche, did not want to go through another rebuild and asked to be moved. After handing in his trade request, Duchene had to wait for close to a year to be dealt. Once he finally was moved to Ottawa, the Senators fell from being a Stanley Cup contender to one of the worst teams in the league. The Avalanche, though, continued to improve and entered the 2021-22 season as the favorites, despite the Tampa Bay Lightning aiming for the third-straight Stanley Cup after winning back-to-back titles.
Effective roster building is not just about reaching for superstars through big trades, but more so about the players who make the difference when opposing teams’ leaders cancel each others’ contributions out. So while the Avalanche could not make it into the playoffs without a MacKinnon or a Cale Makar, they would not hoist the cup without players like Artturi Lehkonen, who scored the winning goal in the last game of the Stanley Cup Finals after he joined the team via a mid-season trade with the Canadiens. Unlike MacKinnon or Makar, Lehkonen will never be in the Hockey Hall of Fame (at least as a player), but nobody can doubt his importance to the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup victory.
As a reporter for The Athletic, Baugh had exclusive access to the Avalanche. Through thousands of conversations, he paints a most complete picture of a single franchise’s ascension to greatness. He draws the parallels between the two championship Avalanche teams led by Sakic with the 2022 Stanley Cup winners who were built by the legendary hockey player. The story ends with Sakic moving up the ranks in the front office, but not leaving. He still looms over the franchise as the only constant on winning Avalanche teams.
Łukasz Muniowski recieved his Ph.D. in American Literature from the University of Warsaw. He is the author of Three-Pointer! A 40-Year NBA History (McFarland, 2020), Narrating the NBA: Representations of Leading Players after the Michael Jordan Era (Lexington, 2021),and The Sixth Man: A History of the NBA Off the Bench (McFarland, 2021).