When Joe Sacco was named as the head coach of the Colorado Avalanche, many people - including Avalanche fans - were surprised. The Medford, MA, native had only been coaching for four years: two years as an assistant coach for Colorado’s Lowell Lock Monsters and two years as head coach in Lake Erie for the Avs’ new AHL affiliate. However, that time prepared him well for what seemed an overwhelming challenge. Despite being handed a team that found itself in the basement of the Western Conference the prior season and a roster full of young players - many unproven at the NHL level - Joe Sacco took the Avalanche somewhere few people in the hockey world thought they would go in 2009-10: the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Joe Sacco was raised by parents who knew nothing about hockey. Because the area in which they lived was hockey-centric, Sacco’s dad decided that he and his brothers should play the sport. Both Joe and his brother, David, took to it easily, so much so that they both found themselves going pro. His dad helped their development by coaching them the best he could. That included wearing work boots on the ice because he didn’t know how to skate. Sacco’s success in high school led to professional and collegiate attention. He was selected in the 4th round (71st overall) by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1987 draft. As for college, he chose to attend Boston University both for the coaching staff and its proximity to his hometown. He wanted to give his parents, who had selflessly supported him, the opportunity to see him play.
Sacco’s achievements at BU, including induction to the Terriers’ Century Club for scoring over 100 points in his college career, and a 52-point (24g, 28a) junior year, led to a successful career in the AHL and NHL. Foregoing a senior year in college, Sacco joined the Newmarket Saints for the 1990-91 season, during which time he scored 18 goals and 17 assists in 49 games. He also spent 20 games in the Maple Leafs’ line-up where he had 5 assists. The following season, he split time playing in Toronto and for their AHL affiliate, St. John’s Maple Leafs. He amassed 11 points in 17 games for the NHL club. In the 1992-93 season, Sacco again split his time between the two teams. He scored a total of 18 goals and 20 assists that year.
In 1993, the Leafs traded Sacco to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks; he played 84 games and had 37 points. By this time in his career, the forward had already identified himself as a role player, which he embraced. "I considered myself a support player, a journeyman," said Sacco. "I wasn't overly skilled. But I worked hard, and you can overcome a lot in this game if you are committed." He would continue being a 3rd/4th liner for the remainder of his NHL career, playing with the NY Islanders, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. In the end, he played 738 games and recorded 213 points (94g, 119a).
After his playing days, Sacco settled into a quiet life back home in Massachusetts. He worked for the family business, Sacco Specialized Moving, for two years when he received an unexpected call. Craig Billington asked Joe if he was interested in being an assistant coach for Colorado’s feeder team, the Lowell Lock Monsters. He accepted the offer as he had a "strong passion" for the game and found himself interested in getting into coaching. Perhaps some of that was due to his participation in Pro Ambitions Hockey, an organization which provides hockey instruction and off-ice mentoring to children in the Massachusetts.
Thus, in the 2005-06 season, Joe Sacco began his coaching career. The newly appointed assistant coach only spent two years with the Lock Monsters, however. The team was jointly owned with the Carolina Hurricanes, so the Avalanche decided to establish their own team in Ohio. Sacco was promoted to the head coaching position for the upstart Lake Erie Monsters. The team’s first season was a losing one (26-41-13), but the 2007-2008 season fared somewhat better. Using his natural ability to connect with young players and elevate their game, the Monsters ended the year with a 34-38-8 record. "I enjoy working with young players trying to help them further their career and trying to show them what it takes to be a good consistent pro," said Sacco. "For a lot of them that’s that biggest thing...learning what it takes, all the little things that goes along with being a professional."
That year, USA Hockey named Sacco as an assistant coach for the U.S. Men's National Team that competed in the 2009 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championship in Berne and Zurich-Kloten, Switzerland. He further honed his skills with players during that time, relying on his own experiences in international competition at the 2002 World Championships.
His knack for connecting with players in this way did not go unnoticed by the Avalanche organization. Having called up and witnessed the successful play of Lake Erie forwards T.J. Hensick, Chris Stewart, and Brian Willsie and defenseman Kyle Cumiskey, Colorado turned to Sacco when they disbanded their coaching staff after the worst season in Avs’ history. At the same time, Monsters’ assistant coach and former Avalanche player Sylvain Lefebvre found himself assisting Sacco again. "These two coaches have been at the frontlines of this organization's development efforts over the last few seasons," said Greg Sherman, Colorado’s reciently appointed GM. "Joe and Sylvain are familiar with our personnel, especially our young players within the system, and each played a role in implementing the organization's vision with these players."
Sacco was admittedly surprised by the job offer. "I wasn't expecting this job," said Joe. "I figured Patrick (Roy) was going to be in Denver and I'd be back with my family in Westlake (Ohio) for at least another year in the AHL." However, he realized this was an amazing proposition, one he was fortunate to have presented to him. "You don't know how many of these opportunities will come around. I'd certainly like to think I've worked for it, but at the same time, you just never know. I'm honored, flattered and excited to be head coach of a great organization."
Untested at this level, many critics had little faith that Coach Sacco could lead the Avalanche out of the bottom rungs of the league. Bruce Ciskie of Fanhouse said in an article he wrote in June, 2009, "This is hardly a move that inspires confidence in the franchise. They were the worst team in the Western Conference, and fans aren't going to be energized by the team hiring the coaching staff from their mediocre farm team." Fans were a little worried about the move, but the team quickly proved everyone wrong by going 10-3-1 in the first month of the 2009-10 season. The team rode the wave of youth and speed, something Sacco was very good at bringing out. Despite the constant claims that the team would hit a wall and fall back to earth, Sacco led them into the playoffs where they lost a hard-fought battle to the San Jose Sharks in the first round. He was rewarded for his excellent work by being a finalist for the Jack Adams trophy for Coach of the Year.
Joe Sacco is continuing to show he’s a seasoned coach, in spite of his short resume, by keeping the 2010-11 injury-depleted team, which boasts one of the youngest rosters in the NHL, in the playoff hunt. His no-nonsense approach to leadership and his style of rewarding those players who help the team win and sending messages of "shape up or ship out" to those who are not playing to their potential has kept the team strong and hard-working. Sacco has done what no one believed possible: taken the Colorado Avalanche out of the cellar and back into the pursuit of a championship in a time when everyone thought would be painful rebuilding process.