On July 28, 1997, Mark Messier signed a contract with the Vancouver Canucks for $20 million over three years.
Following this, the Rangers set off on a path to replace Messier and targeted superstar center Joe Sakic.
In Behind The Moves, Neil Smith said “When we lost Messier [to Vancouver as a free agent], [my boss] Dave [Checketts] comes in and says to me, ‘We should do an offer sheet on Joe Sakic.’… He said, ‘I’m on the board of governors and the Nuggets and Avalanche are broke and [their parent company CEO] Charlie [Lyons] says they are out of money. We’ll front-load [the offer] and they can’t match because they can’t come up with the cash.’
Below is an account from the NY Times and the NY Daily News about the Rangers pursuit of Sakic as a restricted free agent.
August 7, 1997: Joe Sakic signs an offer sheet with the Rangers for three years and $21 million. Colorado has seven days to match the offer and if they don’t the Rangers would be required to surrender five first round picks. There is a chance the Rangers and Avs can strike a deal for Sakic where the Rangers would send players to the Avs instead of the five first round picks.
Sakic will make $17 million in 1997-98 due to a signing bonus of $15 million the Rangers put in the offer sheet. Other RFA players are Mike Modano, Sergei Fedorov and Paul Kariya.
August 8, 1997: The paper writes, “So what if the Rangers boosted the pay scale for hockey players by signing Joe Sakic to an offer sheet of $21 million for three seasons. Who cares if other general managers resent the Rangers’ bid for this elite Group 2 free agent, the kind of restricted free agent who rarely changes teams.”
Neil Smith says, “‘I care more about our fans and our ownership and my own team than I do about the resentment of other people. As long as you are winning, they resent you. And I don’t intend to stop winning.”
August 13, 1997: The Avalanche and Denver Nuggets announce that they will build a new arena downtown that will create revenue and hopefully let the Avs keep Sakic.
Garden president Dave Checketts said of the situation, ”The collective wisdom is they can’t follow the good news with bad. My guess is they will match. I hope they don’t, but I think they will.”
August 13, 1997: Neil Smith compares Mark Messier and Joe Sakic by saying, “Joe plays a much more give-and-go type of game. He’s much more of a darting-type skill player. Much more of an offensive threat, shift to shift, than Mark. Much less of a physical threat than Mark.”
August 14, 1997: Colorado matches the Rangers offer for Sakic and retain him. Pierre Lacroix, the GM for Colorado said of the Rangers, ”The Rangers were very active on the free-agent galaxy. The way they are going, the way they are acting, I’m sure they are going to be the first team to sign an alien and to have an alien to play for their team. I just hope the planet of the alien will have a chance to match.”
It is believed that the Rangers will entertain the idea of sending offer sheets to Sergei Fedorov, Mike Modano or Rob Niedermayer.
August 15th, 1997: The Rangers have now turned their attention to Dallas center Sergei Fedorov. The Rangers think that they will be able to drive a wedge between Fedorov and the Red Wings by offering him a contract worth more than what captain Steve Yzerman is making.
The paper writes, “Should Fedorov join the Rangers, New York would have its own core of Russian stars who understand each other’s language and playing style. Fedorov might make the Rangers a better team than it was last season, even with Messier. His availability and Messier’s departure combine to open a rare window — or door — of opportunity.”
Fedorov held out before signing an offer sheet with the Hurricanes in the middle of the next season. He made a total of $28 million that season due to signing bonuses, salary and playoff bonuses.
November 5, 1997: In the Daily News, John Dellapina writes that Dave Checketts arrogance in the Rangers pursuit of Joe Sakic was a crucial factor in Colorado matching the Rangers offer sheet.
Avs CEO Charlie Lyons said in the paper :
It’s one thing to go after somebody’s free agent, which they have all the right in the world to do.
“It’s another thing to try and justify it by saying, ‘They’re hurt (financially).’ That’s why we did it (sent the picture). But having said that, I think everybody is past it. You just wipe the slate clean and move forward.
June 1, 2001: Dave Anderson writes that Sakic would be the perfect player for the Rangers to go after in free agency and for Glen Sather to start remaking the Rangers. The Rangers are also reportedly looking to try and sign Patrick Roy and Rob Blake.
All three players re-signed with Colorado.
2012:In the Denver Post, Adrian Dater writes, “when the Avs matched the Rangers’ offer, Lyons sent Rangers GM Neil Smith and president Dave Checketts a framed photo of Nelson Rockefeller, flipping the bird (from the 1968 Democratic convention).”