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How ‘Air Force One’ helped prevent Rangers from signing Joe Sakic to replace Mark Messier

Harrison Ford remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic action heroes, but in 1997, he indirectly played the role of villain to the Rangers.

In a twist-filled saga fit for the screen, the Rangers came close to signing superstar center Joe Sakic away from the Colorado Avalanche, only for the latter’s parent entertainment company to match the Blueshirts’ mega-offer amid the blockbuster success of its Ford-led film, “Air Force One.”

The quirky moment in NHL history is now the subject of a new documentary, “Saving Sakic,” premiering Wednesday on ESPN+.

At the time, the Avalanche, the Denver Nuggets and the small film studio Beacon Pictures were each owned by cash-strapped Ascent Entertainment. Only a year removed from winning the 1996 Stanley Cup, the Avalanche had lost $8 million during the 1996-97 season, in large part because of their home venue — the antiquated McNichols Sports Arena.

During the 1997 offseason, the Rangers watched their captain, Mark Messier, sign with Vancouver, leaving them with a Hall-of-Fame hole next to aging Wayne Gretzky. In an effort to keep the Rangers’ championship window open, Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts signed Sakic to a three-year, $21 million offer sheet on Aug. 7, 1997.

Because Sakic was a Group II free agent, the Avalanche had a week to match the offer and keep their captain, or otherwise receive the Rangers’ next five first-round picks. Well aware of Colorado’s financial shortcomings, Checketts front-loaded the offer with a $15 million signing bonus, believing the Avalanche had no chance to meet it.

“That was pretty smart,” Charlie Lyons, then the president of the Avalanche and CEO of Ascent Entertainment, told the Daily News. “It was brazen, but he had lost Messier, and he was taking a shellacking from the New York media. He had to do something, because he had a really solid core, and adding Joe Sakic to that core was smart.”

Lyons admits he was blindsided by the Rangers’ offer, and that his confidence in re-signing Sakic was initially very thin.

The Avalanche’s saving grace was the recent release of “Air Force One,” which stars Ford as a butt-kicking U.S. president who attempts to save his hijacked plane from terrorists. The action flick came out that July 25 and immediately became a smash hit, grossing $37.1 million domestically in its opening weekend.

“Air Force One” went on to make $315.1 million worldwide against an $85 million budget, making it Ascent’s first-ever blockbuster. While those dollars didn’t directly fund Sakic’s contract, they did legitimize Ascent on the entertainment circuit and instill confidence about the state of the company.

“There wasn’t a direct relationship between the success of the film, because you would never penalize your film company and take their performance windfall and then move it across the company to pay a professional athlete,” said Lyons, who remains a filmmaker and executive produced Kevin Coster’s two-part “Horizon” films due out this summer.

“Having said that, hit movies are so visible, and it did two things: It increased the confidence within [Ascent] that we could figure it out, because we were going to have, as a company, a healthier balance sheet from a hit movie. At the same time, it made it so that people picked up the phone, the people that could solve the problems.”

Those problem-solvers, Lyons said, included Denver Mayor Wellington Webb. Realizing his city was at risk of losing one of its biggest sports stars, Webb finally came to terms with Ascent on a $165 million deal for a new Avalanche and Nuggets arena on Aug. 13, 1997, the day before Colorado’s deadline to match Sakic’s offer sheet.

Lyons then turned to Liberty Media for a modest investment in the new arena — which opened in 1999 as the Pepsi Center — and its two teams, and hammered out a contract extension with the Avalanche’s TV broadcaster, Fox Sports Rocky Mountain, to help come up with the money for Sakic.

The new documentary ‘Saving Sakic’ makes its U.S. debut on Wednesday on ESPN+.

As those factors played out behind the scenes, the media in New York and Denver had field days reporting on the Sakic saga.

“It was like the Super Bowl week of stories for me, and I had so much pressure to find out what was going on,” Adrian Dater, the Denver Post’s Avalanche beat reporter from 1995-2014, told The News.

“We were in a real vicious and great newspaper war in Denver at that time with the Rocky Mountain News, and everybody just woke up in panic and fear every morning that they were going to get scooped by the other side.”

Dater was among the journalists who highlighted the significance of “Air Force One” in his reporting at the time.

“It was a little tongue-in-cheek,” said Dater, who is featured in the documentary. “I’m not a player on the team and I’m not a homer, but I was just being factual: If you want to up the chances of the Avalanche staying [in Denver] and Joe Sakic staying, go out and buy tickets to ‘Air Force One,’ because that is going to drive revenue to the team eventually.”

The Avalanche officially matched the offer sheet on Aug. 14, 1997. Sakic spent his entire 21-year playing career with the team, winning a second Stanley Cup in 2001. He won another championship in 2022 as the Avalanche’s general manager, then became the organization’s president of hockey operations later that year.

Sakick, a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee, finished his career with 625 goals and 1,016 assists. His 1,641 points rank ninth in NHL history.

“The way everything happened enabling the Avs to match the offer sheet definitely changed the trajectory of the Rangers franchise,” said John Dellapina, the Daily News’ Rangers beat writer from 1994-2008, who is also featured in the doc.

“You would have one of the 100 greatest NHL players in history with the greatest player in NHL history [in Gretzky], and then still Brian [Leetch] and [Mike] Richter and all of them. Maybe they would’ve won another Cup between 1994 and now.”


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