The legend of Dominik Hasek: From hockey heretic to the Hall of Fame

The legend of Dominik Hasek: From hockey heretic to the Hall of Fame

TORONTO — One day in January 2002, Dominik Hasek was in goal while the Detroit Red Wings practiced at the other end of the ice. He spent the dead time doing his visualization drills, flopping all over the crease, foiling imaginary foes, until Brendan Shanahan had a free moment and grabbed a puck.

Four years before, Hasek had stoned Shanahan in a shootout at the Nagano Olympics, giving the Czech Republic a stunning 2-1 semifinal win over Canada. Now here they were again. They were in an empty arena with nothing at stake, but they were two all-time greats going head to head a month before the Salt Lake Olympics.

Shanahan broke away …

Hasek claimed the Stanley Cup with a star-studded Red Wings team in 2002. (AP)
Hasek claimed the Stanley Cup with a star-studded Red Wings team in 2002. (AP)


Shanahan tried again …


Shanahan tried once more …


Finally, Shanahan had enough, and Hasek went back to battling his ghosts.

“I enjoy to be competitive, not only in the game but also in the practice,” Hasek said the other day. “I really enjoy it.”

This is the legend of the Dominator.

Be it the biggest stage or backstage, Dominik Hasek was determined to stop the puck. He saw, practiced and played the game differently than any other goaltender, and he will enter the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday night as the greatest of his era, if not all-time.

Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur both won more games and more Stanley Cups. Roy also won three Conn Smythe Trophies as the playoffs’ most valuable player. But the best single-season save percentage Roy ever posted was .925, and Brodeur’s best was .927. Hasek was .930 or better five times. He was .922 for his career.

At his peak Hasek was far ahead of his peers. He led the NHL in save percentage six straight seasons, ranging from .920 to .937 from 1993-94 through 1998-99, when the average ranged from .895 to .908. No one else has led the league more than four times total.

Hasek won six Vezina Trophies as the NHL’s best goaltender, the most since 1981-82, when the NHL stopped giving the Vezina to the goaltender whose team allowed the fewest regular-season goals and put it to a vote of the general managers.

He won back-to-back Hart Trophies as the NHL MVP in 1997 and ’98. He was the first goaltender to win the Hart since Jacques Plante in 1962, and he remains only the sixth to win it since 1924 and the only one to win it twice.

He won Olympic gold, a Stanley Cup as a starter and another Cup as a backup late in his career.

“He had the instincts of a Wayne Gretzky as a goalie,” said Chris Osgood, a former goaltender and Detroit teammate. “Really, he was one of the few goalies who ever played the game who could intimidate the other team before the puck dropped. They didn’t know how to score on him because you never knew what he was going to do.”

* * * * *

Hasek was a goaltender and competitor as early as he could remember. As a child playing in Pardubice, in what was then Czechoslovakia, he never wanted to score. He wanted to stop the ball, or the puck, or whatever there was to stop.

“I just loved it,” Hasek said.

Hasek’s grandfather, a former soccer player, would shoot balls at him for hours while his father was at work. A tree would be one goal post, a trash can the other. If his grandfather scored, his grandfather would tease him. If his grandfather got tired, his grandfather would get a tantrum. “I said, ‘No, we don’t go home. Here’s the ball and try to score,’ ” Hasek said.

Hasek won six Vezina Trophies as the NHL's best goalie with the Sabres. (Getty)
Hasek won six Vezina Trophies as the NHL's best goalie with the Sabres. (Getty)

If Hasek lost a game, if he lost in practice, if the team he cheered was just losing, he would cry. “I remember my grandpa, he had a handkerchief in his hands, and he always told me, ‘You don’t have to cry when you lose,’ ” he said.

From age 6 to age 25, from youth hockey to high-level hockey at home, Hasek never had a goalie coach. He had to learn on his own. He came up with an unorthodox style that played to his strengths. He was tall and skinny, bendy and quick, smart and creative. He was a Gumby on skates, a mad genius.

“I was more flexible than the other goalies,” Hasek said. “My butterfly, I think, was the best at my time. I could reach from post to post with my butterfly. My legs were … The whole body was more flexible so I could be more on my knees because I could reach farther than the other goalies.”

Hasek would do more than kick his legs. He would roll on his back and lay his arm across the goal line. He would charge out of his net to break up a breakaway. He would drop his stick and pick up the puck with his blocker hand. “I was doing it in Czech, and I just kept doing it,” Hasek said.

When Hasek came to North America in 1990-91, he hoped to be a starter in the NHL. But the Chicago Blackhawks had Eddie Belfour, a future Hall of Famer who would win the Vezina that season. Goalie coach Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet legend, one of Hasek’s heroes, didn’t pay much attention to him. “He was more like just only Eddie Belfour goalie coach because they were so close,” Hasek said. “He wasn’t working with me on an everyday basis.”

Hasek split time between the Blackhawks and the IHL’s Indianapolis Ice for two years. But there was one positive: “Fortunately,” Hasek said, “I didn’t understand English at that time, so I had no idea what was written about me in the papers, what the coaches say, so I couldn’t listen too much to them.”

They said he looked like a fish out of water, basically. But then the Blackhawks traded Hasek to the Buffalo Sabres, and he met goalie coach Mitch Korn. “He knew that my style is not bad,” Hasek said. “He said you just need to work on some other things to get you better. I was lucky to get this goalie coach who never really tried to change my style.”

Hasek put up an .896 save percentage in 28 games for the Sabres in 1992-93 as Belfour won his second and final Vezina. At age 28, there was no indication he was going to last in the NHL, let alone make the Hall of Fame – 53 career games, .896 career save percentage.

The next season, Hasek won his first Vezina.

“I didn’t quite understand how he played the game,” said John Davidson, a former NHL goaltender, who was then a TV broadcaster and is now the chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame selection committee. “And then when I watched more and more … there was definitely a method to all of his madness. …

“That style, people look at it and go, ‘That’s just kind of like water running all over the place.’ It was not. Everything he did was by design.”

* * * * *

Hasek had the best years of his career in Buffalo. He still considers it his second home. But after the Sabres lost in the Cup final in 1999, he felt the team deteriorated and didn’t have a chance to win. He asked for a trade in 2001 and chose to go to Detroit.

After the NHL, Hasek played in the Czech Republic and then the KHL, retiring for good at age 46. (AFP)
After the NHL, Hasek played in the Czech Republic and then the KHL, retiring for good at age 46. (AFP)

He called it “one of my best decisions.” He played for Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman on a team full of future Hall of Famers. Seven players on that roster are in the Hall already, and Pavel Datsyuk, Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom should join them eventually. They won the Cup in 2002, and Hasek retired.

For a while. He still loved stopping the puck. He came back with the Wings in 2003-04, then retired again because of injury – and asked the Wings not to pay him. He came back with the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06 and played in the Torino Olympics, then spent two more years in Detroit.

Osgood, who had to leave Detroit because of Hasek in 2001, took the 43-year-old’s job in the first round of the 2008 playoffs and went on to win another Cup. But that doesn’t diminish the legend of the Dominator. It enhances it.

Listen to this: In hindsight, Osgood wishes he never would have left Detroit in the first place. “I could have taken my game to the next level if I would have stayed and played with him,” Osgood said.

Hasek and Osgood got along well, and Osgood got an up-close look at what made Hasek so great.

“There was a misconception that he was a guesser,” Osgood said. “No, he was not. He knew exactly what he was doing at all times, and it would work – for him. … I’d just fool around in practice and try to do what he did, and I’d just look awful flopping around. It might have looked like it was out of control, but there was always a purpose for everything he did.

“He saw the game. That’s one thing I noticed more with him than anybody else that I played with. He saw the game better than any other goalie I’ve seen, reading plays and slowing the game down.”

Even if Osgood could not imitate Hasek, Hasek taught Osgood so many things – how to approach the game mentally, how to work. Hasek would never stress off the ice, resting his mind, saving himself. When he took the ice for practice or the game, he had singular focus.

One day, the Wings lost a shootout. The next practice, Hasek put all the pucks at center ice and had teammates take penalty shots. If Hasek and Osgood stopped a puck, it went in the corner. If they didn’t, the puck went back to center ice. The goalies could not leave until they had stopped every puck. “If he deemed in his mind he wasn’t good at something,” Osgood said, “he made darn sure he was going to get good at it.”

The morning of Game 6 of the 2008 Cup final, Osgood left the ice as Hasek lined up pucks at the hash marks. He had teammates skate in from the blue line as fast as they could and then shoot as hard as they could, so he could work on his reflexes. He was backing up. This turned out to be his last day in the NHL. “That’s just the way he was,” Osgood said. “He never gave up, never quit. He worked hard every day until he was done.”

Hasek still wasn’t done playing, though. He spent another season playing in his hometown of Pardubice in the Czech league. He spent another season playing for Spartak Moscow in the KHL. He’d still play now, if he could. He’ll have to be content in the Hall of Fame.

“Sometimes it was difficult to listen to people, like, my style is not good,” Hasek said. “But I’m glad I could prove that my style is good enough.”