Dominik Hasek was ready to pull the plug on his North American experiment in 1992. The goaltender had spent two years bouncing between Chicago and minor-league Indianapolis, failing to get a legitimate shot in the NHL. The then-27-year-old figured he’d be better off going back to his starring role in his native Czech Republic.
In August, however, Hasek got word he’d been traded to Buffalo. He thought he’d give the Sabres a shot since they were willing to take one on him.
It’s safe to say things worked out. The ultimate proof came Monday when the Hockey Hall of Fame announced Hasek as one of six inductees for the Class of 2014.
“In 1992 I was traded to Buffalo, and actually it was probably the best thing that could happen for me because in Buffalo I got a chance to play and prove that I could play on the highest level,” Hasek said on a conference call. “I got a chance in Buffalo, and I was ready. Thank you to Buffalo because without getting a chance in Buffalo I probably wouldn’t be here today and getting
in the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
Sabres fans knew they were watching someone special whenever Hasek skated to the crease from 1992 to 2001. The Hall selected “The Dominator” for induction in his first year of eligibility, and he joined fellow players Mike Modano, Peter Forsberg and Rob Blake, late coach Pat Burns and former referee Bill McCreary.
There was little doubt the call would come, but that didn’t lessen the impact.
“After I retired I really began to appreciate what the game did for me,” Hasek said. “My goal was just to make the NHL, and achieving this recognition is far beyond what I could have imagined.”
Hasek compiled some of the greatest goaltending statistics of all time, primarily while playing for the Sabres. His stay included two Hart Trophies as NHL Most Valuable Player and six Vezina Trophies as top goaltender. Hasek was a six-time First Team All-Star and won a gold medal with the Czech Republic in the 1998 Olympic Games.
The Sabres inducted Hasek into their team Hall of Fame this year and will retire his No. 39 to the rafters next season. He won two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings before retiring from the NHL in 2008 and Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in 2011.
“I’m very thankful today to say that I played hockey for such a long time with such great players,” the 49-year-old said.
Chicago selected Hasek in the 10th round of the 1989 NHL Draft, and he came to Buffalo in one of the most lopsided trades in history. The Sabres sent goalie Stephane Beauregard and a fourth-round pick to the Blackhawks in exchange for the unique netminder who had a “Slinky for a spine.”
“I developed my style because I was very flexible, had more flexible knees than any other player in the world,” Hasek said. “It was helping me to become the kind of goalie I was.”
Hasek held every major Sabres goaltending record when he forced a trade to Detroit in 2001, including 491 games played and 234 victories. Ryan Miller has since eclipsed those marks, but Hasek is the runaway leader in shutouts with 55 – 31 percent of Buffalo’s franchise total.
Hasek led the NHL in save percentage for six straight seasons from 1993-94 to ‘98-99. No other goalie has paced the league four times in a career. He posted a .937 in 1998-99 as he led the Sabres to the Stanley Cup final before losing to Dallas.
Hasek had a burning desire to keep the puck out of the net at all times, whether it was practice, the Cup final or an Olympic gold-medal game.
“He was unbelievably competitive,” Mitch Korn, the Sabres’ goaltending coach during the 1990s, said by phone. “There were practices, literally, where he didn’t give up a goal. The pucks came at him in slow motion. His processing, what I call connecting the dots, his ability to read and react to what a goalie has to do is some of the greatest of all time.”
The trouble with Hasek’s early years, Korn said, is the goalie anticipated plays so quickly that he’d move to the next step before the shooter would. It would result in easy goals, the kind that evaporated once Hasek added patience to his repertoire.
Hasek’s style – which featured wandering far from the net, diving and rolling along the ice – certainly tested the patience of Sabres management in the early days.
“He was so unorthodox from the goaltenders in that era,” said Korn, who talked up Hasek’s game to Buffalo’s skeptical brass. “I said, ‘Dom can play. You just have to have a strong stomach when you’re watching him.’”
Hasek, whose career also featured a short stay in Ottawa, said his first season in Detroit (2001-02) was his best ever. He wanted out of Buffalo after questioning the team’s commitment to winning, but there was no question in Detroit. The Red Wings featured future Hall of Famers Igor Larionov, Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan, and they won the Cup with Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman.
“I never played with so many great players, so many stars,” Hasek said. “Our goal from Day One was to win the Cup and nothing else.”
Hasek won another Cup with Detroit in 2008 before heading home. He shares championship glory with his fellow inductees. Modano won in 1999 with Dallas, while Forsberg and Blake earned titles with Colorado. They’ll all have a plaque in Toronto, with the induction ceremony set for Nov. 17.
I’m just speechless and at a loss for words for what this has really meant to me and to all of us,” Modano said. “This caps off the tremendous time I had playing the game.”
The induction of Burns, who coached Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey, was considered overdue. A push for his placement was made prior to his death from cancer in 2010.
“I know that Pat would have been so happy, so grateful, so proud to accept this honor,” said his widow, Lynn. “It’s a very emotional day for the Burns family, I can tell you that. I think it’s a great day not only for the family but for his fans, as well.”