By Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com
Goalies are a different breed, the hockey axiom goes, and when it came to stopping the puck, no goalie was more different than Dominik Hasek.
“He tends goal the way Kramer enters Seinfeld’s apartment, a package of flailing arms and wild gesticulations that somehow has a perfect logic.” That’s how Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber described him, name-checking two popular 1990s TV sitcom characters. In an era when goalies gravitated toward the “butterfly” style — a structured and systematic approach to their position — Hasek got superior results by appearing to be largely improvisational, to the point of having no style at all.
Yet there was a brilliant method to Hasek’s physical madness, and he got brilliant results. His 2.20 goals-against average during a 16-season career with the Chicago Blackhawks, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators is tops among retired modern goaltenders (from the Original Six era onward).
His save percentage of .922 is also the best among retired goaltenders. For six consecutive seasons (1993-99), he led the NHL in that category, and for five of them his save percentage was an astounding .930 or better. And it wasn’t because Hasek had easy duty: In two of those seasons — 1995-96 and 1997-98 — he faced more shots per 60 minutes than any other goalie.
He was awarded the Vezina Trophy as the League’s top goaltender six times in eight seasons and won the Hart Trophy in 1997 and 1998, the only goalie to be named the NHL’s most valuable player more than once. He was among the top three in Hart voting three other times.
And he accomplished most of this for a decent but not overpowering Buffalo Sabres team, forcing him to be the best player on the ice seemingly every time he stood — or flopped — in the crease.
Mitch Korn, Hasek’s goalie coach for six years with the Sabres, put it best when he told Bill Hoppe of the Olean Times Herald in 2014, “We will argue until the cows come home that the Big Three, if you will — Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and Hasek — in the modern era will go down as the three greatest. But for me, nobody made more of a difference every night [than Hasek], because he didn’t play with maybe as good a team as either of those other two, and he did it every night, not just every six games, not just occasionally. This guy did it every night for a good long period of time. He was that dominant on a team that really needed him to be dominant.”
And that’s how Hasek became known as “The Dominator.”
How he made saves struck many as mysterious, especially early in his NHL career.
“He was so awkward,” Brodeur told Time magazine in 1999. “I had never seen that from another goalie before. I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought, ‘That’s lucky. He’s a lucky goalie.'”
While he did drop down on many shots, Hasek was hardly the first great goaltender to be classified as a flopper. Hall of Famers Gump Worsley and Gerry Cheevers also hurled their bodies at enemy shots. As they did, Hasek recognized most shots came in low and that the more of the ice you covered, the better your chances of stopping them. But Hasek’s arsenal also included unique maneuvers like dropping his goal stick to grab a loose puck with his blocker hand, aggressively charging out great distances to foil a shooter on a breakaway, and the “barrel roll” — rolling on his back and cartwheeling his legs up in the air to stop some shots.
Sharp-eyed goalie analysts recognized that no matter how the ultra-flexible Hasek contorted his Gumby-like body, he always remained square to the shooter, who he forced into less advantageous angles. His in-game genius included exceptional anticipation and great concentration in his ability to read plays and track shooters’ movements, and that Hasek’s movements were not as random as they seemed, but calculated. As Kevin Woodley wrote in InGoal magazine, “Hasek worked hard to perfect his methods. They included never giving up on a save and always having one last limb (or even his head) left to throw out at a shooter.”
Hasek honed his distinctive style through a fierce, determined work ethic. He didn’t limit his characteristic intensity to games. “Dom was the only guy I played with who tried to stop every puck in practice,” fellow Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood said. “Every day he’d go into practice and try to stop every puck, no excuses.” Former Red Wings teammate Henrik Zetterberg said Hasek “gave it all, all the time. He’d get really angry if you scored on him in practices.”
The first major impression Hasek made on the NHL came in the 1992 Stanley Cup Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Having played sparingly during two seasons with the Blackhawks, he was inserted into Game 4 of Pittsburgh’s sweep and startled the hockey world by making save after acrobatic save against the eventual champions, including stopping a Mario Lemieux breakaway, which few goalies ever did. It was Hasek’s “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” moment as fans throughout North America asked, “Who is this guy?”
Few knew Hasek, then 27, had dominated hockey in his native Czechoslovakia, not merely being selected as the Extraliga’s Goaltender of the Year from 1986 through 1990, but also named the league’s top player three times.
He was born Jan. 29, 1965 in the industrial city of Pardubice, a hockey hotbed, and 6-year-old Dominik played his first hockey as a goalie for a 9-year-old team there. The Cold War kept him from seeing NHL goaltenders, and that lack of exposure was one explanation for his individualistic style. Chicago selected him in the 10th round (No. 199) of the NHL Draft in 1983, when getting young Eastern Europeans into the NHL was plainly impossible. By 1990, the combination of Hasek’s 10 years of great domestic and international success plus a thawing of East-West relations made his journey across the Atlantic a reality.
But moving up the Blackhawks depth chart was difficult because of the emergence of Ed Belfour. However, the Sabres had scouted him and, needing a goaltending upgrade, they traded for Hasek two months after his Stanley Cup debut. The Sabres’ depth chart was also crowded, but that gave Korn time to work with Hasek. “He was so smart, he knew exactly what was going to happen next, but he was too early,” Korn said. “So he showed his hand like a bad poker player.”
The two worked on a more patient approach and improved his use of the catching glove. When No. 1 goalie Grant Fuhr was injured early in the 1993-94 season, Hasek was ready.
In his first month as a starter, he registered five shutouts. He played 58 games and had a 1.95 average, the first goalie to finish below 2.00 since Bernie Parent was at 1.89 in 1973-74. Though little was expected from the Sabres after top scorer Pat LaFontaine had season-ending knee surgery in early December, Hasek led the Sabres into the postseason against the New Jersey Devils, where Hasek and the rookie Brodeur engaged in a terrific matchup, highlighted by a marathon Game 6 that extended into a fourth overtime before the Sabres prevailed 1-0. After six hours and 70 saves, Hasek said he felt he could have played two more periods. The Devils won Game 7, but in June, the 29-year-old Hasek won his first Vezina Trophy, was runner-up for the Hart Trophy and was on his way to superstardom.
More Vezina trophies and All-Star Team honors followed. Hasek starred at the 1998 Nagano Olympics for the gold medal-winning Czech Republic team and was named the tournament’s top goalie. He then had a strong second half for Buffalo, helping the Sabres reach the Eastern Conference Final, and won his second Hart Trophy.
In 1999 he and the Sabres made it to the Cup Final against the Stars, who had Hasek’s former teammate Belfour in goal. The series culminated in a three-overtime thriller in Game 6. Dallas won it 2-1 with one of the most controversial goals in Stanley Cup Playoff history. Hasek had made 50 saves, but couldn’t make his 51st as Brett Hull banged in the puck around Hasek’s net with his skate in the goal crease. Rules prohibited an attacking player from entering the crease before the puck, but the officials ruled the Stars had maintained possession of the puck prior to the shot and the goal was allowed to stand despite protests from Buffalo.
That was as close as the Sabres would come to the Cup during Hasek’s time there. Despite another Vezina Trophy for Hasek in 2000-01, Buffalo’s need to shed salary plus Hasek’s desire to play for a contender led to a trade with Detroit in 2001.
The 36-year-old Hasek thus began anew with a deep, veteran team that included Hull. The two became friends but didn’t speak about the 1999 Cup-winning goal throughout the 2001-02 season. Hasek played well for the Red Wings, with a League-best and career-high 41 wins. But the stats that mattered most were the 16 playoff wins, and those victories, including the final four against the Carolina Hurricanes, put his name on the Stanley Cup. After the triumph, Hasek and Hull finally shared a laugh about the ’99 Final. “It was after we won the Cup and we were drinking champagne and having great time,” Hasek said. “Of course, I told him it was no goal and he told me it was a goal.”
From then on, Hasek was a mercurial presence in the NHL. He retired for a season, then came back to the Red Wings for 2003-04 but played only 14 games before a groin injury ended his season. He signed with the Senators and played well in the first half of 2005-06 but was injured playing for the Czech Republic during the 2006 Torino Olympics and never dressed for Ottawa again. He rejoined the Red Wings for 2006-07, playing often and well for a 42-year-old and helping Detroit reach the Western Conference Final.
In 2007-08, his final NHL season, Hasek split the job with Osgood. They shared the Jennings Trophy (for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL) and Hasek started the playoffs against the Nashville Predators. But the 43-year-old wasn’t sharp and Osgood replaced him after Game 4. Detroit won the Cup, defeating Pittsburgh, and Hasek retired from the NHL shortly afterward — although, amazingly, he continued to play in Europe until he was 46 (he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2014).
But Hasek’s value to his teams was not forgotten.
“You take it for granted and don’t realize how important he was, until you get a goalie in there who’s not Dominik Hasek,” said Michael Peca, the Sabres captain during some of Hasek’s best seasons. “All of a sudden you find yourself making the safe plays all the time, which doesn’t always lend to creating offensive opportunities. He made everyone in front of him better, just by allowing us to play without fear of making mistakes. We were fortunate to have him there for that very reason.”
(Reprinted with permission of NHL.com) (Photo from Janet Schultz Photography)