Dominik Hasek's place in NHL history coming into focus
Buffalo Sabres will retire his No. 39 next season
DominikHasek is not a goaltender anymore.
He hasn't taken his customary place between the posts since his last game on Feb. 27, 2011 for Spartak Moscow of the KHL. He has thought and talked about playing since, but never followed through.
"My equipment is still in the same bag," he said.
Even when the 49-year-old plays with friends once or twice a week, Hasek plays as a defenceman. Forty years as a goalie was enough.
And it's unlikely the man nicknamed "The Dominator" can capture the kind of performances that made him one of the best goaltenders in his era, alongside Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
Hasek played his final NHL game five years ago, and then officially retired in 2012. It's taken time since he left the league for his true place in NHL history to come into focus.
Six Vezina Trophies as the league's best goaltender, two Hart Trophies as MVP, one Olympic gold medal, six first-team all-star selections and two Stanley Cups — one as a starter — don't even tell the whole story. Few goalies during the 1990s and 2000s could do what Hasek did to opponents.
"He mentally and physically intimidated you," said St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who beat Hasek in the 1999 Cup final with the Stars. "I think there were games that you knew you were never going to score on him, and I think it was very discouraging at times. I think that's a great quality. I'd never seen the guy quit on a puck, I'd never seen the guy give up on anything. And that's hard to play against."
Hasek's .922 save percentage is the best of any goalie since the league started keeping track in 1982-83. His 2.02 goals-against average is the best in the modern era, slightly lower than Ken Dryden and Brodeur.
Brodeur has many more shutouts, but when Hasek was on his game, he had the ability to almost will teams to win.
"He makes a team believe," ex-Sabres and current Stars coach Lindy Ruff said in a phone interview. "You just start believing that with him in goal you can win any given night."
Ruff recalled times when Hasek was so locked in that "we really only had to score one. And if we got two, it was almost guaranteed-win night."
Hasek, who is being inducted into the Sabres' hall of fame Saturday night and will be the first NHL player to have the number 39 retired next season, wanted victories more than trophies or honours.
"I want to be remembered as a competitor who gave the teams always [the chance] to win the game," Hasek said Friday at First Niagara Center. "As a great goalie, as the person or goalie who gave the team [a chance] to always win the game. That's what was hockey for me. I enjoyed my time, I enjoyed when I played here and any time I step on the ice my goal is to win the game and try to help my teammates win the game."
Hasek will forever trail Brodeur and Roy, who each won three Cups, and one of his two in Detroit came as Chris Osgood's backup. But Hasek could potentially have won another title in 1999, had it not been for Brett Hull's controversial skate-in-the-crease overtime series winner in Game 6.
A Cup there would have burnished Hasek's legacy even more, but it's not something that he laments 15 years later.
"It's part of the life," he said. "Sometimes you win, sometimes you come close and you don't win it the whole way. It was an unfortunate night for us, it was something disappointing, but for me it wasn't end of my life."
Far from it. In fact, Hasek teamed up with Hull to win the Cup in 2002 with the Red Wings, posting six shutouts along the way.
In 1999, Hasek had two shutouts and a playoff-best .939 save percentage in almost getting the Sabres their first championship in franchise history. Stars centre Joe Nieuwendyk won the Conn Smythe Trophy, but it easily could've gone to Hasek even in a losing effort.
"We were a huge underdog, obviously, going through the playoffs," Ruff said. "I thought that our team really fed off of Dom's performance for the most part. He would've been able to take a team that wasn't supposed to get there and win it."
Hasek's dominant prime lasted six seasons, from 1993-94 through 1998-99, when he led the league in save percentage every single time and came away with five of his six career Vezinas. Asked about those years, Hasek smiled and brushed off the notion that it might've been the best stretch any goalie has ever played.
"I don't think about this that way," Hasek said. "I got a chance to prove, to become starting goalie and after that I had, I don't know, six, seven years, which we had great teams, we made it every year to the playoffs except one of nine years."
Hasek proved much more than that, something that will more than likely be validated with induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame in November.
"For me it's a no-brainer," Ruff said. "I think he definitely stands as one of the best. He was on the cutting edge of the way a lot of goaltenders play. Always looking for a way to be better. He could take a team a long ways with the way he played."
Hasek isn't carrying teams anymore, instead living back home in the Czech Republic and working "a little bit" in hockey and also in business. As much as he'd appreciate it, making the Hall of Fame was never his goal, and that's not his focus even now.
"There are new goals in life and always something new to prove. The hockey career is something what is behind me," Hasek said. "What great years, what fantastic things to do something what you enjoy, what you love to do, and be very well paid and be around the people who you love and spend great time with them. However it's part of the life that every professional player has to retire some day, and you wake up and you enjoy your life different ways."