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Hasek proud number will hang with Sabres legends

by Joe Yerdon

BUFFALO -- Hockey Hall of Fame member Dominik Hasek will have his number retired by the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday, prior to their game against the Detroit Red Wings. The ceremony serves to be a homecoming for him.

Hasek was inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame last season, but with his No. 39 destined for the rafters at First Niagara Center, the memories of his time here have flooded back.

"It's an accomplishment of what I was able to do for this organization and for this community and for this city, for the people of Buffalo," Hasek said. "I'm honored to be one of seven players whose jersey was retired and be next to the greatest, Gilbert Perreault and his linemates and Tim Horton and Danny Gare and my great teammate Pat LaFontaine.

"It's going to be a great honor to have my No. 39 retired. I cannot be more thankful for what this city and this organization has done for me. I was trying to do the best on the ice and now they feel like my jersey's retired and I appreciate it. It's a great honor."

Hasek's best seasons were some of the best goaltending of all time in the NHL. In nine seasons with the Sabres, Hasek won the Hart Trophy in back-to-back seasons, in 1996-97 and 1997-98. He won the Vezina Trophy six times and led the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final in 1999. In 491 games with the Sabres, Hasek was 234-170 with 70 ties, a .926 save percentage, a 2.22 goals-against average and 55 shutouts.

How Hasek came to wear No. 39 when he landed in Buffalo in a 1992 trade with the Chicago Blackhawks is a story unto itself.

"I was wearing No. 9 in the Czech Republic because one of the players when I was 16 was sick, so they gave me No. 9 and I played well so he told me, 'OK, keep No. 9.' And when I came to Chicago nobody asked me. They gave me 31, 34, 31," Hasek said. "… I still remember, it was my first year in Buffalo and we were practicing before training camp in Sabreland and [Sabres equipment manager] Rip Simonick came to me and introduced himself. He was asking me, 'Dom, what number do you want to wear?' Somebody for the first time in my life asked me what number I wanted to wear. Seriously, the first time in my life. So I was like, 'Whoa, maybe the Sabres mean seriously about me.' I tried to stick with No. 9, but I thought No. 9 was in Czech so I want to put some other number in front of it. So from No. 9 in Czech I went to No. 39 here in Buffalo and through my whole career."

What Hasek meant to the Sabres says a lot about why he’s being honored, but the impact he had on his teammates and the respect they had for his abilities tells a similar story.

"When you spend 10 years on the same team you get used to it. But when you play against him you understand how great he was and how big he was in Buffalo," former Sabres teammate Alexei Zhitnik said. "We didn't have a lot of big superstars on the team but he was the only one and we did pretty good. We made the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs pretty often; we played in the Final against great teams. In my memory he's the No. 1 goalie."

Hasek's night in Buffalo is about him and his time with the Sabres, but his time with the Red Wings was meaningful to him as well. The impact he had on the game from their vantage point was clear.

"He made some spectacular saves and also just the odd saves he made," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg said. "If you look at the goalies now they're playing their angles and they're playing very different from Dom. I think he read the play better than the best players playing forward or defense. He always knew if you were going to pass or shoot."

Hasek ended his NHL career with the Red Wings in 2008. During the Red Wings' run to the Stanley Cup that season, Hasek was the starting goalie at the start of the playoffs but was replaced by Chris Osgood during the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Nashville Predators. Osgood led them to a Stanley Cup while Hasek was a 40-year-old backup.

"The hardest thing to do is coach superstars at the end because Father Time gets us all. It just does," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said Monday. "But what's made them superstars is they never believed anything anyone told them negative. They just didn't believe it. They just get [mad] and say, 'I'll show you.' It's been the same for every star that I coached that retired. It's hard at the end, but what makes you so good is that mental toughness that says, 'I can do it, I can do it. Screw you, I can do it.'"

Hasek's time in Buffalo ended July 1, 2001, when his trade demand was honored with a trade to the Red Wings.

"It was a difficult situation for the Sabres and for me and I was the one who asked to be traded," Hasek said. "I sort of chose to go to the team where I have a good chance to win the Cup. For me, I always felt like I was part of the Buffalo Sabres. It took a few weeks, a few months, maybe a year, but after a while I always enjoyed going back to Buffalo and speak to people in the organization, my former teammates. It was a difficult few weeks during that time but I think it's forgotten from both sides completely."

The legacy Hasek had as the greatest Czech goaltender in NHL history will show through on the ice when the Sabres and Red Wings face off. The starting goalies will be Czechs Michal Neuvirth for Buffalo and Petr Mrazek for Detroit.

"It's something special," Hasek said. "They're going to retire your jersey and two young kids from the Czech Republic will be on the ice against each other. I met Neuvirth before; Mrazek I know him a little bit but we never met. This is something I'm proud of if I had influence on these goalies. My style or my work ethic or something was special for them which allowed them to become NHL goalies."

Hasek might be flattered to know that his influence carried through to the next generation.

"He won the Olympics for us in 1998 so he was a great goaltender and I loved that he won two Stanley Cups and he was battling everyone," Mrazek said Monday. “He never wanted to lose the game. That's what I liked about him."

The Sabres goaltender was more direct.

"He was my idol," Neuvirth said Monday. "I always wanted to be like him playing in the National Hockey League. He was pushing my dream forward."

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