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Unorthodox Hasek dominated on way to Hall of Fame

by Kevin Woodley

If the awards and records don't say it, the nickname certainly does.

Dominik Hasek was known as The Dominator for good reason.

At the peak of a career that will see the 49-year-old inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, Nov. 17, Hasek won six Vezina and two Hart trophies with the Buffalo Sabres and a gold medal with the Czech Republic at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the first with NHL participation. He added two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings before retiring with the highest NHL career save percentage at .922.

Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than Hasek's often-dominant career is how close it came to never happening. Arguably the best to play the position, Hasek came really close to not doing so in the NHL.

Dominik Hasek won six Vezina and two Hart trophies with the Sabres during his NHL career. (Photo: Denis Brodeur/NHLI)

Not only did Hasek contemplate a return to the Czech Republic after bouncing back and forth between the minor leagues and playing only 25 games over his first two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, but after a 1992 trade to the Buffalo Sabres he was left unprotected and went unclaimed in the NHL Expansion Draft in 1993.

Hasek won his first Vezina Trophy the following season.

So how does that happen? How can a goaltender get passed over for six others in the summer and then immediately post the first of five seasons with a save percentage of .930 or better?

Hasek's unique and often-misunderstood style played a role.

"I think probably it was really the unique manner in which he played," said Washington Capitals goaltending coach Mitch Korn, who was in Buffalo when Hasek arrived until leaving for the Nashville Predators in 1998.

"Everybody thought it was a gamble at the time."

Hasek had already dominated in his native Czechoslovakia, playing in the top professional league at the age of 16, and winning two championships, three MVPs and five straight goaltender of the year awards over nine seasons before finally joining a Blackhawks team that picked him 199th in the 1983 NHL Draft. But when he finally arrived in North America seven years later, it was the unique way he played the position that stood out the most. Hasek would roll on his back across the crease, drop his stick to pick up the puck with his blocker, and charge out of his crease on breakaways.

The way he played the position didn't look like anyone else, but there was a method behind that madness.

"Goaltending is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle," Korn said, "And Dom is the only guy I have ever met that had every piece and eventually they were all in place. A lot of NHL guys probably have 800 pieces, but Dom had all 1,000 pieces."

Jim Corsi, who was the goaltending coach in Buffalo for Hasek's final two Vezina Trophy season, agreed Hasek's NHL arrival was delayed because he "did not look like the norm." But Corsi said Hasek actually used many of the skills common to goalies today. He just combined them in a way that made it harder for most to recognize.

"The reality was his play was called unorthodox only because he was one of the first guys to really marry athleticism and cleverness with a variety of skills," Corsi said. "We had gone to a way where our skill set was a defining thing: This guy was a standup goalie, that guy was a butterfly goalie, and that was it. One of the beauties of Dom's game was that he also read the game like (Martin) Brodeur and (Patrick) Roy and the greats, but the defining distinction was he had a skill set that went from the guy who reacted to the puck, to the guy who blocked the net, to the guy who interrupted a play before it even got dangerous. It was a devastating combination."

The highlights of Hasek's incredible skill set included Gumby-like flexibility and the ability to read pucks off a stick. His greatest strength, though, was his ability to anticipate the play. The ease with which he was able to contort a lithe 5-foot-11, 177-pound frame into don't-try-this-at-home positions may have dominated highlight reels, but Hasek's intelligence was the key.

"He played hockey as if it was a chess game. He knew what was going to happen next," Korn said. "The only problem when we first got Dom is he was two moves ahead, but like a poor poker player he would sometimes show his hand."

Hasek was sometimes so far ahead he gave shooters a chance to change their mind. With patience came dominance.

An injury to Fuhr early in 1993-94 opened the door for Hasek, and he stuck his foot in firmly with five shutouts during a one month stretch that started in mid-November. By the end of that season Hasek had a .930 save percentage, his first Vezina Trophy as the NHL's top goaltender, and a share of the William Jennings Trophy with Fuhr for the League's best goals-against average. Hasek was also runner up for the Hart Trophy as MVP, and three seasons later he became the first goalie since Jacques Plante in 1962 to win it.

Hasek won the Hart Trophy again in 1998, becoming the first goalie to win it twice. He also won the Ted Lindsay Award as the most valuable player as selected by the players, and won his fourth Vezina Trophy in five years. He added a fifth Vezina in 1999 with a career-best 1.87 goals-against average and .937 save percentage, was again a finalist for the Hart and Lindsay trophies and led the Sabres to the Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Dallas Stars.

After backstopping an often overmatched Buffalo team for eight seasons, Hasek orchestrated a trade to the loaded Detroit Red Wings in 2001-02, finishing with a career high 41 wins and winning his first Stanley Cup.

If anyone thought it came easy, that the acrobatic nature of Hasek's highlight reel saves was all instinctive, long-time Red Wings goaltending coach Jim Bedard begs to differ. He got to see firsthand just how hard Hasek worked at his craft.

"In practice, I tell people my job was more to find ways to get him off the ice, he wanted to work so long," Bedard said. "I'd say, 'Dom we got three in four on the road, let's not leave it all out on the ice in practice,' and he’d say, 'OK Jimmy, give me one more drill that's going to really, really push me.' And then when he'd try to go to the bench after he was so buckled over he'd miss the door because that's how gassed he was. He'd be drooling like a Saint Bernard."

Bedard got to appreciate the skills and technical elements that made Hasek so good, and how hard he worked to keep them sharp. It started with his skating and active hands that stayed out front and wider than most, especially in an era when goalies were starting to lock them up at their sides with more of a blocking butterfly.

"You would see Dom skate in a sweat suit and he looked like he just started skating a week ago, but put him in goalie skates in that little crease and he was the most graceful thing I had ever seen," Bedard said. "When he was in his crouch I would see guys come down the wing in practice and he was barely outside his crease and there was no net. Guys would cut to the middle; there was no net. Guys would cut to the other side; there was no net. He never got out of position, his hips always stayed down and forward, his hands were always up. It was unbelievable. Some guys wouldn't even shoot the puck. They would just get back in line because they knew there was nothing."

Unless he showed them something on purpose. Hasek was known to play head games, baiting shooters by showing a little space where he thought they'd be looking to shoot, then taking it away.

"You have to be smart," Hasek told late in his career. "If you give them something to shoot at, you can set them up for failure."

Hasek retired after winning the Stanley Cup in 2002 but returned a year later and, after an injury-plagued season in Detroit, signed with the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06. He only played one season in Ottawa before rejoining the Red Wings for his final two seasons, winning the Stanley Cup for a second time as Chris Osgood's backup in 2008. But Hasek left an impression on Senators rookie backup Ray Emery, who recognized the method in all the madness that Hasek was so famous for, including those wild-looking charges out of the crease on breakaways.

It was rarely, if ever, an uncalculated gamble. It was another game of chess for Hasek, who anticipated the moment a forward would look down to make sure the puck was settled and made sure by the time that player looked up Hasek was already on top of him.

"He reads plays and that's why you'll see sometimes he'll come flying out if he sees a guy on a breakaway has his head down, or if a guy is cutting down the wing, he'll cut that lane off between the D-man and the near post," Emery told that season. "These things are all calculated, it's not like he's just flopping around in there."

No, but it looked that way, to the point Hasek almost never got a chance to start his Hall of Fame career in the NHL.

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