DETROIT – The Red Wings had a star-studded lineup but were missing the piece that would return them to serious contention for the Stanley Cup again.
It was the summer after the Los Angeles Kings drubbed the Red Wings out of the first round of the 2001 Western Conference playoffs. That, in and of itself, was embarrassing for a franchise that dominated the Central Division for more than a decade. But this was the third straight postseason that the Wings didn’t make it beyond the second round of the playoffs.
Owner Mike Ilitch vowed he would do “whatever’s necessary” to keep winning and challenged his general manager, Ken Holland, and, the team’s scouting staff to aggressively pursue key free agents that offseason.
The GM complied, making a monumental splash with the signings of UFA forwards Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull. But the big piece came in a trade for world-class goaltender Dominik Hasek. The acquisition of the best goalie on the planet gave the Red Wings what they needed to round out the holy trinity of hockey success to go with defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and center Steve Yzerman.
Hasek’s credentials, including six Vezinas and two Harts, were impressive enough to generate positive buzz around Hockeytown.
“We knew what kind of goalie we were getting,” Lidstrom said last week. “Adding him to the list of other players that we added that summer just seemed to be a perfect fit, it only made sense that we add the best goalie that was out there.”
One of the most unorthodox and acrobatic athletes ever to play the position, the Dominator is the only goalie in history to win the Hart Trophy, as the league’s most valuable player, in back-to-back seasons. And that was before he came to Detroit. Personal accolades aside, Hasek coveted a Stanley Cup championship, which had eluded him … until he joined the Red Wings.
“He was on a mission to win the Cup and it worked out for all of us,” Lidstrom said. “Looking at that roster that year, we had one heck of a roster with a lot of All-Stars but he was a very important ingredient in that locker room and on that team.”
The Red Wings’ star-laden lineup captured the Cup in 2002, their third in six years, defeating Carolina in the finals. Six members from that roster – Brendan Shanahan, Igor Larionov, Chris Chelios, Yzerman, Robitaille and Hull – are already enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and four more surely will receive their due, beginning with Hasek, while Lidstrom. Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Datsyuk will follow a day.
The announcement for this year’s class of hockey immortals will be made Monday at 3 p.m. EST. Hasek, along with Peter Forsberg and Detroit native Mike Modano are the leading candidates to be nominated in their first year of induction eligibility.
If he gets the call, Hasek will become the 37th goalie to enter the Hall of Fame, and just the sixth in the past 25 years, joining Ed Belfour (2011), Patrick Roy (2006), Grant Fuhr (2003), Billy Smith (1993) and Vladislav Tretiak (1989).
“I don’t know if there’s any other European goaltender who has been inducted into the Hall of Fame unless it’s for his international play,” former Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer said. “Dom is the best European goaltender in the history of the NHL. It’s special how he dominated for more than half a decade in the NHL. You don’t see that and it’s not going to happen again.”
It wasn’t just the NHL that Hasek dominated. He was a huge hockey star back in his native Czechoslovakia before coming to America in 1990.
As a young boy, Fischer marveled at Hasek’s skills as he dominated the Czech Extraliga in the 1980s.
“For me growing up in Czechoslovakia and him already being the idol, we were one hockey generation apart and I was just a little kid watching Dominik Hasek on TV,” Fischer recalled. “He was an icon. He has a special personality, a special character and just the way he’s competitive in everything, that’s what made him and made us so successful in 2002.”
A STYLE ALL HIS OWN
Hasek, now 49, was originally selected by Chicago in the 10th round of the 1983 draft. With his self-taught style that many critics referred to as flopping, Hasek eventually played parts of two seasons with the Blackhawks before he was traded to Buffalo, where he began to engineer a Hall-of-Fame career.
In nine seasons with the Sabres, he became arguably the best goaltender in the league, winning the Vezina six times in an eight-season span from 1993-2001. He is the only goalie to win back-to-back league MVPs, in 1996-97 and 1997-98. He also won the Ted Lindsay Award in both of those campaigns.
“The education and training when Dom was growing up is completely different than it is today,” Fischer said. “There were no goalie camps, no power skating camps. So the goalies like Dominik, Tretiak and (Vladimir) Dzurilla they had to figure out how to be successful.
“The most important reason Dom was so successful was that he was so mentally strong and he always bounced back stronger. He was so competitive and his style, he figured it out on his own. Nobody taught him that style. He was unique and he was so much in his comfort zone by being so unorthodox that he would let a shooter think there was an opening and he would basically lure the shot and then just take it away.
“It was the glove, it was the over-stacked pads and when guys were taking him side to side on breakaways and driving the net wide, same thing with the five hole, same thing with just taking it away even on deflections. I think he even anticipated deflections. He was special.”
He was unique and he was so much in his comfort zone by being so unorthodox that he would let a shooter think there was an opening and he would basically lure the shot and then just take it away. - Red Wings defenseman Jiri Fischer
Hasek paced the Wings’s Cup run in 2002, going 16-7 with six shutouts and a 1.86 goals-against average. He announced his retirement after the finals, but sat out just one season, and returned to the Red Wings for the 2003-04 season, and after a work stoppage signed with the Ottawa Senators in 2005-06.
He returned to the Red Wings for his final two NHL seasons, serving as Chris Osgood's backup on the Wings' 2008 Stanley Cup championship team. Hasek finished his NHL career 11th all-time with 389 wins and tied for sixth with 81 shutouts. He also had a 2.20 goals-against average and an astonishing .922 save percentage in 735 career games.
“He certainly had the intimidator factor,” Holland said.
However, there was a time when Holland thought that he and Sabres GM Darcy Regier might not make a deal because of Hasek’s concerns with the Red Wings’ roster, which many thought was an aging group of Hall-of-Fame inductees than a core of a Stanley Cup contending team.
“Dom’s concern was with the age of our team, though I didn’t believe we were over the hill,” Holland said. “It was a week-long process but Darcy and I finally came up with a solution.”
While the Red Wings were winning their second of back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, Hasek was ascending to greatness by accomplishing an NHL first; winning his second consecutive league MVP. That year he carried the Czech Republic to the Olympic gold medal in Japan and then took Buffalo to the 1999 Stanley Cup finals.
Back then, the Red Wings were built on offense, strong up the middle while the defense took a back seat with far less depth along the blue line. The unorthodox goaltender helped fill that void as the last line of defense, particularly against Colorado in the Western Conference finals, becoming the fifth Red Wings’ goalie to post back-to-back shutouts in the playoffs – the first since legendary Terry Sawchuk did so in 1952.
“We lost in overtime in Game 5 at home and being down 3-2 heading to Denver in a very tough building to play in against a very difficult team to face, Dom came up huge for us,” Lidstrom said. “I remember they asked the referee to check his stick. Their coach, Bob Hartley, thought Dom had an illegal stick. We were up one-nothing, they had a power play and they called for Dom’s stick. He knew it was legal because he checked it before the game, so he knew it wasn’t going to be a penalty on us. Instead, it was a penalty on them. He came up big. We won that game two-nothing and then in Game 7 at home, I think we were up four-nothing after that first period.
“In those two games, Dom was at his best, especially in Game 6 on the road, in a pressure game where you have to come up big. We did as a team, but he did as a goalie too for us. Those two games are very memorable for me.”
'MUSSEE! MUSSEE! MUSSEE!'
The Red Wings were beyond thrilled to trade for Hasek, however, communicating with the Dominator was a completely different issue. His thick European accent was an obvious obstacle.
“It took us a while as defensemen to read what he wanted us to do,” Lidstrom said. “He loved to come out and play the puck but he wasn’t that strong on his stick to make plays with the puck. He would get out there to try and help the D. Same thing with the people in front, he wanted to see the shot and focus on the shot. He was very vocal that way and he was talking on the ice in our own zone. We couldn’t always understand what he was saying but he was always trying to communicate and tell us where to go or where he wanted us to be or if he was going to play the puck for us. He was very vocal that way.”
The accent took some getting used to, especially for the defensemen who rely heavily on communication from their D partner as well as their goalie.
“It was interesting at the beginning of the year he was very vocal and we weren’t used to having a goaltender directing the traffic in front of him by being vocal and being loud,” Fischer said. “It was a funny because many people couldn’t understand his European accent obviously. But when the game was going on and we were in the D zone with a point shot coming or there was a guy walking into the middle from the half wall taking a shot and Dom would be screaming, ‘Mussee! Mussee! Mussee!’ He did this for the first few games of the regular season. As defensemen, we thought it was a little unusual. We didn’t know what he was saying but he’s screaming so something’s going on.”
Finally, Chelios, who had been teammates with Hasek in Chicago, asked his new teammate in Detroit what he was trying to say.
“We learned that he was telling us that he ‘Must see!’ ” Fischer said. “It’s amusing now but back then he would always let us know if there was a guy somewhere behind the play, he would always let us know if we were screening him. He brought a different goalie culture to our organization.”
But the Dominator always kept the opposition guessing with his unique flare and calculated risks that made him one of the best goalies of all time.
“He was so quick, very agile,” said Lidstrom, who will be eligible for induction into the Hall’s Class of 2015. “He wasn’t that typical goalie of today where they’re in the right position all of the time, and big, facing the shooter. He would come out and challenge the shooter or he could stand on the goal line and let the guy make the first move on breakaways. He was very intelligent in knowing what guys wanted to do.”