"I was a goalie from practice No. 1," Hasek said here Friday at the start of Hockey Hall of Fame weekend. "I remember I was 3 years old and I always asked my parents and grandfather to shoot at me in the kitchen at home, in the meadow around the house. I never tried to score on anyone. I always was in the net to stop the ball or stop the puck. When I was 6 and at my first practice, I came to the hockey rink as the goalie."
Turns out it was a very astute decision. Hasek received his Hockey Hall of Fame ring with this year's other inductees: Mike Modano, Rob Blake, Peter Forsberg, referee Bill McCreary and coach Pat Burns (accepted by his widow, Line Gignac Burns). The group will be inducted Monday.
Right from the get-go, Hasek hated giving up a goal. Buffalo Sabres teammate Mike Peca once said jokingly that Hasek stopped 106 of 115 shots he faced in warm-up prior to a game.
"I remember I cried many times when I lost or when I let goals in during practice when I was a kid," Hasek said. "I remember crying when my favorite professional team I was cheering for would lose a game. My grandfather had a handkerchief and he would wipe my tears and tell me I didn't have to cry when I was a kid."
After a brilliant career in Europe, where he was three times chosen Player of the Year and five times Goaltender of the Year, Hasek headed for North America. He had been drafted in the 10th round, pick No. 199, by the Chicago Blackhawks in 1983.
"I always dreamed about one day being a starting goalie in the NHL and it took me a few years," Hasek said. "I was sent down to the minors and I played behind Eddie Belfour, who was the Vezina Trophy winner in Chicago. Honestly at the time I never dreamed of being a Vezina Trophy winner or being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is like a dream, seriously."
Hasek's career kicked into gear when he was traded to the Sabres in August 1992 and got the chance to be the starter for the first time in the NHL.
The high point of his nine years in Buffalo was arguably also the low point: losing Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup finals, 2-1 in triple overtime, against the Dallas Stars. Fans in Buffalo to this day insist Stars forward Brett Hull had his skate in the crease and the goal he scored should have been disallowed. But it counted, and Dallas won the Cup.
"It was tough … difficult for everyone in our locker room," Hasek said. "Especially with the Brett Hull goal, which was sort of on the edge maybe. It was an illegal goal."
Hasek was traded to the Red Wings in July 2001 and helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2002 and 2008.
Throughout his career, Hasek had to answer questions about his unique, unorthodox style. He would fling himself from side to side in the net, roll around on his back with his legs kicking in the air, and drop his stick to pick up the puck with his blocker.
"I think the NHL should have made a rule that made it illegal for him to do that," Forsberg said with a smile.
"What can I say about my style?" Hasek said. "When I was a kid I would watch the best goalies, what I could see on TV, and at that time it was European goalies like Jiri Holecek and Vladislav Tretiak. I watched them and I tried to do the same things in practice. There were certain things that were working for me and some things that didn't work for me at all. So that is how I developed my style. I was more flexible than most goalies. I never had a goalie coach as a kid so I developed my style on my own."
Hasek said he knew that's how he wanted to play.
"I had some goalie coaches who maybe asked why I did things a certain way, but back in the day I was strong-willed and they never tried to change me," he said. "I think it worked because I was more flexible than the other guys. My butterfly, I think, was the best in my time. I could reach from post to post with my legs and the whole body was more flexible so I could be on my knees because I was able to reach farther than the other goalies."
Hasek's acrobatic style certainly confused the opposition.
"I think his greatest attribute was that he was so flexible he could have a leg anywhere and he read the play so well," Forsberg said. "I remember a few times you'd maybe beat a guy coming in and he would be right there. If he saw you had your head down he would read the play so he was always close to you and you could never get an easy goal on him."
Hasek, who turns 50 in January, smiles when he thinks back on robbing some of the best players in the world.
"I watched yesterday on TV some of my great saves and I enjoyed it," Hasek said. "I enjoyed so much playing goal. Unfortunately I could not help my teammates score goals, but when the game was 2-1 for us I knew I could be the biggest difference. For me it was all about winning the game."
Hasek won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goalie six times and won the Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player in 1997 and 1998.
The biggest victory for Hasek came in 1998 when the Czech Republic won the gold medal at the Nagano Olympics.
"Nagano was definitely No. 1," Hasek said. "I have to say definitely No. 1 with winning my first Stanley Cup in 2002. In 1998 we came to Nagano as an underdog, but we had a special feeling in the locker room with a coach like Ivan Hlinka and a player like Jaromir Jagr and some other, at that time, underrated players. This is something I will never forget.
"We won the gold medal and then flew on a charter to meet our president (Vaclav) Havel, who sent for us in Prague. We spent one night in Prague and I will never forget that. It is something I will appreciate for the rest of my life."
The Czechs defeated the United States 4-1 in the quarterfinals, Canada 2-1 in a shootout in the semifinals, and Russia 1-0 in the gold-medal game.
The loss stung Canada. Blake, who won gold for Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, credited Hasek.
"He was one of the greatest," Blake said. "You knew you were never going to get an easy one on him. The best game I ever saw or he played against me was in the Olympics in Nagano. He was the best player on the ice and he stopped five of Canada's best shooters (Theo Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros, Brendan Shanahan)."
If the Czechs were underdogs at the start of the Olympic tournament, as Hasek suggested, it wasn't long before the other teams started looking over their shoulders.
"After we beat USA in the quarterfinals we started to believe that maybe we can do something more," Hasek said.
It was a big deal not just for the team.
"The people in the Czech Republic still remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when we beat the Canadians in the semifinal," Hasek said. "It was an unforgettable moment."
Hasek retired from the NHL after the 2007-08 season but found himself growing restless. He returned to play for hometown Pardubice in the Czech League in 2009-10 and for Moscow Spartak in the Kontinental Hockey League in 2010-11.
"For me it was easy to retire, but after a few months without hockey I decided to come back just for the love of the game," Hasek said. "But for every player, there comes a time when you have to retire forever, and that day came for me too."
When the call came telling Hasek he had been elected to the Hall of Fame, he was out for a bike ride when he answered the phone.
"The wind was blowing, so I said, 'I can't hear you; call me back,'" Hasek said.
There was never any doubt he would be a goaltender, and there was no other sport for him.
"Hockey is the best sport in the world," Hasek said. "The city I am from, hockey is No. 1, so I am glad I chose hockey."