The first jersey number Dominik Hasek
ever chose now hangs in the rafters of First Niagara Center among the banners honoring six other Buffalo Sabres legends.
Hasek’s iconic No. 39 was retired in a ceremony prior to the Sabres game Tuesday night against the Detroit Red Wings. The Hall of Fame goaltender joins Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, Rene Robert, Tim Horton, Danny Gare and Pat LaFontaine as those who have been so recognized by the franchise.
Hasek compiled 234 wins, a .926 save percentage and a 2.22 goals-against average in nine seasons in Buffalo. He was aptly nicknamed "The Dominator."
“It’s a great feeling for me to be back in Buffalo where I spent the best parts of my hockey career,” Hasek said Tuesday morning. “I cannot be more thankful for what this city and this organization have done for me. I was trying to do the best on the ice.”
Gare and Robert presented the banner during the ceremony, which was met with rousing applause from those in attendance.
When Hasek played in the Czech Republic from 1981-90, he wore No. 9. That’s because he wasn’t given much of a choice.
“One of the players, when I was 16, was sick so they gave me No. 9,” he recalled. “And I played well so he told me, ‘OK. Keep the No. 9.’”
When he made it to the NHL in 1990, the Chicago Blackhawks assigned him No. 34 and then No. 31. So when he was traded to Buffalo in the summer of 1992, he was surprised when he was actually given a choice.
Before a practice at Sabreland during his first training camp with the team, equipment manager Rip Simonik introduced himself to Hasek and then asked what number he’d like.
“Somebody for the first time in my life asked me, ‘What number do I want to wear?’ Seriously. It was the first time in my life,” he said, laughing. “I was like ‘Whoa. Maybe the Sabres, they mean seriously about me.’”
He wanted to incorporate the No. 9 from his overseas career and decided to put a “3” in front of it, giving him No. 39.
Now, that number will never again be worn by another Sabres player.
Hasek has received many honors in the past year. He was inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame back in March and Tesla Pardubice, his professional team in the Czech Republic, retired that No. 9 of his. In November, he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
He owns the best career goals-against average (2.20) and save percentage among goaltenders with at least 250 career games played. His .926 save percentage with Buffalo is the best of any goalie with at least 120 games played with one team.
Over the course of his career, he won six Vezina trophies, two Hart Memorial trophies, two Lester B. Pearson awards and two William M. Jennings trophies. He was named an NHL First-Team All-Star six times.
The Hart Trophy, the Vezina Trophy and the Lester B. Pearson Award were on display during Hasek’s speech.
He reached the Stanley Cup Final with Buffalo in 1999 and won the Stanley Cup while with Detroit in 2002 and 2008.
PRAISE FROM COACHES AND TEAMMATES
Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who was behind the bench during the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons, hopes the players on today’s team can draw inspiration from Hasek’s competitive nature and work ethic.
“The most important thing is to realize how he did it. You don’t get to that status by just being good. You have to work at all facets of your game,” Nolan said. “Even the most skilled players in the world are probably the hardest working guys in the world.”
Alexei Zhitnik played with Hasek from 1995-2001 and roomed with him on the road for five years. He said that while he recognized Hasek was a superstar, the goaltender’s talent became more apparent once they were no longer on the same team.
“When you spend 10 years on the same team, you kind of get used to it but when you play against him, you understand how great he was and how big he was in Buffalo,” Zhitnik said.
He was one of several alumni in attendance.
MEMORIES OF DOM
Matt Ellis was with the Red Wings organization when he made his NHL debut on Dec. 18, 2006 in Columbus. Hasek was pulled after the first period of a 4-3 loss. Ellis shared the story of the non-sanctioned skate he had with Hasek the next morning in Detroit:
The first goal Josh Gorges ever scored was on Hasek, but at the time he didn’t even know it. He recalled the moment:
Buffalo native Patrick Kaleta remembers scoring on Hasek when the Sabres played the Red Wings back on March 2, 2008. It was the second goal of Kaleta’s career and one he’ll never forget:
Sabres goaltender Michal Neuvirth remembers watching Hasek win the gold medal for the Czech Republic during the 1998 Winter Olympics. As a young Czech goaltender, Neuvirth was instantly drawn to Hasek.
“It’s a special night for Dominik, for the Czech Republic, for the Buffalo Sabres,” Neuvirth said. “I’m going to approach it as just another game but I’m definitely going to enjoy the game.”
Hasek is prominently featured on Neuvirth’s mask this season.
“He was my idol. I always wanted to be like him and playing in the National Hockey League,” Neuvirth said. “He was pushing my dream forward.”
Neuvirth started in net against Detroit and faced off against another young Czech goalie, Petr Mrazek.
“This is something I’m proud of, if I had influence on these goalies – my style or my work ethic,” Hasek said. “It’s something special for them which allowed them to become NHL goalies. The Czech Repubic, it’s a great hockey country.”
A LEGACY OFF THE ICE
Members of Hasek’s organization, Hasek’s Heroes were featured on the ice as part of the pregame ceremony.
Hasek’s Heroes was founded in 2000 as a way to give underprivileged children in the city of Buffalo a chance to learn basic skating and hockey skills. The program provides a foundation of athletic development and educational support, enabling children from low- to moderate-income families to achieve their future life goals.
Hasek’s Heroes works in partnership with the Buffalo Public School System to promote academic achievement as an integral component of athletics.
“[It’s] one of the things I’m as proud of as my hockey career because in 2001, I knew I was leaving the city to play for another organization and it was my dream to leave something behind,” Hasek said. “This year, it’s 2015 and this hockey program is going on. It’s successful.”
A limited amount of Hasek-autographed merchandise that will benefit Hasek’s Heroes will be on sale Wednesday online and at the Sabres Store.