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For Hasek hunger burns for another Cup

Wednesday, 04.11.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
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For Hasek hunger burns for another Cup
By Larry Wigge, NHL.com columnist

After having his last two seasons cut short due to injury, the Red Wings' Dominik Hasek is as determined as ever for another Cup. Dominik Hasek wasn't out of a job for long last summer. It just seemed that way.

Hasek posted a 38-11-6 record with eight shutouts this season.

Hasek wasn't re-signed after the 2005-06 season by Ottawa, where he posted a 28-10-4 record. Because he hadn't played in a game since suffering a groin injury in the Olympic Games in mid-February -- and it was the second-straight season ended early by a groin injury -- there were those who thought the 41-year-old puckstopper would call it quits.

But Hasek, whose lengthy resume includes six Vezina Trophies as the NHL's best goaltender, two Hart Trophies as the regular-season MVP, an Olympic gold medal and one Stanley Cup, was not in a retiring mood.

As we watched goalie after goalie change teams last summer, there was no sign of Hasek. But that was just because "The Dominator" and Red Wings GM Ken Holland weren't in any hurry to make the announcement that Hasek was returning to Detroit. The Detroit braintrust had discussed trading for Buffalo backup goalie Marty Biron. And the names J.S. Giguere and Ed Belfour also came up. But the Red Wings brass kept coming back to Hasek.

"I told Ritch Winter (Hasek's agent); 'I want to know that Dom's coming back for all the right reasons,' " Holland recalled.

While the names were being bandied about in the media in Detroit for weeks, Hasek was home in the Czech Republic getting ready to play again. He spent a short time deliberating, well, whether anyone in the NHL wanted him after it was suggested by media and fans in Ottawa that he bailed out on the team.

"After what happened in Ottawa, I told my wife, 'That's it,' " Hasek told me after a game-day skate in early March. "When I got a call from the Red Wings, I couldn't believe how excited I was. I didn't finish 2004 and I didn't expect a call.

"I remember getting a call on my cell phone when I was cycling in the mountains in the Czech Republic on July 4 or 5. It was Ritch Winter telling me that Ken Holland wanted to talk about a return to the Red Wings. I told Ritch that would be perfect, that I would love to go back to Detroit, where I already knew the city and how the team plays ... and they knew all about me.

"I felt like I was having a very good season in Ottawa before I got hurt at the Olympics. Still, the longer I was out after the injury, the rumors started to say that I was finished. But I knew that wasn't true."

Hasek and his wife, Alena, and their children, Michal and Dominika, talked about the offer in Detroit for a couple weeks. But "The Dominator" knew he couldn't pass up this opportunity with the Red Wings.

Hasek is a simple man with a not-so-simple job. He'll do anything he can to stop the puck. But off the ice, he's a learned man. Hasek possesses the equivalent of a master's degree in history from the University of Hradec Kralove, is an accredited high school teacher in the Czech Republic and a voracious reader of books on history and art.

Hasek's competitiveness is legendary. He was a midfielder in soccer and a junior tennis champion in Eastern Bohemia. He plays soccer, tennis and squash in the summer. "The Dominator" isn't the only one in his family with great athletic skills. His brother, Martin, plays for the Czech Republic's national team.

Dom is like a folk hero in the Czech Republic, where he has a brand of sportswear named Dominator Clothing, which was launched shortly after the Nagano Olympics in 1998. But his popularity and fame back home doesn't cloud his competitive spirit on the world stage.

"I'm hungry. I have motivation. I have something to prove to myself ... and others," he told me. "I knew that I could still play at an elite level."

Despite the fact that his last playoff victory came back in 2002 -- when he went 16-7, with six shutouts and a 1.86 goals-against average in leading the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup -- here he is, now 42, ready for the playoffs once again.

"To me, the motivation to win another Stanley Cup is the same as it was in 2002, when I was trying to proved to everyone that I could win a Cup," Hasek said.

Opponents say that Dom's unorthodox style -- that often leads to athletic snow angel saves -- helps set them up for failure.
Clearly, Hasek is betting he can accomplish the feat -- based on the $750,000 base salary he accepted last July that can increase by an additional $1.1 million in bonuses if he takes the Red Wings to the Promised Land again.

For the record, it's Hasek's third stint with the Wings. After guiding them to the Stanley Cup in 2002, he retired and sat out a season, then made an ill-fated return in 2003-04, when a groin injury ended his season prematurely.

In the three seasons since Hasek led Detroit to its third Stanley Cup in six seasons, the Red Wings have won just one playoff series -- in spite of winning the Presidents' Trophy for having the best record in the NHL the last two seasons.

When Holland said he wanted Hasek to come back for all the right reasons, he meant hunger, competitiveness, wanting to be "THE MAN" again. He knew the money was secondary to "The Dominator."

"One thing I'll never forget was Dom coming into my office in early January 2004 and telling me, 'Ken, I'm not here for the money ($8 million a season at the time). If I can't play, don't pay me another cent.' "

At that point, Holland knew more about "THE MAN" than ever. He smile widely while he was telling this story.

"I'll never forget that he won a Stanley Cup for us," Holland continued. "But more important, he was a man of his word with me when he got hurt in 2003-04 and he walked away from $3 million. How many people would walk away from $3 million?"

A vintage Dominik Hasek is like a classic chess master, seemingly knowing every move opponents are going to make before they make them. He stares down his opponent like a witness to a crime scrutinizing suspects in a lineup. His green eyes glare with attentiveness, noting every detail. He hates to even let in a goal in practice. His style is almost like an attack mode.

I'll never forget back in 1997 asking then-Chicago Blackhawks captain Chris Chelios about "The Dominator."

"Hasek?" Chelios said. "He has no style. He just stops the puck."

Now a teammate of Hasek's in Detroit, Chelios' opinion hasn't changed, saying, "Dom doesn't worry about style points. To him, it's all about putting a ?W' up on the scoreboard."

Opponents say that Dom's unorthodox style -- that often leads to athletic snow angel saves -- helps set them up for failure.

"He's like Gumby," Hall of Famer Brett Hull said earlier this season, recalling some of those double- and triple-jointed saves Hasek would make that would lift fans from their seats and make opponents pull out their hair in frustration.

"You try to make a perfect shot," Nashville Predators winger Paul Kariya said. "It's like trying to find a hole in a wall -- and shooting a puck through it."

To make certain Hasek would be groin-injury free and healthy for the playoffs, the Red Wings have rarely used Hasek in back-to-back games. But coach Mike Babcock doesn't look at this game plan as risk/reward.

"The thing we have this year that we didn't have last year is 'The Dominator,'" he said. "I don't care what anybody says, when the game's on the line, I like having him back there."

Now all of Detroit knows that Hasek came back -- for all of the right reasons -- with the playoffs about to begin.

"I'm proud of what I've done in this game with the Stanley Cup and trophies and gold medals," Hasek said. "But you don't prepare for the next season by living in the past. You come here to try to do everything to win again. I would never, ever come back just to play the game. I want to come back to be the best and be the winning goalie at the end of the season."

And that starts now.

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