Buffalo - January 14, 2015 - Last night in Buffalo, the Sabres retired the #39 sweater of their legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek. It felt long overdue, given Hasek’s place as not only the face of the franchise during the 1990s but as one of the greatest netminders to ever play the game.
Everyone and their mother will likely be doing a top 10 list of saves made by Hasek during his illustrious career – and you’ll likely never find a better one than his blocker stop against the Philadelphia Flyers that still boggles my mind years later – and that’ll be all fine and well. Maybe a kid or two will watch these highlight videos and a new generation can be as dazzled by Hasek as we were.
Instead, I’m going to try to articulate what it was like being a kid in Buffalo during the height of Hasek’s powers and just what it meant to not only me, but the city at that time.
In the early 1990s, Buffalo was without a doubt a football town. And how could it not be? The Bills were one of the most dominant teams in NFL history, running off four straight AFC Championships and featuring the K-Gun offense, one of the most dominant offenses in football. They had Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas and Andre Reed – all future Hall-of-Famers. Despite failing to win any of those four Super Bowls, the town still bled red and blue.
The Sabres had their flashes in the early ‘90s: Pat Lafontaine and young Russian Alexander Mogilny combined to make magic during the 1992-93 season, bringing offensive prowess to the rink that Sabres fans hadn’t seen since the days of the French Connection. If you saw a Sabres sweater around town, you can bet your bottom dollar it had a #16 or #89 on the back of it.
Still, the Sabres struggled to capture the limelight from the Bills. Then, the team made a trade that no one really noticed: they sent goalie Stephane Beauregard and future considerations (a pick that was used to obtain Eric Daze) to the Chicago Blackhawks for a little-known 27-year-old Czech goalie. After originally being placed on waivers and then backing up Tom Draper and Grant Fuhr, he started to gain our attention.
First, it was the Vezina Trophy in 1994 as the league’s top goalie while finishing as a runner-up for the Hart Trophy as league MVP. The league was really just starting to notice him in 1995 as he again won the Vezina, but we were already in awe. He almost didn’t seem real: bending in ways that would hurt us just to watch, making improbable saves by flailing a random limb, covering the puck with his blocker instead of his glove because he didn’t care how he made the save, he just made it.
Hasek’s momentum continued and, in the 1996-97 season, the world saw what we had been seeing for a few years now: Hasek was the Sabres. He represented the way the city lived: do everything you can to get by when no one else believes in you. He was the working-class man who persevered and made it. With every flop and sprawl, he was us. He was scratching and crawling to make it, just like us. More than that, as a kid, we all wanted to be him. I know I wasn’t the only kid who sprawled around like Hasek while playing floor hockey in gym class, nor was I the only kid who wanted to make the ridiculous unorthodox save while playing street hockey. We all wanted to be the man with the slinky for a spine.
Hasek would win the Hart Trophy that year, becoming one of a handful of netminders to ever win the award. The league was finally realizing where the Sabres would be without the Dominator behind them. Despite tensions with the Buffalo media, he was still our untouchable hero. He followed up that MVP effort with another MVP campaign, becoming the only goalie in NHL history to win back-to-back Harts. One of ours was going down in history for something other than being history’s most famous loser.
The Bills felt like a distant memory, Kelly retired while Thomas and Reed played out their twilight years. Hasek was on a roll like no other, posting arguably the most dominant stretch any goaltender in the history of the game had ever managed. Perhaps his finest work as a Sabre came in the 1999 playoffs. Hasek carried the team on his back, going 13-6 with a 1.77 goals against average and a .939 save percentage, bringing them back to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1975. Unfortunately, Brett Hull would ruin it for us all.
After dealing with injuries, frustrations with both the media and the franchise, as well as the disappointments that came with a team that just couldn’t compete financially, Hasek was done. He left Buffalo unceremoniously the same way he’d came: traded. The team, in an attempt to keep a cheap payroll as the ownership situation was being figured out, dealt one of the most iconic players in franchise history and didn’t manage to get much back for him, landing Vyacheslav Kozlov and a 2002 first-round pick.
Just like that, The Dominator was gone and the heart was torn out of the city. Until that point, I had always hated the Red Wings, but there was no holding back my hope that Hasek would manage to win the big one in Detroit, something he couldn’t do in Buffalo. Not because we didn’t believe he could single-handedly carry us to the Promised Land, but because he couldn’t score goals himself. Sure enough, he got to hoist his first of two Stanley Cup championships with Detroit in 2002. He wasn’t wearing the red and black of the Sabres, but I was happy all the same.
Like anything else, the memories of his dominance faded as he toiled with the Red Wings and Senators for a few more seasons before disappearing into retirement after one last run in the KHL during 2010-11.
When he took the ice to see his number retired high in the rafters, all of those glorious memories came flooding back. All the awards, all the ridiculous saves, all the kids just like me who wanted to be “The Dominator” if only for a moment.
Welcome home, Dominik. You’ve been gone too long.
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