BY MICHAEL MROZIAK email@example.com
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — BUFFALO — It's been 13 years since he last stopped pucks for the Buffalo Sabres and six years since he last suited up for a National Hockey League team.
Yet as Dominik Hasek stood facing reporters Friday inside First Niagara Center, he and even some of the working media couldn't help but grin with arguably the best goaltender in Sabres' history back in town.
Tonight, Hasek will become the newest member of the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame in a ceremony prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It's the first of two planned honors for "The Dominator." The team also announced Friday that next season, on a date to be determined, Hasek's No. 39 jersey will be lifted to the rafters as the franchise's seventh retired number.
As he smiled, Hasek admitted not taking part in an English language interview in a long time. Through his fractured sentences and undeniable Czech accent, Hasek's happiness was clear.
"I am very excited to be invited to Buffalo... to go into the Buffalo Sabres Hall of Fame, to be among these (41) people," said Hasek. "Very appreciated. And of course, to be back in Buffalo to meet and to see some friends and people I work with and spend such a great time. So (to) always go back to Buffalo, it means something for me. The nine years I spent here is something I never forget."
After coming to the Sabres in August 1992 in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, Hasek spent nine seasons winning the hearts of Sabres fans and intriguing the entire National Hockey League with his often acrobatic and unorthodox goaltending style.
In his 491 games played for Buffalo, Hasek won 234 of them. He recorded 55 shutouts, a team record, including 13 in one season, also a team high to this day. He also continues to hold the Sabres' records for goals-against average for a single season (1.87) and for a career (2.22).
In 1994, he won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's most outstanding goaltender for the first of his six times as a Sabre. He won the Hart Trophy, give to the league's most valuable player, in 1997 and 1998 and is the only goalie in league history to win that award twice. He played five times in the NHL All-Star Game and also won an Olympic Gold Medal as a member of the Czech national team at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.
Those were just some of the many honors Hasek earned in his career. The one major award that eluded him as a Sabre was the Stanley Cup. Hasek and the Sabres advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1999 but local fans still remember bitterly how Dallas Stars forward Brett Hull's series-winning overtime goal was allowed to stand, even with his foot in the crease.
While some fans are still not over it, Hasek is.
"It's part of life. You cannot win every game," he said when asked about 1999. "You cannot (always) win the championship. You want to, and try to do the best, but sometimes you don't win. We came so close. I know the goal, it was disappointing for everyone in the locker room, in the city. But it's part of your life. Sometimes you win, sometimes you come close."
Hasek did eventually win the Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings, first in 2002 and later in 2008, his final year in the NHL.
Even while winning pro hockey's top prize elsewhere, Hasek kept a presence in Buffalo. He founded Hasek's Heroes in 2001 to allow the city's underprivileged youth an opportunity to play hockey. That program continues to operate today. Hasek, who now lives full-time in the Czech Republic, actively checks in on the program.
"I always stay pretty close to Buffalo people," said Hasek. "I'm coming almost every year here to see the hockey program. I am in touch with (executive director) Sean Green every month and the charity I establish in 2001, it keeps me very proud. It's what keeps me close to the city."
He also continues to follow the Sabres closely and, like the fans, wishes the team was having better luck in the standings.
"I played in this building. I know what's going on. I know about the new owners," said Hasek. "I'd like to see this team do better, so for me it's very disappointing to see this team be not in a good place. But I think for the city and for the people, this organization is very important."
In addition to a return trip to Buffalo to see his jersey retired next season, Hasek may also find himself making travel plans to Toronto this fall. This is his first year of eligibility for election into the Hockey Hall of Fame and he is a heavy favorite to be chosen on the first try.
"What can I say about it?" Hasek said. "I appreciate (it). It's very nice to be among all these big players, I played against them or with them... However, there are new goals in life and always something new to prove."