Yesterday’s news that Dominik Hasek was retiring for the third time barely registered with me. It was the hockey equivalent of listening to your best friend rehash the details of how he has broken up with his on-again/off-again girlfriend for the last time; because, “this time, it’s for good.”
Despite having not played since the 2010/11 season when he spent some time playing for Spartak Moscow of the KHL, the 47-year old goaltender still hoped to attract the interest of some/any/one NHL club(s). In a shocking turn of events, NHL.com reported that “Hasek expressed his wish to play exhibition games in the American Hockey League in preparation for an expected NHL return, and that one NHL club remained in contact. However, that club apparently told Hasek’s agent that they weren’t interested anymore.”
You have to admire the lengths Hasek is willing to go for even one more instant of NHL ice time. Conversely, his too brief tenure with the Senators left more than one person wondering how committed he was to the club.
With Olympic rosters not due for submission before December 22nd, 2005, and with the emergence of Tomas Vokoun, whom Czech team officials had already identified as the country’s number one, there was real uncertainty as to whether the then 40-year old Hasek would even warrant an inclusion on the roster. Having only played 14 games in 2003/04, Hasek enjoyed a renaissance on a Senators team that had compiled an astounding 23-6-3 record by the roster submission deadline. The Dominator was quite clearly going to Turin.
As a fan, it was a bittersweet moment. Sure, on one hand, it was nice to see a player on your favorite team be acknowledged for his exemplary play. On the other hand, screw the Czech Republic. My sincerest apologies to whatever Czech readership this blog may have cultivated over the years, but Hasek was scheduled to backup and he had already won Olympic gold in Nagano. On the international stage, he had nothing left to prove; whereas in North America, the Senators were killing it. Killing it!
For the first time in the team’s modern history, they had a goaltender who, when on his game, imposed fear and self-doubt in the opposition – which is more impressive when you consider that he did this in spite of his bucket. (As an aside, what’s up with this GTL version of the original 3-D logo that adorns his mask? This is perhaps the worst mask in Senators history next to Damian Rhodes selling out to let Corel design his “The Net” mask.)
Whatever the case, Hasek’s play had shored up the team’s only weakness while infusing some swagger and bravado in his teammates. In a wide-open Eastern Conference in which Sidney Crosby and the Penguins had not matured, the Stanley Cup was theirs for the taking as much as it was anyones. There was also a sense in the city of Hasek as almost a hired gun, a player brought in by Muckler with one express purpose – whereas an Olympic sojourn would only serve to complicate that mission.
In the first period of the February 15th game versus Germany, Hasek went down with a strained abductor muscle and Senators fans collectively went down clutching their junk with him. It was the ultimate kick in the balls.
My favorite story that I’ve heard explaining the Hasek injury, actually precedes the Germany game. According to the source, Hasek flew to Turin and got absolutely sauced on the way over; knowing that he had a practice scheduled shortly after his flight’s arrival. His equipment arrived later and Hasek was forced to take the ice wearing some poor-fitting equipment that wasn’t his. It was during this practice that he allegedly was hurt.
Our worst fears as fans were realized.
Hasek’s injury signaled his season was over. The organization still possibly had its best collection of talent (note: I have a soft spot for the 2002/03 roster). After dispatching the inherently flawed Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round (thank you Martin Havlat), they faced the smaller, faster and deeper Sabres in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. A game one 7-6 OT loss in which they seemed to grasp defeat from the jaws of victory highlighted both the inexperience of a rookie in Emery and the trust his teammates had playing in front of him. At one point during the series Alfie actually pleaded with Hasek to return.
He never did and the Senators were subsequently bounced in five games – another early playoff exit eliciting questions of whether Chara could hack it in the “New NHL”; ignoring the fact that his inconsistent play may have had something to do with a broken hand. Weeks later, Assistant GM Peter Chiarelli would leave the Senators for Boston’s top gig; the “Big Z” would follow on July 1. That loss was the beginning of the end of a blueline once widely revered as one of the best in the NHL.
Amazingly, Hasek actually wanted to return to the team the following season to atone for what happened. He even offered to take a reduction in pay to assuage Ottawa’s cap situation and make it more enticing for the organization to bring him back. Instead, the organization preferred to exhaust other options, turning the reins over to Emery and unrestricted free agent acquisition, Martin Gerber.
Two years later, Hasek playing in limited games won a second Stanley Cup in Detroit.
So perhaps it’s not that surprising that despite being a man who has such a storied history in Ottawa — being the victim of the Steve Duchesne goal; getting injured in the Senators’ first ever playoff series and giving way to Steve Shields (who Ottawa made look like a Vezina candidate); and all of the Gord Wilson sound bites that rehash how much Hasek hates giving up goals in practice – Hasek will always be renowned for teaching us what an adductor muscle is and for helping close the team’s window of Stanley Cup contention.