The image, more —than two decades old, is scorched into Mitch Korn’s brain: a 6-foot-1, 166-pound man wearing nothing but a tank top, tighty-whities, black knee socks and dress shoes.
It was 1992, and Korn was Buffalo’s goaltending coach. The Sabres had just acquired a relative unknown named Dominik Hasek, who’d shocked onlookers a couple months earlier with the Chicago Blackhawks after relieving injured starter Ed Belfour in the Stanley Cup final, making some highlight-reel stops against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, even stopping Mario Lemieux on a breakaway. It got people talking about Hasek, though to casual fans it was merely 15 minutes of fame for an anonymous backup.
So, there Hasek stood in the dressing room after a summer trade to the Sabres, rail thin, pasty white, staring back at his new mentor, and Korn knew this pupil was unlike any other.
Throughout his career, Hasek’s narrative never followed a straight line. He did the opposite of everyone else, whether it was through his awkward-dad fashion sense, his pre-game rituals, his practice habits or, most prominently, his acrobatic puckstopping style, which inspired a credit card commercial to claim he had “a Slinky for a spine.”
By age three, facing shots in his family’s kitchen, Hasek knew he wanted to be a goaltender. He showed up at his very first practice as a goalie and never intended to play any other position. He was five, with skate blades screwed onto his shoes, and began tending goal against nine-year-olds. He was so obsessed with stopping the puck that he would throw tantrums whenever he got scored on.
Although it felt like Hasek had goaltending in his blood, that he was destined for greatness, his path from the former Czechoslovakia to the NHL was circuitous. Hasek was drafted in the Iron Curtain era, when NHL teams hesitated to select players from Communist countries, worrying they would never make the trek across the Atlantic Ocean. Chicago took Hasek 199th overall in 1983. Several months passed before he even knew he’d been drafted. He spent most of his 20s dominating the Czech Extraliga, winning goalie of the year five straight times and MVP three times between 1986 and 1990 before arriving in North America for the 1990-91 season.
That’s actually when Korn first laid eyes on him, a couple years before they formally met. Korn, not yet working in the NHL, was attending an Indianapolis Ice game in the old IHL as a spectator to watch an old student of his in action. He noticed Hasek, the Ice’s backup goaltender, behaving strangely during the intermission, skating around the ice by himself wearing no upper padding, no gloves, no mask, just a towel around his neck. “He had his hands behind his back, and he kind of speed-skated around the rink,” Korn said. “I remember seeing that and saying to myself, ‘That’s different.’ ”
Hasek was as different as they come. The whole hockey world just didn’t know it yet. He was an obscure name when he reached the NHL, backing up eventual Hall of Famer Belfour on a powerhouse Blackhawks club. Chicago traded Hasek to Buffalo for Stephane Beauregard and a fourth-round pick before the 1992-93 season. There, he joined a new goaltending battery with another future Hall of Famer, Grant Fuhr. Hasek was like nothing Fuhr or Korn had ever seen, with a strange, desperate, spastic technique. “It was kind of a stop, drop and roll,” Fuhr said. “He did whatever he could to get himself in front of the puck. It didn’t always have to be technically sound. It just had to work.”
Hasek is credited, more than any other netminder, for popularizing the style known as “flopper.” As he explains, he considered himself a butterfly goalie in his stance but didn’t slide laterally from post to post like most butterfly goalies do. “Quickly down, quickly up,” Hasek said. “Today it seems the goalies look lazy, but they are not lazy. The style can look like that. They’re on their knees even when the puck is behind the net. They don’t go quickly up. They stay on one knee. My goalie coach told me it started in the ’90s in Finland. Through the sliding, you cover the lower part of the net unbelievably, much better than we did as a group as goalies in the ’90s.”
Hasek may not think so, but he covered the lower part of the net just fine. He would scramble around the crease, contorting his body, making snow angels to stop pucks. He would barrel roll and use the back of his trapper to block the goal line after he was seemingly beaten on dekes. And, of course, he would drop his goal stick. That would become his signature move. As Korn described it, Hasek was a poker player who knew the hand was won but had a terrible poker face. He wanted the puck so badly and knew he could retrieve it with his blocker hand if he dropped the stick. Korn didn’t want to coach the habit out of Hasek, as it worked for him, but the two had to negotiate, because Korn was worried to death Hasek would get his fingers broken. Their agreement: the puck had to be on Hasek’s right side, it had to be easily within reach and Hasek had to yank his hand out of the way as soon as he had the puck. “Imagine playing goal is a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” Korn said. “Some goalies have 800 pieces, some guys have all 1,000 pieces. Rarely are all the pieces put together, and not every piece is in color. Some are in black and white. Dom had all 1,000 pieces, and his 1,000 pieces had no order. They were all scattered around that table. My job, I felt, was to give it order, to put all that stuff together to make it work. So the right thing happened at the right time.”
Except it almost didn’t happen for the Sabres at all. During the 1993 expansion draft, they chose to protect Fuhr and not Hasek, even after Korn begged them to do the opposite. “I said, ‘This guy can play, but you just have to have a strong stomach to watch him,’ ” Korn said.
Luckily, no team claimed Hasek. He remained a Sabre when 1993-94 arrived, and, suddenly, the puzzle pieces fused beautifully. ‘The Dominator’ was born when a Fuhr injury opened up a starter’s workload for Hasek. He began the most overpowering stretch of excellence by any goalie in NHL history. He won five Vezina Trophies in the next six years. He won the Hart Trophy as league MVP and the Ted Lindsay Award (then the Lester B. Pearson) for most outstanding player as voted by the players in both 1997 and 1998. Hasek’s .930 save percentage in 1993-94 annihilated the previous NHL record of .914. He broke his own mark twice more times and held it until 2010-11, when Tim Thomas bested it. On top of running laps around the NHL, Hasek carried the Czech Republic to gold at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. His goals-against average: 0.97. His SP: .961. Canadians born in the 20th century not-so-fondly remember Brendan Shanahan’s last shootout attempt in Canada’s elimination loss to the Czechs, after Hasek had already stopped a gauntlet of Theoren Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk and Eric Lindros. The result felt pre-ordained. It was present in announcer Bob Cole’s downtrodden voice: “He’s got to score, that’s all…No, he can’t do it.” Shanahan was not scoring, and everyone in the building knew it, including Hasek.
Hasek maintained the ability to demoralize shooters largely because he was so darned driven, not just during games but right down to every practice. He would drill himself on game situations. If he wanted to work on a specific skill or type of save, he would do it over and over until it was perfect. “He hated to be scored on any day,” Fuhr said. “The drill was staying until he got it the way he wanted it. When he got the results he wanted, then the drill could end.”
Hasek’s practice habits not only helped him and Fuhr push each other, Fuhr said, but they also made Buffalo’s players better goal-scorers, as they were constantly facing Hasek’s best self. “You have to have talent, you have to have very good reactions, you have to be a very good skater and good flexibility is helpful,” Hasek said. “And you cannot give up. It’s most important. You have to be a leader, because the team is behind you. You’re the last on the team who gives up. The team depends on you.”
Hasek ended up with six Vezinas in his career. The only goaltender with more is Jacques Plante, who had seven and won six of those playing in a league with six teams and six starting goaltenders. The NHL had 26 teams when Hasek won his first Vezina and 30 when he earned his sixth. Plante also won all his Vezinas when the award went to the starting goalie on the team with the lowest GAA, so Hasek has the most Vezinas under the “real” system, in which GMs vote on the league’s best goalie. He’s also the only netminder to lead the NHL in shots faced per 60 minutes and lead the league in SP the same season – and he did so twice (1995-96 and 1997-98).
‘The Dominator’ can never be perfectly duplicated, but he patented a technique many goalies have emulated. He gave hope to those relying on athleticism and sheer willpower over pretty technique. It’s easy to see elements of Hasek in today’s scrambling, battling goaltenders, like Jonathan Quick and Pekka Rinne.
Hasek, then, rates among the game’s best innovator goalies, but what about the best goalies, period? Consider that Hasek didn’t become an NHL starter until he was 28. If standard-setters Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur commenced their careers at the same age, their volume-based stats like wins and shutouts would be remarkably close. Hasek has as strong a claim as any to the unofficial throne of goaltending’s greatest ever. “While the career may not have been as long as Patrick’s or Marty’s or set the kind of records that Marty set, at the end of the day I think Dominik Hasek was the best of all-time,” Korn said. “And the reason is, on most of his great seasons, he didn’t have teams at the level Patrick had in Montreal or Colorado, and what Marty had in New Jersey. With the teams he had, Dom made way more of a difference night by night consistently to make him, for me, the best guy who has ever played. And not just every other game. Not just three out of four games. Every game.”
Born: Jan. 29, 1965, Pardubice, Czech.
NHL Career: 1990-2008
Teams: Chi, Buf, Det, Ott
Stats: 389-223-95, 2.20 GAA, .922 SP, 81 SO
All-Star: 6 (First-6)
Trophies: 10 (Hart-2, Pearson-2, Vezina-6)
Stanley Cups: 2
DOMINIK HASEK SHOULD BE NO. 1
‘Dominant’ is a nice compliment for most goalies, but it doesn’t do ‘The Dominator’ justice. No goalie in the history of the NHL has accumulated a resume like Dominik Hasek’s. No goalie has been as head-and-shoulders above his peers for a longer stretch of his career. And no goalie has ever played the position as well as Hasek did. Not Patrick Roy, not Martin Brodeur, not Terry Sawchuk, not Jacques Plante.
To make such a claim is to brazenly contradict the sacred rankings of The Hockey News. The Top 100 NHL Players of All-Time, released in 1998, ranked Sawchuk ninth overall and first among goaltenders. Hasek, then mid-career, squeaked onto the list at No. 95. The panel of judges included luminaries from Milt Schmidt to Howie Meeker to Scotty Bowman. It is as authoritative as it gets. Our 2010 update, after Hasek’s NHL career ended, bumped him to fifth among goalies but still placed him behind Sawchuk, Roy, Brodeur and Plante. That remains the locked-in order for our top-100 goalie list in 2018.
So why go against the experts like some punk kid? Because with each passing year since Hasek’s retirement, his accomplishments look even more impressive.
Hasek won a hilarious, ridiculous five Vezina Trophies in a six-year stretch at one point in his career. He’s the only goalie to win the Hart Trophy and the Ted Lindsay Award twice. Mike Liut and Carey Price are the only other goalies to win the Lindsay even once. Hasek is a six-time first-team all-star. He won two Stanley Cups with Detroit (one as the starter) and, before that, he made it to the Cup final dragging along a Buffalo team that boasted Michael Peca, Miroslav Satan and Jason Woolley as its best players. Hasek’s .922 career save percentage is No. 1 in NHL history, even though modern save percentages continue to trend upward, with active goalies occupying 13 spots in the top 20. Did he play a big chunk of his career in the Dead Puck Era, or is it more accurate to say he was the Dead Puck Era?
Anyone who believes that stats are paramount likely ranks Brodeur and Roy, the win kings, above Hasek. But is it fair to do so without factoring in the age at which Hasek got his chance in the NHL? He took the starter’s reins with the Sabres in 1993-94 when he was 28. By the time Roy turned 28, he’d won two of his four Stanley Cups, two of his three Conn Smythe Trophies and all three of his Vezinas. He’d earned 225 of his 551 victories. Brodeur won his four Vezinas after 30, but by 28? Two of his three Cups and 244 of his 691 wins. If we only count stats from age 28 onward, Roy would have two Cups and 326 wins, Brodeur would have one Cup and 447 wins, and Hasek would have two Cups and 365 wins, excluding his 11 wins in 1992-93 as a backup.
We can’t take away from how good Roy and Brodeur were at young ages. But there’s no denying they did much of their damage at an age when Hasek wasn’t in the league yet. Hasek is to the all-time wins record what Ichiro Suzuki is to Pete Rose’s hits record in baseball, as Ichiro didn’t come to America until he was 27, while Rose debuted at 21.
Hasek took over a game and got into his opponents’ heads like no other goalie could during his prime years. He’s the most dominant, influential player ever to man the position. He’s the greatest goaltender of all-time.