When NHLers dream of the Olympics, he’s the face that quickly turns the scenario into a nightmare. And while he’s 44 years old and playing back home in the Czech Republic, legendary goaltender Dominik Hasek has a very real shot at playing at the upcoming Winter Games in Vancouver.
The Czechs, who won the first Olympic tourney featuring NHLers in 1998 on the back of Hasek’s heroics, have included ‘The Dominator’ on their preliminary 60-man roster for 2010. And the move wasn’t just made for appearances; if national coach Vladimir Ruzicka wanted Hasek on the final 23-man roster, the goalie’s name had to be included.
From a mental standpoint, the potential presence of Hasek – a goaltender who could steal a game better than anyone in hockey history – has to be a little discomforting for front-running teams such as Canada and Russia.
“He is still good,” said Czech Ice Hockey Association spokesman Pavel Barta. “His team (Pardubice HC) didn’t start off well this year, but he’s up there.”
Returning to hockey after a one-year “retirement,” Hasek is currently ranked seventh among Czech League goaltenders with a .916 save percentage. He boasted eight wins through 12 games and a 2.52 goals-against average. But statistics aside, perhaps his most important asset is intimidation.
Hasek’s gold medal performance at the Nagano Olympics was so transcendental, an opera was created in the Czech Republic to celebrate he and his teammates’ stunning victory. A 2-1 shootout win over Canada in the semifinal was followed by a 1-0 shutout of old nemesis Russia to clinch gold – and both efforts have given Hasek a lot of cred with his peers.
“I heard he’s playing pretty well back in the Czech League,” said Colorado’s Milan Hejduk, a teammate of Hasek’s on that 1998 gold medal squad. “He’s always been an excellent goaltender. Maybe it’s going to be a big (Olympic) comeback. Even at his age, he’s still kicking it.”
Not that coach Ruzicka will simply anoint ‘The Dominator’ as starter based on his past successes. Florida’s Tomas Vokoun took over in the Czech net at the last Olympics in Turin when Hasek went down to injury in the first game and based on being in the prime of his career right now, Vokoun has the inside track on the starter’s job.
“Vokoun should be the No. 1,” Barta noted, before cautioning, “but that was before the season started.”
Should Hasek continue to play strong and, most importantly, stay healthy, he plans on gunning for ice time.
“He said the Olympics is a big challenge for him and he’ll fight for a spot on the roster,” Barta said. “In the past, he has always been the No. 1, but this is a different situation. He won’t surrender, he’s a fighter.”
Another NHL option for the squad is young Atlanta goalie Ondrej Pavelec, but don’t be surprised if Ruzicka tabs tenders from European leagues. Milan Hnilicka saw time in ’06 when Hasek went down and Vokoun faltered, while Jakub Stepanek was pushed into service at last year’s World Championship when Vokoun couldn’t attend. The 23-year-old Stepanek, who plays for Vitkovice Steel, currently leads the Czech League with a .956 save percentage and 1.31 GAA.
Barta also expects the roster to feature European league players at other positions as well, which may explain why NHLers such as Robert Lang, Radim Vrbata and Jakub Voracek were left off the Czech Republic’s 60-man list.
A good showing in Vancouver is very important for the Czechs, whose influence has waned in recent years. Youth involvement is down, but 1998 proved the country will fall in love with a winner. Barta predicts an uptick in participation should a group led by players such as Hejduk, Jaromir Jagr and Martin Havlat reach the podium once again, as they did in ’06 by taking bronze.
“It will have a great influence on hockey,” he said. “Each medal is good.”
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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