It has been quite a year for Dominik Hasek. First he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Earlier this month, he had his number 39 officially retired by the Sabres.
Hasek’s hockey career is legendary. A two-time NHL MVP, Stanley Cup Champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist are just a few of his accomplishments.
In fact, he will tell you that from the time he was a little boy, no matter if he was playing hockey or soccer, Hasek wanted to be a goalie.
“I was born with very flexible legs,” said Hasek. “I can remember that when I was about nine or 10, I could do almost a 180-degree leg split.
As far back as Hasek can remember, he was always a goalie. He admits that he basically taught himself to be a goalie.
As Hasek got older, he continued to climb the ladder of success with hockey teams. By the time he was 16, Hasek was the starting goaltender in the Czech First Division.
At 18, he was challenging for a starting job on the Czechoslovakian National Team. And by the time he was 21 Hasek was the starting net minder on the national team of his home country, Czechoslovakia. Soon afterwards the awards began to come his way.
He was named Czechoslovakian First Team All-Star in 1988, 1989 and 1990; Czechoslovakian Player of the Year in 1987, 1989 and 19900; Czechoslovakian Goaltender of the Year 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990. He represented Czechoslovakia as a member of their hockey team in the 1988 Winter Olympics.
In 1983, the Chicago Blackhawks selected Hasek as their eleventh choice (the 199th player taken overall) in the NHL Entry Draft.
“I really didn’t know too much about the NHL at the time,” recalled Hasek. “I really didn’t think about coming to Chicago at that time because of the situation in our country. It would have been dangerous for me at that time to come over to the U.S. Had I left my country, I don’t know what would have happened to my parents, my brother, or my sister.
“If I would have left my country at that time, I would not have been able to go back. I would have had to leave everything and everybody behind. I don’t know what kind of harm would have come to my family had I left.
“We were under Communist rule at the time. Things were not a free at that time as they are today.
“The NHL was something I wanted to do at that time.”
Instead, Hasek went to college, learned to speak English and Russian in addition to his native Czechoslovakian, and continued to develop his goaltending skills while becoming a superstar in the Czech Republic.
But life changed for Hasek when Communism fell in his country. In 1990 he signed a contract with the Blackhawks but was assigned to their minor league team in Indianapolis. He spent the 1990-91 and 1991-92 seasons bouncing between Indianapolis and Chicago.
He immediately found himself fourth on the Blackhawks’s depth chart of goaltenders behind Ed Belfour, Greg Millen and Jimmy Waite. Hasek also found out that because of league rules, he couldn’t wear number nine, which he had worn for years in his native country.
Instead he settled for 39.
“I played a lot with my brother, Martin. We played tennis a lot when we were kids.
“I learned to develop my leg quickness from playing a form of soccer outdoors. My legs were always moving.
“I learned to do down, side to side, and even up.”
Hasek admitted that he was always enjoyed playing goal.
“I was always the youngest guy on the team, and I liked to challenge the older guys I played against,” said Hasek.
That was a trait that continued with Hasek throughout his hockey career.
By the end of the 1992 season, Hasek was discouraged. His one shining moment occurred in Game 4 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Finals between the Hawks and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Chicago head coach, Mike Keenan, replaced Belfour with Hasek midway through Game 4. In just half of a game, Hasek stopped the Pens’ Mario Lemieux one on one three times.
The Blackhawks gave him that opportunity when they traded Hasek to the Sabres on August 7, 1992 for Stephane Beauregard and Buffalo’s fourth-round choice (Eric Daze) in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft.
But once again Hasek found himself behind another goalie, this time Grant Fuhr. But when an injury sidelined Fuhr early in the 1992-93 campaign, Hasek made the most of his opportunity.
The rest, as they say, is history.