Dominik Hasek thought back to a moment about two weeks ago as he stood between the goal posts during the Olympics.
About 6 minutes remained in the medal-round game against Canada, and Hasek felt his eyes welling with tears as he looked toward the players standing along the Czech Republic bench and those in front of him on the ice. He understood he was in something much bigger than a hockey game.
“I was so happy,” Hasek said. “I said to myself, ‘C’mon, get focused on the game.’ I saw my teammates working so hard for me. I could feel the people back in Prague. I could see my teammates and coaches on the bench. Everyone was working so close together.”
The tears never fell, but he had a lump the size of a puck in his throat. Although the Czechs were still a shootout with Canada and shutout over Russia away from winning the gold medal, it was then that Hasek truly enjoyed being the world’s best goaltender.
Since then, it has been an amazing two weeks.
After the Olympics came the celebration in the Czech Republic, where fans jammed Prague’s Old Town Square, drank champagne into the wee hours - and partied like it was 1989.
“I cannot describe it in words. It was fantastic,” Hasek said. “There’s 150,000 people in the biggest celebration since the revolution in 1989, but it was a completely different moment.”
Upon his return to the United States, 350 people met him at Buffalo’s airport for a rally in his honor. Fans who booed him at the beginning of the season had changed their attitude.
Outside his home that night, about 50 neighbors, including children Hasek plays street hockey with in the off-season, waved Czech Republic flags and saluted his arrival. Among them was a young boy, confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg. Hasek draped his red Olympic jersey over him and posed for pictures. Before going into the house, he shook the hand of every person on his property.
“I didn’t have time to talk to all my friends by phone because there are too many messages, too many phone calls, too many talks to reporters,” Hasek said. “I was pretty busy.”
Busy? He barely has had time to comb his hair. Before Wednesday, Hasek had spent 36 hours of the previous 29 days at home. He still had not bought a birthday gift for his son, Michael, who turned 8 two weeks ago. But that’s what happens when dad becomes an international celebrity.
Consider last week. On Sunday, after shutting out the Washington Capitals in the afternoon, Hasek went to a dinner at a Czech restaurant in New York, where 250 people sang songs honoring him and his countrymen.
The next night, he made 32 saves and carried the Sabres to a 1-0 victory over the New York Rangers. One save was so spectacular that Wayne Gretzky lifted his arms for what he thought was a goal. Another time, former teammate Pat LaFontaine smashed his stick on the back of the net after being foiled near the crease.
“He’s the best player in the game,” Gretzky said. “He’s just sensational. Very few times in sports do you see guys get to the level other people aren’t at. For the game itself, it’s good to have guys who dominate and he’s dominating right now.”
It’s no wonder they call him the Dominator.
In his first game since the Olympics, Hasek had gone three days with almost no sleep but led the Sabres to a 2-2 tie with Toronto. Buffalo might have lost by three goals had it not been for Hasek.
Even his teammates are baffled by their goalie.
“At one point (against the Rangers), I went right out to him and said, ‘Dom, you are not human,”’ defenseman Bob Boughner said. “We shake our heads. It’s unbelievable.”
On Tuesday, after ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange, he went to the New York Mercantile Exchange to show off his gold medal. Business stopped while he received an ovation. Afterward, he raised the Czech flag at Bowling Green Square, shook more hands and did another round of interviews.
“I felt like I was traveling with Elvis or the Beatles,” said Sabres spokesman Mike Gilbert. “My cell phone never stopped ringing. It was amazing. Everywhere you go, people recognize him. It’s not just at a hockey game and it’s not just in Buffalo.”
What most people don’t know are the quirks of Hasek’s personality. He makes $4 million a season, yet lives in a modest home. He is meticulous about his craft, yet disorganized in his personal life. He is intelligent, yet absent-minded. He didn’t even know the first name of defenseman Mike Wilson until this season because the third-year player is called “Willie” by everybody on the team.
Last year, he became the first goalie in 35 years to be chosen the NHL’s MVP and won his third Vezina Trophy in four years after leading the Sabres to their first division title in 16 years.
“Last year, when he won the MVP, people were like, ‘Dominik who?”’ Sabres forward Rob Ray said. “Now, he has proven his point. He’s getting recognition nationally that he deserves.”
But during the playoffs last year, the Dominator became the Detonator.
He blew up in the first round against Ottawa after a knee injury, attacking a Buffalo News columnist who wondered whether the goalie was undergoing a mental meltdown. After the season, he was ridiculed by fans who were angry about remarks made about former coach Ted Nolan.
The wrath carried into this season. During home games, Hasek was heckled so much that the Sabres mixed in cheering sounds over the loudspeakers to drown out boos as he struggled the first six weeks.
Hasek won back the fans with six shutouts in December, becoming the first goalie since the 1920s to have that many in a month. His nine shutouts this season lead the league.
Since Dec. 1, Hasek has a 1.52 goals-against average and .946 save percentage in 32 games. He also led the Sabres’ 13-game unbeaten streak going into Friday’s game against the Islanders.
“I was hot maybe the last one or two months,” Hasek said in an understatement. “I’ve tried to concentrate on every shot because the next one might be a goal. I never feel like I’m hot because you never know what’s going to happen in the next minute.”