Dominik Hasek: The Ageless Wonder

As a two-time Stanley Cup champion and six-time Vezina trophy winner, Dominik Hasek has little left to prove to hockey fans around the world. At 47 years of age, the Czech netminder is mulling a comeback that could possibly make him one of the oldest goalies to ever play in the NHL. During the 2011-2012 NHL season, the Minnesota Wild signed 51-year old goalie Paul Deutsch, but the print shop owner did not get a chance to see any meaningful action during his short tenure with the team.

Before “The Dominator” decided to retire from the NHL in June 2008, he had already established himself as one of the best veteran netminders in the game of hockey. When Hasek retired after the 2007-2008 NHL season, he joined an elite group NHL netminders to play the game at age 40 and over. Goaltenders such as Glenn Hall, Terry Sawchuk, Johnny Bower, Gump Worsley, and Ed Belfour played into their 40s, but none of the aforementioned goalies took the same road to the NHL that “The Dominator” did.

While politics and Cold War tensions could have prevented Hasek from playing in the NHL after he was selected in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, there weren’t many obstacles that the goalie couldn’t tackle once he arrived in North America. Hasek’s current body of work will undoubtedly earn him a first ballot ticket to the NHL Hall of Fame, but there is little reason to believe that the goalie cannot keep up with the rigors of an NHL workload. Even though some might take Hasek’s claims of his reflexes with a grain of salt, history might just be on the goalie’s side when it comes to making an “NHL or Bust” comeback.

From the Iron Curtain to NHL Notoriety

June 9, 2008 might have been just another day for hockey fans, but for Dominik Hasek it was a day to announce his departure

At the age of 47, Dominik Hasek is looking to make another comeback to the NHL.

from a sport that he had graced for more than a decade and a half. Even though Hockeytown and the Detroit Red Wings were still fresh off of a Stanley Cup victory, Hasek’s decision to step away from hockey could have been expected by some as the goalie had often contemplated retirement throughout his NHL career. Despite Hasek’s desire to retire, it was hard to ignore the goalie’s body of work and argue that the veteran did not deserve some peace of mind and an opportunity to spend more time with his family.

Back in 1983, Hasek was taken with the 199th pick by the Chicago Blackhawks, roughly 60 picks after the Montreal Canadiens had decided to draft another European goalie by the name of Vladislav Tretiak. While Hasek’s legend and lore was not comparable to Tretiak’s during the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, the goalie quickly established himself as a valuable commodity to any hockey team that he contended for.

As a member of HC Pardubice, Hasek started at least 40 of the team’s games from 1982-1987 and won multiple accolades during his time in the Czechoslovak First Ice Hockey League. In total, Hasek started 40 or more games for HC Pardubice and HC Dukla Jihlava in seven of his nine seasons of play in the Czechoslovak league and offered NHL teams a glimpse of what he could offer to North American hockey leagues as an import goalie.

While Hasek’s outstanding play in the Czechoslovak First Ice Hockey League provided him with an impressive resume, the goalie also proved that he didn’t shy away from play on the international stage. As a participant in the World Junior and World Championships, Hasek won seven medals (four silver, three bronze) and illustrated that he was not one to fold under pressure. Hasek’s accomplishments in international play might have been shrouded by the fact that the goalie could not make the journey to play North American hockey, but the goalie improved on the international stage with every coming year. By the time that Hasek’s young playing career in the Czechoslovak league came to a close, there was no denying the goalie’s talent, and it wouldn’t be long before hockey fans in the United States became acquainted with “The Dominator”.

Upon his arrival to the NHL, Hasek played behind goaltending greats such as Ed Belfour and Grant Fuhr, but it wouldn’t be long before he cemented himself as the number one starting goalie for the Buffalo Sabres. In a span of nine seasons, Hasek won six Vezina trophies and often led the league in categories such as save percentage. While Hasek won the Vezina Trophy during six separate seasons with the Sabres, his two Hart Memorial Trophies spoke volumes about his worth to Buffalo. Even though Hasek lost his only Stanley Cup Finals appearance with the Sabres, the goalie was an invaluable asset to a team that wasn’t heavy on superstar talent.

While Hasek’s unorthodox style was new to hockey fans, “The Dominator” did everything to make a save, something that separated him from other goalies of his time as shown below:

Hasek proved to be the difference maker on a number of occasions in Buffalo and his stellar play usually made the Sabres a force to be reckoned with during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. By the time that Hasek’s tenure in Buffalo had expired, the goalie had established himself as one of the NHL’s most reliable and decorated netminders, but hockey’s ultimate hardware continued to elude the masterful Czech.

The Missing Link

Dominik Hasek finally won the Stanley Cup Championship that had eluded him in Chicago and Buffalo.

When Dominik Hasek was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, many fans and analysts felt that such a move would only increase the Czech’s ability to win the Stanley Cup. As the 2001-2002 regular season came to a finish, Hasek’s numbers (2.15 GAA, .915 Save Percentage) spoke volumes about the goalie’s contributions to the Red Wings. However, much like his play on the international stage, the Stanley Cup Playoffs proved to be another strong point of Hasek’s game as he helped Detroit roll through the competition en route to winning Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Hasek managed to compile a 1.85 GAA and a .920 Save Percentage during Detroit’s 2001-2002 Stanley Cup run and elevated his game to a higher level when the NHL playoffs began. Detroit dispatched the Carolina Hurricanes in five games and the series win finally gave Hasek the hardware he had been seeking since his inception into the NHL.

Winning the Stanley Cup had a number of effects on Hasek and the Red Wings as the Czech goalie chose to retire from hockey in the summer of 2002, prompting Detroit to sign Curtis Joseph to a multi-year deal. Even though Hasek had dominated the competition during the 2001-2002 Stanley Cup Playoffs, winning six Vezina trophies, two Hart Memorial trophies, two William M. Jennings trophies, and a Stanley Cup were probably enough to convince the goalie that spending time with his family was paramount to playing the game that he loved. Hasek wound up returning to the Red Wings for a short span during the 2003-2004 NHL season, but was limited in terms of appearances because of a nagging groin injury that ultimately derailed his campaign with Detroit.

While Hasek had an uneventful ’03-’04 campaign, he illustrated the conservative mindset necessary for prolonging his career in the NHL. Hasek could have probably tested the limits of his body and forced himself back onto the ice during the 2003-2004 NHL season, but he chose to recover his body, and forfeited some of his salary in the process. Much of the same would happen when Hasek signed in Ottawa as the goalie offered to take a cut in his salary for the 2006-2007 season because of an injury that forced him to miss the regular season and playoffs for the Senators. Even though Hasek’s last four seasons in the NHL (’03-’04, ’05-’06, ’06-’07, ’07-’08) showed the hockey world that “The Dominator” was indeed human, they also illustrated that the netminder would not lace up his skates until he felt confident that he could contribute to his team in a consistent fashion.

It may be easy for some to dismiss Hasek’s latter years of NHL service because of his susceptibility to injury, but it can certainly be argued that the goalie dealt with these injuries in a methodical fashion. Missing out on large portions of multiple seasons because of injury can draw the ire of some hockey fans, but Hasek’s extended recovery periods helped the goalie preserve his body for the future. Hasek eventually won his second Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings during the 2007-2008 NHL season, but it was Chris Osgood that took the reigns to the starting goaltending duties when Hasek was ineffective during the early parts of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Excelling in the game of hockey has always been a priority for Hasek, but after winning his first Stanley Cup, the Czech goalie has shown that his full participation in hockey will be largely contingent upon a perfectly clean bill of health.

Activity Abroad

Returning to his native Czech Republic, Hasek was afforded the luxury of spending time with his family and playing for HC Pardubice, and the goalie relished the opportunity as he posted strong numbers in the Czech Extraliga during the 2009-2010 hockey season. Hasek’s 2.26 GAA and .922 Save Percentage was quite impressive for a goalie that had taken yet another year off from hockey and the veteran was true to form as he posted a 1.68 GAA and a .937 Save Percentage in 13 playoff contests.

After posting stellar numbers in the Czech Extraliga, Hasek made the jump to the KHL as he signed with Spartak Moskva and continued his impressive play during the 2010-2011 KHL season. Despite his age, Hasek played in 46 regular season games for Spartak Moskva and registered a 2.48 GAA along with a .915 Save Percentage. Even though Hasek’s post-season play in the KHL was a far cry from his usual playoff performance, the goalie illustrated that one can have significant longevity in a sport such as hockey if they keep to a specific regimen and preserve their bodies.

While Hasek did not play during the 2011-2012 hockey season, the possibility of the goalie’s return to the NHL surfaced during the months May 2012 as the netminder announced his intentions to resume play in North America. At 47 years old, some may question just how much gas Hasek has left in the tank, but history might be able to offer some clues as to what fans can expect from the veteran if he makes a comeback to the NHL.

The Comeback – A Historical Perspective

Whether it was a comeback from injury or retirement, Dominik Hasek has shown hockey fans that he can compete at a high level if he is fully healthy. History has shown that Hasek has rebounded from injury and inactivity in a more than formidable fashion, as illustrated below:

The lone “slip-up” for Hasek occurred during the 2003-2004 NHL season when he only played in only 14 games after taking a year off from the sport in 2002-2003. A groin injury limited Hasek from contending during the ’03-’04 NHL season, but the goalie came back strong in 2005-2006 when he signed with the Ottawa Senators. If it weren’t for an injury during the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Hasek might have continued a standout season that had already seen the goalie play in 43 games while maintaining a 2.09 GAA and .925 Save Percentage.

While Hasek finished his time in Ottawa on the IR, his patient recovery paved the way for yet another resurgent comeback in Detroit. Hasek played in 56 regular season games for the Red Wings in 2006-2007 and recorded a 2.05 GAA and .913 Save Percentage, but was outstanding in the playoffs as his GAA dipped to 1.79 and his Save Percentage soared to .923. Even though Hasek and the Red Wings were outdone by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Anaheim Ducks, the Czech goalie proved that athletes can also age like a fine wine.

Hasek experienced a bit of a statistical drop-off during his last stint with the Detroit Red Wings in 2007-2008, but the goalie rebounded yet again in 2009-2010 when he played with HC Pardubice. Hasek might not be the athlete that he was back in the mid-to-late 90s and early 2000s, but there is little reason to believe that he doesn’t have much left to offer an NHL franchise.

Hasek might have been prone to injury during parts of his NHL career, but the goalie has always been able to contribute his best performances when completely healthy, as shown below:

Athletes such as Mariano Rivera, Brett Favre, and John Stockton have defied critics, fans, and those who have stated that professional sports players must call it quits after a certain age. Rivera has long been the trusted closer for the New York Yankees and has been a representation of how hard work can help one achieve longevity in professional sports. Brett Favre, despite multiple retirement/unretirement press conferences, was able to come back to the NFL on various occasions because he had maintained a good physical form throughout his career as a quarterback. John Stockton retired from the NBA at the age of 41 and averaged a double-double throughout his illustrious career as a point guard, something that was made possible because of the peak physical condition that he maintained while with the Utah Jazz.

Many might argue that father time will ultimately determine the shelf life of any athlete in any sport, but professional athletes around the world have long withstood the test of time in various sports. Dominik Hasek is not any different from other athletes that have tested their limits in the latter stages of their professional careers. At this point in time, the question shouldn’t be if age will restrict Hasek from competing at a respectable level in the NHL. Instead, many should ask themselves if Hasek’s heart and mind are completely devoted to making a comeback to North American hockey as the goalie has shown hockey fans on a number of occasions that his passion and desire to succeed can overrule the supposed limitations that age sets for athletes. Since Hasek is calling his latest attempt at a comeback an “NHL or Bust” scenario, it is safe to say that “The Dominator” certainly has his priorities set and feels as though his presence on an NHL team will benefit those around him. Father time will eventually catch up with most athletes, but for Dominik Hasek, time has always been on his side, and will continue to be as long as he sticks to the conditioning regiments that have kept him in one piece throughout his 20-plus year hockey career.

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