During his time in Buffalo the Pardubice, Czechoslovakia native earned a reputation as one of the NHL’s best between the pipes. In fact, Hasek’s performances are often credited with leading the way for more European goaltenders to play in the NHL.
The Sabres only failed to qualify for the playoffs once during Hasek’s tenure in Buffalo, which include a run to the Stanley Cup final in 1999. Overall, “The Dominator” recorded a 271-200-70 record (including playoffs) during his ten years in Western New York.
Not Always So Popular
Hasek was extremely popular with the fans in Buffalo (which was only enhanced after signing a $1 million cheque that enabled underprivileged kids to play hockey in the Hasek’s Heroes program). Interestingly though, this wasn’t always the case.
After some initial success, which included winning two Vezina Trophies, Hasek encountered major challenges during the 1996-97 season. The genesis of these challenges was an ongoing conflict with head coach Ted Nolan.
Even though the Sabres eventually qualified for the postseason, the campaign was overshadowed by the rift between Hasek and Nolan. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a tense atmosphere in the clubhouse, with players being split between the two sides.
As you can imagine, the media took every opportunity to report on the internal strife, with matters coming to a head during the Sabres first round series against the Ottawa Senators. Hasek removed himself in the second period of game three, after suffering a knee injury.
Despite being tested and pronounced as day-to-day by doctors, several players and the media speculated Hasek was using the injury as an excuse to bail on the team. Buffalo News columnist Jim Kelley wrote an article, detailing the goaltenders fallout with Nolan, while also questioning his mental toughness.
When Kelley approached Hasek for an interview a few nights later, the 1983 Chicago Blackhawks draft pick snapped. He shouted at the Buffalo News journalist, before pushing him and ripping his shirt.
Fortunately, several bystanders stepped in before the incident escalated any further. Hasek would eventually give Kelley a formal apology, before being handed a three-game suspension and $10,000 fine by the NHL.
Backlash From Buffalo Sabres Fans
After the season, General Manager John Muckler was fired, despite being named “Executive of the Year”. It transpired that he had also regularly feuded with Nolan.
Unsurprisingly, Hasek sided with Muckler, advising in an interview that he felt the Sabres would benefit from replacing Nolan. Whether this influenced the decision or not, Nolan was only offered a one-year contract extension by Muckler’s replacement, a certain Darcy Regier.
Nolan rejected the offer and left the franchise, angering a lot of people, who blamed Hasek. The following season, he was booed incessantly by Sabres fans, prompting arena staff to play a tape of crowds cheering to attempt to balance it out.
All’s Well That End Well
Fortunately, as the season wore on, Hasek gradually won back the fans with his outstanding play, which resulted in yet another Vezina Trophy. He also took home the Hart Trophy for league MVP, becoming just the sixth goaltender to even win this award. (Hasek went on to become the only goaltender to win the Hart Trophy twice.)
By the time Hasek was traded to the Detroit Red Wings, he held over 25 franchise records for Buffalo, including most wins, most shutouts and lowest goals against average. This eventually led to his being inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame last season:
Today, Hasek’s feud with Nolan is seen as nothing more than a minor blip on the radar. It just goes to show time is a great healer, although having a successful career also helps expedite the recovery process.