When I was a young hockey player, I began my journey by wearing the No. 91 in honor of my mother’s favorite hockey player: Sergei Fedorov. I proudly wore that number for a couple of seasons until I started growing interest in goalies – specifically, the one that my hometown team, the Detroit Red Wings, had just acquired. Because of this, I decided to change the number on the back of my sweater. The new number: 39.
Acquired from the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for Slava Kozlov and a first round pick, Dominik Hasek arrived in Detroit during an offseason that saw the Red Wings assemble an absolute cheat code of a roster. However, the impact that “The Dominator” had on the Red Wings and their fans goes beyond that unbelievable 2001-02 team.
From the time he arrived to the time he bid farewell, there were a number of goalies that dressed for the Red Wings. Whether it was because of his mask, his charm or his play style, none of those other goalies came close to being as iconic as Hasek. To this day, Red Wings nation fondly remembers their time with the Hall of Fame netminder.
Hasek Gets His Cup
The 1999 Stanley Cup Final featured Hasek and the Buffalo Sabres going up against the Dallas Stars in a series that would end on one of the most controversial calls in NHL history. You know the one:
That offseason would see Hasek win his third-straight Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. Over the course of a 16-year career, he won that award six times; he would also win the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player twice – all during his time with the Sabres. Not bad for a guy they acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks for Stephane Beauregard and a fourth-round pick.
But that 1999 run to the Stanley Cup Final was as close as Hasek would get during his nine-year stay in Buffalo. At 37 years old, the clock was ticking. That’s why the trade to Detroit was a big move not just for the Red Wings, but for Hasek himself; the top-tier goaltender was on a top-tier team that was built to win the Stanley Cup. The look of pure joy on his face was unmistakable as Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman handed him the Cup following their victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Next Wave
The player that inspired the number on the back of my old jersey had proven his worth. In true championship fashion, Hasek decided to retire following that run to the Stanley Cup.
That chapter in Red Wings history was slowly coming to an end. As guys like Luc Robitaille and Fedorov departed the team to head out west, a new wave began, lead by Pavel Datsyuk (who was a part of that 2002 championship squad) and Henrik Zetterberg. The latter’s rookie season inspired me so much that I changed the number on my back, bumping it up one tick from 39 to 40.
The “Euro-twins” ushered in an era of Red Wings hockey that was something to be admired. They dominated on the score sheet and they looked good while doing it too.
The 2005-06 season – the first where Zetterberg and Datsyuk were the unquestioned top players on the team – saw the team ice a goaltending tandem of Manny Legace and Chris Osgood. Despite a dominant season that saw Legace win 37 out of his 51 starts, the Red Wings were dispatched in the opening round of the playoffs by the Edmonton Oilers. After three-straight disappointing playoff finishes following their 2002 championship, a change was needed.
During the 2005-06 season, Hasek played for the Ottawa Senators during his first full-season since retiring. He won 28 of his 43 starts, and generally looked good in the process. Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that he would find his way back to Detroit: the Red Wings needed a change in net, and he needed a new deal. So on July 31, 2006, former general manager Ken Holland announced that Hasek was coming back to “Hockeytown.”
Despite being 42 years old, Hasek was a perfect complement to the flashiness of the “Euro-twins.” Known for his acrobatic saves and aggressive style, he made sure that fans of the Red Wings were excited no matter what end of the ice the puck was in. This moment from December of 2007 might be the best example of just that:
I remember exactly where I was when Hasek sent Marian Gaborik flying (getting a haircut, thanks for asking). Where some goalies just block the puck, Hasek would put on a show. The show rolled on to the 2007 Western Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks – the eventual Stanley Cup champions. Despite the loss, the Red Wings knew that they had a solid, entertaining tandem in net with Hasek and Osgood.
The Red Wings have 11 championship banners that hang above the ice at Little Caesars Arena. The most recent banner comes from the 2007-08 season, where the Red Wings triumphed over a young Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in a thrilling six-game series. Hasek has a ring from that season, but he wasn’t the guy that delivered the final save.
It was Chris Osgood – the man that Hasek was brought in to replace back in the summer of 2001.
Surely Hasek, as prideful an athlete as any other, was disappointed to lose his starting job in the first round of the playoff run. In fact, Mike Babcock – the head coach of the Red Wings during that run – more or less confirmed that fact:
That mentality is something that any hockey player, or any person for that matter, can learn from. It’s one thing to model your game after a certain player, but it takes someone special to be worthy of modeling your attitude after them.
Hasek retired (for real this time) following that championship run. While he never won any personal accolades with the Red Wings, their two most recent championship banners have his fingerprints all over them. Not bad for a guy who ranks eighth all-time in wins for the Original Six franchise.
Of course, Hasek’s impact goes beyond the number on the back of a young hockey player’s sweater. His jersey hangs in the rafters during every Sabres home game, and for good reason: he is undoubtedly the best goalie in their franchise’s history. While his legendary No. 39 hasn’t been retired by the Red Wings, many throughout the state of Michigan think of him fondly as if he spent the majority of his career wearing red.
Hasek is a national treasure of the Czech Republic, as evidenced by the many goalies that have come out of there that reference “The Dominator” as one of their idols. One such goaltender is Petr Mrazek of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Mrazek was drafted by the Red Wings in the 2010 draft, and played the first 176 games of his NHL career with them. During his time in Detroit, he was asked about what made Hasek so special. His response was straightforward, but oh so accurate:
“He was special. He played differently. That was his style. It didn’t matter. What matters is he stopped the puck.”– Petr Mrazek
A player that special leaves a mark. It’s why when a goalie in today’s game makes a scrambling save, it can be described as “Hasek-esque.” It’s why images of his iconic helmet with the caged front conjure up all sorts of memories not just in Buffalo or Detroit, but throughout the NHL.
A Perfect Fit
There’s something illustrious about the Original Six franchises. Any player that spends time with one of them always remarks on the history and the weight of playing for them. The spotlight seems to burn just a little brighter when you wear one of those iconic jerseys.
However, for a goalie like Hasek who is in the conversation for the greatest goaltender to ever play the game, that spotlight is seen as a challenge. His play with the Sabres cemented his place in the Hall of Fame; his play with the Red Wings granted him immortality. His name is on the Stanley Cup twice because of the perfect pairing between him and the Red Wings. He wasn’t the star of either championship run, but those teams will tell you that they don’t win it all without having “Dom” in their corner.
If you ask me, that’s the kind of player whose number I would wear on my back on any given day.