KELLEY: Hasek retires as one of the true greats

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Jim Kelley

When dealing with the question of 's place in the annals of hockey it isn't a question of whether or not the now retired goaltender was great. It becomes a question of how great? We'll put it to you this way: He was Wayne Gretzky great. He was Bobby Orr great. He was Scott Bowman and Toe Blake great. He was Terry Sawchuk great. And though you fans may have to grit your teeth on this one, he was great. Simply put, Hasek was as great as great could be and not just because he was good at his job or because he played his position to the best of his ability. He was in that upper, upper class, because like Gretzky and Orr and Sawchuk and Bowman and just a handful of others, he revolutionized the game. It is somewhat difficult to imagine that a goaltender could revolutionize a position that has been the heart of the game since its inception, but Hasek did. It was because of Hasek that goalies today play the game differently. It was Hasek who made it OK to challenge shooters not just by cutting down the angle, but by cutting his legs out from under him, even if it meant racing halfway up the ice to meet him. It was Hasek who made it OK to fall down and stack pads while lying on one's back. It was Hasek who showed that laying the stick down in the goal crease wasn't an accident, but a tactic and it was Hasek that made it not just OK, but smart to smack the puck out of the zone with the paddle portion of the stick as if it were a game of fungo on ice. It was Hasek who saw the value of discarding the stick so to be free to cover the puck with his blocker hand. It was Hasek who made a play out of bunting the puck out of harm's way with one's helmet and it was Hasek who upped the grade of goalie-as-extraordinary-athlete, forcing others in his group to improve their athletic skills in much the same way Tiger Woods has forced the rest of the PGA to be physically stronger at their game. I am not alone in this opinion. Six Vezina Trophies as the league's best goaltender give credence to the claim. So too do the two Hart Trophies (if there was justice in the voting, it should have been three) as the player judged to be the most valuable to his team. There were also two Lester B. Pearson Trophies (MVP as voted by the players) and an Olympic gold medal (something Roy still does not have). You can say the most recent award, the Stanley Cup, completes Hasek's cabinet, but had he not won the Cup, and had he not moved to Detroit in a quest to secure it, he still would have been considered as one of the all-time greats. Think hockey would have thought the same of had he not finally won it? Think again. Robitaille is a great player and a near-certain candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame, but he needed that Cup to help validate his claim to greatness. Hasek didn't. Hasek wanted it, maybe even needed it, but not to complete his reputation. He needed it because as one of the game's greatest competitors, it was Hasek himself who felt he would be incomplete if he did not allow himself the opportunity to finally touch the one trophy that had eluded him. Call it the Ray Bourque syndrome if you must, but the great ones need to be fulfilled in that way. Bourque did it with Colorado. Hasek did it with Detroit. It's fair. It may not sit well with the good people of Buffalo where Hasek spent the bulk of his career, but it's not like Hasek ran out on them. He gave them the best nine years of his career, a near-decade of goaltending excellence the likes of which the city has never seen and likely will never see again. He did have his chances to win there, but the franchise is one that is not set up to win. It was a franchise that hoped to ride his remarkable skills to a championship, not one that built around them. There's a distinction there and it's an important one. There are franchises that, when they acquire or have fall into their laps, the best player in the game, set about to do something with him. The Pittsburgh did that when Mario Limoux was delivered unto them. The Edmonton did it once Gretzky appeared on the scene. There have been lots of other teams that ride that kind of pony to the promised land while other organizations just ride it to the bank. For all of its 32-year history, the have been in that second group. Hasek came to learn that. He also knew that when it was obvious that the franchise did not have a commitment to winning that it was time to move on.
The Dominator

AGE: 37. Born Jan. 25, 1965.

HOMETOWN: Padubice, Czech Republic.

EXPERIENCE: Drafted by Chicago in the 11th round (199th overall) in the 1983 entry draft; traded to Buffalo on Aug. 7, 1992, for Stephane Beauregard and the ' fourth-round pick in 1993 draft; won first of six Vezina trophies in 1993-94 when he became first European-trained goalie to lead league in goals-against average (1.95) and the first goalie to finish season with GAA below 2.00 since Bernie Parent in 1973-74; in 1996-97, he became first goalie to win Hart Trophy since Jacques Plante in 1962.

PERSONAL: Married to Alena; two children.

That doesn't make him perfect or even noble. Like a lot of great athletes, he had his flaws and his foibles and an off-ice life that perhaps wasn't the stuff that role models are made of. It's also fair to state that Hasek once quit on his team when it needed him most, in the 1997 playoffs under the direction of then coach Ted Nolan. No one talks about that on the record, but there wasn't a player on the bench the night that Hasek skated off the ice in Ottawa with what he said was a knee injury, that doesn't believe he could have kept playing had he wanted to. There wasn't a player on that team — at least if he's honest — who could look you in the eye and tell you that they weren't angry when, after being medically cleared to return, Hasek refused to go back into the lineup. There were similar feelings in 2001 when he seemed to give up on a makable save against Pittsburgh. That miss, a goal by , cost the a seventh-game win in overtime. It sent the on to the conference finals against New Jersey and it was the last time anyone would see Hasek in a sweater. That portion of his Buffalo career will forever be a part of him. Just like the six Vezinas, two Harts and Pearsons, the seasons with a sub-2.00 goals against average and the dynamic run to the 1999 Stanley Cup finals. It's a stain, but not one that can obscure his greatness. When Hasek was "on" and that was often, he was brilliant, as brilliant as any player who ever played the game. He could make the routine save seem ridiculously easy, the difficult save seem almost routine and the impossible save, well, impossible for most everyone but . I saw that happen night after night, year after year in the Buffalo years. If happened in part because he was a gifted athlete, but it also happened because he was the ultimate competitor. Hasek never for a moment believed there was a shot he couldn't stop. That included the ones he couldn't even see. There would be nights of incredible brilliance but afterward, Hasek could be found bemoaning the one goal that might have got by him. When it did, he would take the play apart, go over it again and again in his mind and later watch it countless times on videotape. Afterward he could tell you why it went in, but he would also tell you how, and why he should have stopped it. Most of us would look at it and simply say "that's hockey," there simply are some shots that can't be stopped. But Hasek almost never felt that way. He challenged every shot. He challenged every shooter. He did that in games, he did it in the countless practices. He did it on the ice, in the locker room, in the video room and, one might suspect, in the sanctity of his own home. It was one of the things that didn't just make him great. It was one of the things that made him every bit as great as Gretzky, Orr, Sawchuk, Bowman and the other members of that small group of the best the game has ever known. He knew what it took to be the best and he played that way It's also why he's walking out while he's still on top. Sure he's won it all now and certainly he wants to go home and raise his children in the Czech Republic, but one of the unspoken things is that he also wants to walk away while he's still great simply because he can't accept less. Hasek knows how good he was. He also knows he's not quite that good anymore. It would have been easy to hang around another year or two. The Wings would have made him richer still, perhaps even put an easy $10 or $20 million on the table just to stay around for another season or perhaps until the start of the likely lockout in 2004. But then Hasek would be playing just for the money and not for the greatness, and the great ones really can't accept that. He left because it was time and he knew it. Hockey will miss his brilliance, but really, this was something he had to do. The great ones always know when it's time. The great ones can never accept being "almost" as good. Hasek, warts and all, has been a great one. He has to be included in that group. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address, jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Sabres, Red Wings, Oilers, Penguins, Avalanche, Dominik Hasek, Luc Robitaille

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