Gave: Buffalo honors Dominik Hasek, the best big-game goalie ever
Dominik Hasek made the first save. He almost always did. But the puck came right back to Brett Hull, and as the goalie lay prone on the ice, his glove hand stretching to his left, Hull pushed the puck between the glove and the right post into the back of the net, ending the game at 14:51 of the third overtime and giving the Dallas Stars a Stanley Cup championship.
But since that Saturday night on June 19, 1999, at what was then the Marine Midland Arena, Buffalo Sabres fans have been complaining they were robbed. They have a decent argument. Hasek's initial save deflected the puck outside the crease. Hull stopped it with his skate and kicked it forward to his stick -- but in doing so his left skate glided into the blue paint of the goal crease. And with his skate firmly planted there, Hull scored what stood as the winning goal.
After four lopsided Super Bowl losses, this was the closest Buffalo fans had gotten to a major sports championship. They're still waiting.
I was there that night in Buffalo, in a crowded press box full of reporters as baffled as fans in the arena and watching replays on TV at home wondering why the goal wasn't waved off. Turned out that the NHL changed the crease rule in mid-season, informing the teams -- but no one else.
As Bryan Lewis, then the NHL's supervisor of officials, explained well after Commissioner Gary Bettman had handed the Cup to Stars captain Derian Hatcher: "A puck that rebounds off the goalie, the goal post or an opposing player is not deemed to be a change of possession, and therefore Hull would be deemed to be in possession or control of the puck, allowed to shoot and score a goal even though the one foot would be in the crease in advance of the puck."
At least that was their story, and they stuck to it.
But Tuesday night, they honor the man most responsible for getting the Sabres that close when Hasek -- the greatest goaltender ever to strap on a pair of pillows over his shins -- returns to what today is called the First Niagara Center.
With the Red Wings there to help celebrate, the Sabres are retiring Hasek's No. 39 and raising it to the rafters. Coincidentally, it was with Detroit and that Hall-of-Fame roster in 2002 that Hasek finally had his name engraved in silver on the Stanley Cup. In an encore with the Wings in 2008, in the twilight of an incomparable career, Hasek gave way to Chris Osgood when they won their last of four Cup titles since 1997.
I was also there in Nagano, Japan, on Feb. 20, 1998, when Hasek convinced me -- and much of the world -- how truly great he could be. With NHL players making their Olympic debut in these Winter Games, excitement was palpable throughout the tournament, with Canada, the United States, Sweden and Russia expected to dominate the tournament and battle for Olympic gold.
Someone forgot to tell Dominik Hasek, who willed his team into a semifinal matchup against Canada, which dominated its bracket. (Team USA got unceremoniously bounced early, but made headlines for trashing its Athletes Village dorm.) With goaltender Patrick Roy pulled for an extra attacker, the Canadians stormed Hasek's crease and managed to tie the game 1-1 on a goal by Trevor Linden with just 63 seconds remaining in regulation.
During a 10-minute overtime period, the Czechs put the game in Hasek's hands, putting up a virtually impenetrable wall at their blue line and allowing the Canadians few chances to even control the puck in the offensive zone.
The game went to a shootout, and Canada's fate was sealed when Robert Reichel, the Czech's first shooter, found the back of the net behind Roy. One by one, the Canadians took the puck at center ice and skated in on Hasek: Theo Fleury of the Calgary Flames, Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins, Joe Nieuwendyk of the Dallas Stars, Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Brendan Shanahan of the Detroit Red Wings. Lindros came closest, but Hasek lunged to his right and got just enough of his glove on the puck to deflect if off the left post and out of harm's way.
And that was it. With Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman on Canada's bench inexplicably watching the shootout instead of participating in it, the Czechs prevailed and advanced to the gold medal game against the Russians. In that game, Hasek stopped all 20 shots he faced for a 1-0 victory, giving the Czech Republic its first Olympic gold and setting off a celebration in Prague's Old Town Square that citizens there remember every bit as fondly as Americans recall their Miracle on Ice win over the Soviets at Lake Placid, New York, in 1980.
For one, absolutely must-win game, I'll take Dominik Hasek. You can have anyone else, and I like my chances. Hasek wrote his legacy in silver and gold. Now, fittingly, his No. 39 will be taken out of service to hang forever to honor his redoubtable career.