Dominik Hasek was a special player. For the Sabres but for me as well.
I was drawn to goaltending because of the cool masks and pads but there’s no bigger influence on my commitment to sticking with the position than Hasek. My formative hockey years came in the thick of his prime with the Sabres and before I really refined my play, I did everything I could to replicate what Hasek did in the crease.
I would drop my stick, flop around, race out on breakaways and make just as many saves falling down sideways as I would with a traditional butterfly. While my style was in closer emulation to my other goaltending idol, Patrick Roy, Hasek will always hold a special place in my heart. And then he left.
It’s hard to imagine a 14 year old has that strong of an opinion about a player leaving, but I swore off Hasek and rooted as hard as I could against him during his first run in Detroit. I didn’t appreciate him winning a Cup and that disdain lingered into his years with Ottawa. It was my first sports grudge and I held onto it for quite some time.
Something changed along the way, probably in 2008 when he won his second Cup as Chris Osgood’s backup. I had always understood that Hasek was amongst the greatest to play the position, but I hadn’t really appreciated it. As his career wore down I began to understand how lucky I was to see it first-hand.
Hasek wasn’t just dominant, he was mesmerizing. I wish I had the chance to see him play more, but the handful of games that I was in the Aud or Marine Midland Arena for were tremendous. I remember seeing him chasing Tony Esposito’s single-season shutout record and I remember watching him backstop the team until Stu Barnes sniped the game winner in game five against Pittsburgh. I was heartbroken in 99 and stunned as he skated off the ice in 01.
My father talks about the buzz that would fill the Aud when Gil Perreault picked up the puck behind his net and even though Hasek couldn’t stir the crowd before a highlight reel save, he certainly could after. I was lucky enough to see Hasek play a handful of times and I’ll consider myself lucky beyond measure for having grown up seeing a player like that take the ice for my favorite team.
Looking back, I don’t regret my anger over Hasek’s departure. It sucked how he held the team hostage and seeing him win the Cup with a juggernaut stung. He played such inspiring hockey here and then he left us holding an empty bag as he left for greener pastures. However, his return two years ago was stirring and helped erase any lingering disappointment I had for the player I idolized as a young goaltender.
Tonight is going to be a special night that I hope fans don’t overlook. That there are still tickets available is, in my opinion, embarrassing. For all the talk about Hockey Heaven and #WeLiveHockey and #hockeyIQ, we can’t sell out the jersey retirement ceremony for the greatest player in franchise history.
Gilbert Perreault may be the original Sabre and his scoring records likely won’t be broken. He and Hasek stand alone as the organizations only true generational talents. However, I can say, with conviction, that Hasek is the best to have ever donned the blue and gold (and red and black).
I also appreciate the irony that the last true generational talent the Sabres have will see his number retired during a season filled with derision over the merits of tanking for a draft pick that would all but ensure the team will acquire another generational talent.
Not many fan bases are lucky enough to have a dog in the fight over who the best player in history is. Sabres fans are among that small group thanks to Hasek. Along with Plante, Roy and Brodeur, Hasek sits amongst the greatest players to ever strap on a pair of pads and his accolades make it hard to deny him the top spot on that list.
It’s a shame that the Sabres never found a way to build a team that would dominate with Hasek in net. You could say it might be the biggest failing in Buffalo sports history. Yet we were all graced with a decade of awe-inspiring goaltending which will never be replicated.
I’ll be there tonight to see Dom’s number raised to the rafters, I can’t imagine being anywhere else.