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As the league's MVP settled into the crease last Saturday night
at Marine Midland Arena, the public-address announcer committed
the unpardonable error of saying, "Starting in goal for the
Buffalo Sabres, number 39, Dominik Hasek." Some things are
better left unsaid.

There was a smattering of applause at the mention of Hasek, but
mostly there were boos. There were throaty boos and timid boos,
86-proof boos and sober boos, boos from the luxury suites and
boos from the nosebleed seats. Buffalo fans' collective amnesia
had seemingly wiped out all memory of Hasek's goaltending
alchemy, which earned him the nickname the Dominator and helped
transform the Sabres into one of the true spectacles in hockey
last season.

"We told Dom that his name had been changed to Lou," Buffalo
right wing Rob Ray says, "that they weren't saying boo, but Lou.
For a minute there, I think he believed us."

Maybe Sabres fans have been braying loo, because Hasek's game,
by his standards, has been in the toilet. When asked to assess
Hasek's play, in an interview televised on the arena scoreboard
after the first period of Buffalo's 4-2 loss to the Florida
Panthers on Nov. 6, commentator Don Cherry replied, "Horse----."
Following the Sabres' 3-2 loss last Saturday to the New Jersey
Devils--a game in which he was caught in no-man's land on a Doug
Gilmour first-period breakaway tally--Hasek had a mediocre 3.39
goals-against average and a .888 save percentage. The latter
stat, which tied him for 27th among the 35 goalies who had
played in at least seven games by week's end, was more
reminiscent of Jose Offerman's fielding percentage than of
Hasek's league-leading numbers of the last four years. No Vezina
Trophy winner of the past 15 seasons (Hasek has won the award in
three of the last four) has experienced anything approaching
this kind of slump the next season (box, page 48). Hasek is
giving up more than one additional goal per game and his save
percentage has dropped by .042. He can't stop a beachball, can't
stop the rain, can't stop in the name of love and, most
tellingly, can't stop the boos.

The boos aren't just about his shaky goaltending. They are also
a sign of alienation from the team, a cry not of the merely
disappointed but of the truly disaffected. The Sabres won the
Northeast Division in 1996-97 with a happily improbable season
that included hard work, a load of fights and impeccable
goaltending, but they--and Hasek--unraveled in the playoffs. He
strained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee,
physically attacked a Buffalo News columnist who intimated that
Hasek was having difficulty dealing with postseason pressure,
was suspended by the NHL for three games for the incident and
didn't play even after receiving medical clearance because of
what doctors described as "residual pain."

In May, John Muckler, the general manager, was fired. Ted Nolan,
the NHL coach of the year, who was wildly popular with the
Sabres and their fans, didn't return after being offered a
paltry one-year contract. That offer came after Hasek remarked
in June that "it would be better for me next season if [Nolan]
were not here."

Matthew Barnaby, the excitable Buffalo right wing and fierce
Nolan loyalist, told The Hockey News magazine that he would run
Hasek the first day of training camp, which would have been an
even ruder welcome than the goalie receives from ticket holders
these days. Barnaby, however, didn't follow through on his
threat. When camp opened, the players held a team meeting to
address the resentment toward Hasek, opting to hash out the
problem rather than thrash each other. "When you say things, you
have to suffer the consequences sometimes," Barnaby says of the
booing Hasek has received.

To counter the jeers during Hasek's introduction at Buffalo's
home opener, a sound technician inserted a cassette of a
cheering crowd. The Sabres, who at week's end were 5-10-4 and in
last place in their division, haven't heard many cheers since
then. In their first eight home games, attendance slipped by an
average of 3,191 fans, to 13,721, and the mood was drearier than
a Lake Erie winter. A member of the Buffalo marketing department
dreamed up a moneymaking Stop of the Game promo--a great
defensive play by one of the Sabres is broadcast on the
scoreboard--sponsored by an auto-body and -glass business. Hasek
earned the honor last Saturday with a split save on a
three-on-one rush by the Devils, but for much of the season the
Sabres had shown defensemen making good plays to avoid giving
Hasek too much face time, which most likely would have subjected
him to further abuse.

Hasek has always been a marvel. He tends goal the way Kramer
enters Seinfeld's apartment, a package of flailing arms and wild
gesticulations that somehow has a perfect logic. But in the past
six weeks it has become apparent that Hasek is even more of a
freak of nature than originally thought: His auditory canal is
connected directly to his glove hand; there can be no other
explanation for his substandard play, especially in the first
period. The Dallas Stars' Mike Modano scored on a breakaway 55
seconds into the home opener. The Montreal Canadiens' Vincent
Damphousse scored 59 seconds into the Sabres' third home game.
Hasek has been beaten within the first five minutes in five of
his seven home starts. Fourteen of the 22 goals he has allowed
at home have come in the first session, including three on nine
shots on Nov. 10 against the Edmonton Oilers. That night coach
Lindy Ruff replaced Hasek with Steve Shields, and the Sabres
clawed back for a 4-4 tie.

"[The early goals] are frustrating," the Czech-born Hasek says
in halting English. "In the beginning I made jokes about it. You
know, if I save the first four or five shots, I get a shutout.
It's not funny anymore. I don't say no [about the connection
between the early goals and the boos]. It's possible. But it's
not an excuse. There's nothing pleasant about being booed. You
have a better feeling when people are behind you, but there's
nothing you can do about people's opinions."

No, there is something Hasek can do, and maybe the final 35
minutes against New Jersey, when he settled in and stoned the
Devils, was a start. But the more difficult task Hasek faces is
solidifying the bond in his dressing room, a link that was
stretched and probably frayed during the playoffs. He may have
sprained a knee, but he definitely broke the Code by not
attempting to play through the pain. In hockey there has to be
trust. Right now Hasek needs that trust as much as he needs a
shutout. The Sabres indignantly reject suggestions that they
haven't played as hard for Hasek as they have for Shields. "The
team's not going to say, 'Hey, screw him,'" Ray says. "That's
not the way it is. It would make us look bad, in turn, because
we're in this together. It's not just Dom's fault. It seems
quite a few times this year we've been in la-la land in the
first period."

Most of the breakdowns have been by the defensemen, though in
the past Hasek was able to paper over such errors with his
astonishing saves. "All confidence in hockey stems from one
place: the goaltender," Ruff says. "The ability to make a
mistake and know the mistake isn't going to lead to a goal--that
confidence is missing now."

"If people are jumping off the ship, I haven't seen any of them
in this room," Shields says of his teammates. "People in this
room owe a lot to Dominik. If we hadn't had the season that we
had last year, a lot of guys wouldn't have gotten the contracts
they have now. Although it's been said that some people"--read:
Barnaby--"are upset with him, guys owe a certain amount of
respect to Dominik, regardless of their feelings, because he's
put a lot of money in their pockets. People in Buffalo should
sit down before they boo Dominik and think what life would have
been like the past few years without him playing goal. You don't
want to do anything that might put you in jeopardy of losing the
best player in the league. Because you can't replace him."

The 32-year-old Hasek feels an obligation to the organization
that let him become a starting goalie and grow into a star. He
has a no-trade clause and has not requested a deal. While new
general manager Darcy Regier has fielded calls from two teams
inquiring about Hasek, the G.M. says that he isn't interested in
exiling his most important player. "We have tremendous
confidence in his ability and the team's ability to get through
this," says Regier, whose team had gone winless in five games
through Sunday.

But in a town without pity, the boos keep dumping more and more
baggage at the feet of the once and possibly future king of
goalies. When the pile gets too high, sometimes the best thing
to do is grab a bag, sling it over your shoulder and leave.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT After alienating his mates in the playoffs and the off-season, Hasek has flopped this fall, yielding an extra goal a game. [Dominik Hasek attempting to block shot in game]



Through Sunday, Dominik Hasek, who has won the Vezina Trophy as
the NHL's top goaltender in three of the past four seasons, was
on pace to have the largest increase in goals-against average
and the biggest drop in save percentage of any netminder in the
year after winning the award. Here are the statistics for the
last 15 Vezina winners and their numbers the following season.


1996-97 DOMINIK HASEK, SABRES 2.27 .930
1997-98 3.39* .888*
1995-96 JIM CAREY, CAPITALS 2.26 .906
1996-97 3.07 .886
1994-95 DOMINIK HASEK, SABRES 2.11 .930
1995-96 2.83 .920
1993-94 DOMINIK HASEK, SABRES 1.95 .930
1994-95 2.11 .930
1992-93 ED BELFOUR, BLACKHAWKS 2.59 .906
1993-94 2.67 .906
1991-92 PATRICK ROY, CANADIENS 2.36 .914
1992-93 3.20 .894
1990-91 ED BELFOUR, BLACKHAWKS 2.47 .910
1991-92 2.70 .894
1989-90 PATRICK ROY, CANADIENS 2.53 .912
1990-91 2.71 .906
1988-89 PATRICK ROY, CANADIENS 2.47 .908
1989-90 2.53 .912
1987-88 GRANT FUHR, OILERS 3.43 .881
1988-89 3.83 .876
1986-87 RON HEXTALL, FLYERS 3.00 .902
1987-88 3.50 .886
1986-87 3.64 .882
1984-85 PELLE LINDBERGH, FLYERS 3.02 .899
1985-86 2.88** .884
1983-84 TOM BARRASSO, SABRES 2.84 .893
1984-85 2.66 .887
1982-83 PETE PEETERS, BRUINS 2.36 .904
1983-84 3.16 .876

*Through 15 games.
**Lindbergh was killed in a car crash in November 1985.
Source: Elias Sports Bureau