Man of Mystery
Controversy and questions dog Sabres goaltender Dominik Hasek
Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek stood on the ice toward the end of a
practice last Thursday, his hands on his knees, his upper body
curled forward, his head bowed. Fittingly, he resembled a
question mark. Hasek's unmatched ability to parry pucks is based
on a flailing and unpredictable style, and now he has the hockey
world pondering the same question that frustrated shooters have
been asking for years: What's he going to do next? "I haven't
changed my mind...yet," Hasek said, when asked if he still
intends to retire after this season, as he had announced last
summer. "On the other hand, I didn't expect to be out 40 or 50
games, so the situation is different."
When Hasek, 35, said that he would call it quits following the
1999-2000 season and return to his native Czech
Republic--forgoing as much as $16.5 million in salary over the
next two years--he was flush off leading the Sabres to an
unexpected run to the Stanley Cup finals. But, through Sunday,
he had been sidelined since Oct. 29 with a torn groin muscle,
and Buffalo, not surprisingly, had faltered without him
(20-24-6-1 and in 11th place in the Eastern Conference). Hasek,
who began practicing with the Sabres on Jan. 26, was hoping to
make his return on Tuesday against the Mighty Ducks or on
Thursday against the Senators. "How I play and how the team
plays over the next two months will affect my decision about
retiring," he said.
As if the long-term uncertainty weren't enough, Hasek's return
was also shrouded in controversy over his potential appearance
in Sunday's All-Star Game in Toronto. The wrangle began about 10
days ago when Hasek said that even if he wasn't healthy enough
to tend goal for Buffalo before Sunday, he wanted to play in the
All-Star Game, to which he was voted by the fans. Sabres general
manager Darcy Regier and coach Lindy Ruff bristled at the idea
and declared that if Hasek didn't play in a Buffalo game before
then, they would oppose his risking injury in an exhibition. The
looming conflict was rendered moot as it became more likely that
Hasek would be healthy enough to play before Sunday, and then he
quieted it by reluctantly saying that he wouldn't "play in the
[All-Star] game if the organization really doesn't want me to."
Also swirling in the snowy Buffalo air last week were apparently
baseless reports that Hasek would get a $200,000 bonus for
appearing in the All-Star Game. Hasek, Regier and Hasek's agent,
Rich Winter, vehemently denied that there is any such bonus.
There was also talk that because Hasek is about to unveil a line
of Dominator goalie pads for Louisville and also has a contract
with the hockey-equipment company to distribute its gear in the
Czech Republic and surrounding countries, he might benefit from
showcasing the equipment on All-Star weekend. The idea that a
five-time Vezina Trophy winner, two-time league MVP and 1998
Olympic gold medalist would need more publicity in and around
his homeland is ludicrous. Hasek's motivation for playing in his
fifth consecutive All-Star Game most likely stems from his love
of being in the spotlight and the pleasure he gets at being
hailed as the game's best netminder.
Hasek's possible retirement has also raised this question: Would
the Sabres, who have an excellent but green goalie in
22-year-old rookie Martin Biron, be wise to trade Hasek rather
than risk losing him for nothing at season's end? Regier isn't
shopping Hasek but says he'll evaluate the situation day by day.
Should the Sabres decide to put him on the market, there will be
no shortage of suitors. "If you get him at the [March 14]
trading deadline, it would only cost you $1 million in this
year's salary, and you have him for the playoffs," says one
Western Conference general manager. "If he comes back next year,
you'd get him for two playoffs at $8.5 million. That's not much
for the best goalie in the game."
Trading Hasek, though, would prove dangerous for Buffalo. The
Sabres have won an impressive 24 postseason games over the past
two seasons, leading some observers to the assumption that
they're a spunky team that could succeed with any solid
goaltender. Wrong. Biron has played well this year, yet without
the Dominator, Buffalo is a shell of its former self. "Dom can
single-handedly take away the other team's confidence," says
Sabres wing Dixon Ward. "He brings an intimidation factor we
don't have without him."
Will Hasek's All-Star debate leave a lingering uneasiness around
Buffalo? Will he soon announce whether he's hanging 'em up? Will
the Sabres deal him? Will he carry them to another playoff run?
The questions, like the intrigue, go on and on.
Game Is Easier On the Eyes
Sunday's All-Star Game on ABC will be the first NHL match
broadcast nationally in high definition television, or HDTV, a
digital technology that just might make hockey palatable to home
viewers. Hockey suffers on analog TV because the puck often
zooms out of the camera's sight and the screen typically shows
only the puck carrier and his immediate surroundings.
An HDTV set, however, has a width-to-height ratio more like that
of a movie screen than of a standard TV set. This allows for
wide-angle close-ups that enable viewers to follow passes from
blue line to blue line, watch all the players set up in the
offensive zone and generally see plays develop. The digital
images are also much crisper than those on analog sets. "We hope
it will replicate the in-arena experience as closely as
possible," says Jon Litner, the NHL's chief operating officer.
HDTV sets, which cost about three times more than their analog
counterparts, have become increasingly common--about 120,000
have been sold in the U.S. At Madison Square Garden, Rangers
games are shown on a handful of the sets placed around the
arena. At last Thursday's Rangers-Maple Leafs match about 10 to
12 fans settled in a corridor to watch on HDTV even though the
live action was nearby. "Ever since they got these things last
season, I've watched the games on TV more than I watch live,"
said David Hoctor, 38, a Rangers season-ticket holder whose seat
is about midway up in the arena. "You see so much, it's like
being right behind the glass. I only run out to watch in person
when there's a fight."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT Hasek, who rejoined the Sabres' practices last week, says he may change his mind about retiring.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER SEE COME OUT OF RETIREMENT?
Two seasons ago with the Rangers he led the NHL with 67 assists,
and his 53 last year ranked sixth. The Great One, now 39, says
he misses the game. And the game sorely misses him: No active
player can fill an arena the way he did.
In his last season, 1996-97, he had 50 goals and a
league-leading 122 points. Now 34 and the Penguins' owner, Super
Mario said he retired partly because obstruction was pervasive
in the NHL. Use of that tactic, however, has been declining.
The Verdict: Because Lemieux left near the top of his game and a
return would reunite him with Jaromir Jagr, Mario's our man.