We may never know the real reason 38-year-old goaltender Dominik
Hasek returned from his yearlong retirement. Yes, he has said
that he missed the game and that his battery had been recharged
by 12 months of mountain biking and playing squash in his native
Czech Republic. But is there more to the story? Hasek's image at
home was tarnished by an ugly incident last spring in which he
attacked an opponent during an in-line hockey game. A highly
publicized police investigation followed, and though he wasn't
charged with a crime, the onetime national hero could use some
positive public relations in his homeland.
Hasek also has a lot of merchandise to move. His Dominator
sportswear company will open two Motown shops this fall. In an
interview with a Prague newspaper last month he said his three
major priorities were looking after his family, helping the Red
Wings win the Stanley Cup and seeing that "the Dominator clothing
line succeeds on the North American market."
If Hasek does have ulterior motives, the Red Wings and their fans
don't care. Eager to put last April's first-round washout against
the Mighty Ducks behind them, everyone--with the notable
exception of displaced No. 1 goaltender Curtis Joseph--has
welcomed him back with open arms. Never mind that Hasek went more
than a year without strapping on goalie pads. (He played forward
in that Czech in-line hockey league.) Never mind that his return
created a front-office headache--$16 million in salary for two
netminders--that will likely linger well into the season.
The three-year, $24 million contract Joseph signed to replace
Hasek in July 2002 makes him nearly impossible to trade. But that
isn't the only obstacle to finding him a new home. In August he
had surgery to remove bone chips in his right ankle and spent
most of training camp rehabbing. Joseph didn't even join the team
until late September and isn't expected to be ready to play until
mid-October at the earliest.
Hasek, meanwhile, worked feverishly to rid himself of any rink
rust. He played every minute of Detroit's four intrasquad games,
the only goalie in camp to do so, and asked to be bombarded in
shooting drills. "Last time I saw him, I could tell it had been a
long grind for him," goaltending coach Jim Bedard says of bidding
Hasek farewell after the Cup-winning 2002 playoffs. "Now he looks
Hasek's job should be easier once the season begins, thanks to a
vastly improved and more physical Detroit defense. Bruising 6'5",
235-pound Derian Hatcher was lured from conference rival Dallas
with a five-year, $30 million free-agent contract. He and Nicklas
Lidstrom, the winner of the Norris Trophy for the last three
years, plus Chris Chelios, another three-time Norris winner, and
talented Mathieu Schneider form an imposing blue line quartet.
The return of 6'5", 225-pound Jiri Fischer, who missed most of
last season with a torn left ACL, adds even more depth.
Up front there will be a new emphasis on elbow grease. Partly
because skilled center Sergei Fedorov departed as a free agent
and partly because the Red Wings were outworked in the
postseason, coach Dave Lewis stressed during camp the importance
of winning one-on-one battles. "I want to be a harder team to
play against," he says. "I want to be more physical. I want to
get some dirty, ugly goals."
Talented forwards such as Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Henrik
Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk ensure that there will still be
plenty of pretty ones, too. But for the first time in years there
are questions about the team's depth up the middle. The loss of
Fedorov and fellow free agent Igor Larionov plus the creakiness
of Steve Yzerman's 38-year-old surgically repaired knees mean
Zetterberg, 23, and Datsyuk, 25, will be relied on as the top two
centers. If either youngster falters, the Wings could find goals
difficult to come by.
Ultimately, though, it will be the man stopping the puck, not
the ones shooting it, who determines if the Cup returns to
Hockeytown. Hasek has already made one shocking return. No one
will be surprised if he gets the Wings back to the finals.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER DOMINIK HASEK
( 1 Best - 30 Worst )
POWER PLAY 5
PENALTY KILLING 1
G.M. AND COACH 6
The Wings are viewed as an old team, but they have an impressive
core of young guns up front: Henrik Zetterberg, 23, Pavel
Datsyuk, 25, Jiri Hudler, 20, and Jason Williams, 23. Hudler, in
fact, may win the Calder Trophy.... Scoring against this D will
be tough. With the addition of hard-nosed Derian Hatcher, plus a
healthy Jiri Fischer and the return of G Dominik Hasek, expect
Detroit to allow the fewest goals in the league.... Kris Draper
and Kirk Maltby are the NHL's best pair of foot soldiers.