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Dominik Hasek on almost quitting NHL, being awed by 2002 Red Wings

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Hasek

Dominik Hasek was one of four players elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame this week, capping one of the most dominating and lauded careers for a goalie in NHL history. 

A career that he admitted might have ended before he even reached 30 games in the League.

It was August 1992. “Batman Returns” was the No. 1 movie of the summer. Bill Clinton was the Democratic Party nominee for President. And Dominik Hasek was tired of being a minor league goalie.

He had played a total of 25 games in the NHL, sitting behind Eddie Belfour in Chicago who, at age 26, was one year younger than Hasek. “If you’re a great skater, you can start on the third line,” said Hasek. “For a goalie, you have to wait for your chance.”

Hasek only had so much patience. He had played professionally since he was 17 years old, competing in international tournament and the 1988 Olympics for Czechoslovakia. His journey finally took him to North America in 1990, as the Chicago Blackhawks owned his rights having drafted him in the 10th round in 1983.

But playing 53 games for the Indianapolis Ice – 10 years later, the team that gave NBA legend Manute Bol a contract – wasn’t how he saw his NHL career playing out. Hasek was trapped between two hockey purgatories: The IHL below him, and one of the best young goalies in hockey above him.

So Hasek seriously contemplated quitting the NHL: Going home again, where he wasn’t buried on a depth chart and was already a star.

Little did he know what dominos were falling behind the scenes.

The Chicago Blackhawks wanted Winnipeg Jets forward Christian Ruuttu. The Jets wanted Buffalo goalie Stephane Beauregard. So the Blackhawks flipped Hasek for Beauregard and a fourth-round pick that would become Eric Daze, and then three days later sent him to Winnipeg for Ruuttu.

Suddenly, Hasek was out of the vice grip of the Hawks’ goaltending jam and in a place where he wasn’t just going to play, but have a shot to earn the starting job.

“Hasek will be given the opportunity to be the No. 1 goalie,” said Sabres General Manager Gerry Meehan at the time. “We`ve liked Hasek for a long time. We`ve been trying to get the trade done since February or March.”

The “we” in this case was Sabres director of hockey operations John Muckler, who pushed hard for the trade. By 1993-94, Hasek was getting the majority of the starts for Buffalo and won his first Vezina Trophy.

Hasek thanked Muckler by name after getting the call from the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.

“Thank you to Buffalo. Without getting that chance I might not be in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” he said.

Soon after the Buffalo trade, his signature style was becoming one of the more entertaining circus acts in hockey: His limbs flailing around, stopping pucks by any means necessary. It was unorthodox but effective, odd but captivating. It always looked like Hasek was working five times as hard as any other goalie in the League. (Which was sometimes the case behind Buffalo's defense.)

“Every player is different. Every goalie is different,” he said. “I was very flexible.”

Hasek was humble in his acceptance of immortality, despite one of the most storied careers in recent memory: A six-time Vezina Trophy, he also won the Hart Trophy in 1997 and 1998 – the first time a goaltender had won that trophy since Jacques Plante in 1962.

He didn’t win the Stanley Cup until 2002 when he backstopped the Detroit Red Wings with a 1.86 GAA.

Did he know he was the seventh player of that team to make the Hall of Fame? “Oh, OK?” he said, surprised. “It was one of my best years to ever play hockey.”

Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Igor Larionov and coach Scotty Bowman are all in the Hall.

“From Day 1, I played with so many great players, so many stars. Our goal from Day 1 was to win the Cup and nothing else,” recalled Hasek. “Already seven players in the Hall of Fame and in the future there will be even more players. Some are still playing hockey.”

He’s referencing Pavel Datsyuk and Sergei Fedorov, who along with Nicklas Lidstrom will likely bring the total number of Hall of Famers to 10 from that Red Wings team.

“I don’t know if there will be more players from one team in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” said Hasek.

From a backup goalie with thoughts on quitting in 1992 to a hero among Hockey Gods in 2002 to a Hall of Famer 12 years after that, it’s been a remarkable journey for the man they call the Dominator.

“I’m very thankful today to say that I play hockey for such a long time, with such great players,” he said. 

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