Dominik Hasek was a slam-dunk for first-ballot induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday after a career that included winning the Vezina Trophy six times, the Williams Jennings Trophy three times, the Hart Trophy twice, the Stanley Cup twice – once as the starter in 2002 and again as the backup to Chris Osgood in 2008 – and Olympic gold. But where does the Dominator rank among the greatest of a generation that also includes fellow goaltending greats Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur?
If you ask an admittedly biased Mitch Korn, he belongs at the top of that list.
Korn was the Buffalo Sabres goaltending coach when Hasek arrived in a trade from the Chicago Blackhawks that kept Hasek from giving up on the NHL. Korn admits that it “is very hard to say who is the greatest because there are always other factors,” but while others point to the three Stanley Cups won by both Roy and Brodeur, the long-time coach also takes into consideration the teams the team’s they played behind.
“Dom only has one Stanley Cup and he did it in Detroit, and Marty has three Cups and Patrick has all those rings in his ear,” Korn says over the phone from Ohio, where he is running summer goaltending camps. “They are together the three best within this generation and so it really depends on how you want to look at it and who is making the argument. But from my vantage point, Marty almost always played with pretty good teams. Patrick, except on the team he got mad at, walked off the ice and left, almost always played with a pretty good team.
“You cannot say that about Dom. Dom made not so good teams, very young teams, very, very competitive. I will argue that Dom was the best because he had teams that weren’t as good from top to bottom and had to have more of an impact than the next guy.”
Korn, who got a thank you shout out from Hasek in his post-induction conference call, reiterates he is clearly biased as Hasek’s former goaltending coach. But it also makes him the perfect person to explain what made the four-time Olympic goaltender so good.
It’s a multi-part answer that starts with Hasek’s competitiveness.
“This guy is so competitive that honest to goodness there were practices no goals went in,” Korn said. “There might be one or two that goes in but no one scored two in a row. He was just so unbelievably competitive.”
Hasek also read the play – and how a puck left the stick – better than anyone.
“I have never seen anybody who could read a puck off a stick, know what is going to happen next, connect the dots, and process this game like him,” Korn said. “Nobody read pucks off a stick blade like him. High, low, left, right, he could tell as it left the blade and as a result he had more time than everybody else to make a save on the same shot from the same spot. He knew what was going to happen before it happened.”
In fact, Hasek anticipated plays so well he actually had to slow down in Buffalo because he sometimes got too far ahead, giving shooters a chance to re-adjust by showing them he had figured out their original intent so soon.
“Sometimes in the early days he would show his hand because he knew what the guy was going to do,” Korn said. “He needed just a little patience so he didn’t show his cards.”
Helping facilitate that was Korn’s job in Buffalo.
“It’s a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle to play goal,” Korn said. “My job when I met Dom was he had great instincts and I never wanted to coach that out of him, but his pieces were all over the table. My job was to help put those pieces together to give his game more order and patience. When he came to Buffalo that’s all he needed in my opinion, a little bit of order to all the skill he had and a little patience to allow the timing to be effective.”
As for the often unique save selections that have left Hasek with the “unorthodox” label, Korn said there was always a method to the apparent madness.
“Everything he did had a purpose. It didn’t look like it had a purpose, but it had a purpose,” he said. “We were coming out of the skate save era but he was very good at the same thing we are doing today – sealing the ice, taking away vertical space. He was very flexible and he had a pretty wide butterfly but the way he took away vertical space on diagonals with stacks – nobody but Brodeur has ever done it like him.”
Ray Emery recognized it as a rookie backup behind Hasek in Ottawa in 2005-06.
“He’s kind of unorthodox but he takes away time and space and forces guys to make good shots,” Emery said. “Even though he’s doing a two-pad slide instead of a butterfly, it’s still the same objective: take away the bottom of the ice and make guys put the puck over him. He’s really good at taking lanes away too. He reads plays and that’s why you’ll see sometimes he’ll come flying out if he sees a guy on a breakaway has his head down, or if a guy is cutting down the wing, he’ll cut that lane off between the D-man and the near post. These things are all calculated, it’s not like he’s just flopping around in there.”
That matches what Hasek told InGoal during an interview late in his career.
If Hasek was unpredictable, he said it was often by design.
When Hasek was on his game on the ice – a state in which he once said he sees 90 per cent of the pucks and feels another five per cent coming at him – he was known to play head games with shooters, baiting them by showing a little space where he thought they would be looking, then taking it away before they can take advantage of it.
“You have to be smart,” Hasek told InGoal during his final season with the Red Wings. “If you give them something to shoot at, you can set them up for failure.”
Some of the saves that resulted were only possible because of his Gumby-like flexibility and Jedi powers of concentration and anticipation, but Hasek worked hard to perfect his methods. They included never giving up on a save and always having one last limb (or even his head) left to throw out at a shooter. Even the famous barrel roll was planned. As he told InGoal, it was actually a well planned save selection he used in very specific circumstances. The barrel roll was easy to brush off as a fluke if you only saw it executed once, but after watching Hasek use it over and over again – and use the same “technique” in the same save situations each time – you realize there is a science to the style.
“I was doing it in 80s, I do it in 90s, I do it in this century, it’s nothing new,” Hasek said. “I know I was doing it in the Czech Republic in the 80s and I don’t know if some older goalie taught me or if I seen it. It was too many years ago.”
With a forward cutting in alone in tight from his left to right, Hasek said he used the extended blocker and stick to either knock the puck away or force the shooter to pull the puck back and continue going wide. From there he discovered the only way to continue this extension to the right post was to roll over on his back, and throw the glove side arm down along the ice. He then kicked his legs up to try and take away the top of the net in case the shooter had the patience to try and wait him out. In the end it looked like some kind of bizarro-world butterfly, with Hasek’s arms extended along the ice to take away the bottom of the net and the legs up in the air acting like a torso in a normal butterfly.
“When he’s coming from my left side and he makes the move far around the net it’s just one of these you do because this is the only way to stop that puck,” Hasek said in his signature staccato broken English. “I know I do it in certain situations but you don’t think about it. It just comes if you see a forward move farther and farther and nobody stop him. And if there’s nobody to help I have to do it myself so the two pads go up. You have to be smart with what you’re doing. I never really change my style at all, but it’s the practice, it’s the way you read the game, you have to know when you can do it. It’s something that is hard to describe or explain. It just becomes experience.”
All that experience added up to a spot in the Hall of Fame – and arguably top spot in conversations about the greatest goaltender of an impressive generation.