When Dominik Hasek gave up on the NHL season and his hopes to come back with it at age 47 last week, his third and presumably final retirement marked the end for one of hockey’s greatest – and perhaps most misunderstood – goaltenders.
Known commonly as the Dominator, Hasek was called a lot of other things while he racked up that experience over 16 NHL seasons: unorthodox, a flopper, a fluke. Of course, he was also called the greatest goaltender in the world by no less an authority than the game’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky.
So how do you rectify the nickname with the naysayers?
How does a goaltender who played the position so differently from everyone else, do it so much better than so many?
How can a guy who spent so much time on his back, dropped his stick to pick up pucks, and charged madly out of his net to stop breakaways, have six Vezina and two Hart Trophies for his mantel, a Stanley Cup ring for his finger and an Olympic gold medal for his neck?
Don’t ask Hasek for any answers. He may be blessed with a spine like a Slinky and a brain like a super computer, but he quickly becomes as awkward talking about how he makes saves as he sometimes looks making them.
“I just try to do anything I can to stop the puck and that’s the way I play,” Hasek told InGoal late in his remarkable career.
Some of the saves may only be 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. (In some ways it is echoed today by the equally misunderstood style of Tim Thomas).
Some of Hasek’s technique was even in tune with the fundamentals every modern goalie learns from a young age. He read plays and pucks off sticks better then anyone in the game and played angles – both the traditional east-west concept and the newer idea of vertical angles – as well as most. And he always seemed to arrive with his chest square to the shooter, even if the way he arrived sometimes defied all teaching, not to mention a few basic laws of physics.
If Hasek was sometimes more aggressive in his positioning, challenging more than most modern goalies dare, it was because his ESP-like anticipation allowed him to try and stay a step ahead of the shooters, forcing them to rush both decisions and shots, often taking away their first option by seeing it – and denying it – before they’d even considered a Plan B.
Think he came charging out to the hash marks on a breakaway on a whim? Think again.
It was usually because he noticed the opposing forward, often sprung by a long, hard pass, was looking down while he tried to settle the puck on his stick. By the time they looked up, Hasek was usually on top of them.
“He’s kind of unorthodox but he takes away time and space and forces guys to make good shots,” Ray Emery, a rookie backup behind Hasek in Ottawa during the 2005-06 season, told InGoal. “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 includes Hasek’s infamous “barrel roll.”
As he told InGoal, it was actually a well planned save selection that 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 the extended blocker and stick to either knock the puck away or force the shooter to pull the puck back into his skates 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 straight 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 would in a normal butterfly save.
“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.”
That Hasek had a history of making tough saves look easy is a credit to his innate ability to read those plays before they happened. His ability to contort a lithe five-foot-11, 177-pound frame into don’t-try-this-at-home positions may have dominated the highlight reels, but at the heart of Hasek’s decade and a half of dominance was a widely underappreciated intelligence.
Maybe it was his halted English or the fact he wore his celebrity like an itchy wool sweater, but few seemed to recognize Hasek as a closet intellectual. He is an accredited high school teacher in his native Czech Republic, has the equivalent of a master’s degree in history, and according to friends could be a grand master in chess, where he concentrates hard enough to bend spoons and think 10 to 12 moves ahead of the board.
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 – it’s not a stretch to say he did the same.
Just like the chess board, Hasek 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.
If Hasek was unpredictable, it was often by design.
“You have to be smart,” he said. “If you give them something to shoot at, you can set them up for failure.”
Hasek did that as well as anyone in the game during what is sure to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. That he did it so often and so consistently should be proof enough there was nothing fluky about it.