Hasek, Buffalo work at personal `save'

Goalie, fans have mercurial relationship


DALLAS -- Dominik Hasek should own Buffalo the way Michael Jordan owns Chicago. Or John Elway owns Denver. Or Troy Aikman owns Dallas.

You would think he would never have to buy a dinner or a cocktail.

You would think his face would be plastered on billboards throughout the blue-collar city of slightly more than 300,000 in western New York.

But that's not the case.

Hasek, considered the world's best goalie, is a complex, mercurial perfectionist who seems to have an antagonistic relationship with Buffalo Sabres fans and the local media.

They love him. They hate him.

And it varies from day to day, from opponent to opponent, from save to save.

"It surprises me," said Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier, "because the truth of the matter is that as far as superstars go, Dominik is very low-maintenance. I wish I had an answer, but I don't. It's disappointing.

"He loves playing [in Buffalo], but I think it's hard not to pay a lot of attention to his critics. I don't want to paint our city with one broad brush because there are a lot of people who love Dom, but there are factions that seem eager to take shots at him."

Hasek's bulging trophy case includes two Hart Trophies that he received for being the league's most valuable player and four Vezina Trophies given to the NHL's best goalie. He won a gold medal for leading the Czech Republic at the 1998 Nagano Games, in what was supposed to be a showdown between the NHL stars of Canada and the United States.

Buffalo's love affair with Hasek began to erode during the 1997 season, when he made public his dislike for coach Ted Nolan. Then, a sprained knee kept him out of the Sabres' last nine playoff games. That season ended with a second-round loss to Philadelphia in five games.

Nolan, an immensely popular coach, was fired in May, and Hasek received the blame. When members of the media questioned the legitimacy of his injury, Hasek's reputation took a severe blow.

The Sabres replaced Nolan with Lindy Ruff, who became only the third NHL coach to take his team to the conference finals in each of his first two seasons.

The fans, however, have never completely forgiven Hasek.

And when he missed the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals against Toronto, the whispers began again that he was quitting on the Sabres when they needed him most.

Hasek, who has been hampered by a strained groin for much of the past 3 1/2 months, missed 12 games in February and March with the injury. On game days, he spends several hours receiving medical treatment that will allow him to play. After a brief skate Monday, he said he felt fine.

"It hurts a little, but there's nothing that I can do about it," Hasek said of the scrutiny. "People don't understand how hard it is to go to the coach and tell him that you cannot play. It is not an easy thing to do.

"If you play hurt and you cannot move, then you might give up a bad goal and the team could lose."

Rob Ray, who led the NHL in penalty minutes this season, has played with Hasek for each of his seven seasons in Buffalo. He doesn't understand why fans and media believe one of the best goalies ever wouldn't want to play when the stakes are highest.

"You don't play this game to sit out of the big games," Ray said. "You play to win. People don't think he's mentally tough. People like Dom. You can tell from the ovation that the fans give him in our arena every time we play."

Hasek can't stand allowing a goal, even in practice. And when he hasn't reached his own standard of excellence, he curses. Or he might slam his stick against the goal posts. And he's been known to heave a water bottle.

He remains on the ice until he has satisfied himself. If that means some of his teammates must also practice longer, then so be it.

"I just believe in practicing," he said. "I believe that if you practice hard, then you will play well. And I feel a responsibility to play well. There are many fans in the city who believe in me, and I am paid very well to play. I want to please myself and the people who believe in me."

Now, Hasek has an opportunity to have his name engraved on Lord Stanley's Cup alongside the likes of Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy and the other great goalies who have won Cups.

A victory would ensure his spot in history.

"The gold medal was for my country," he said. "The cup is for the fans and the organization."

Stanley Cup Finals

Buffalo vs. Dallas (First game of series)

Yesterday: at Dallas

Tomorrow: at Dallas, 8 (45, 5)

Sat.: at Buffalo, 8 (ESPN)

Tue.: at Buffalo, 8 (ESPN)

June 17: at Dallas, 8 (45, 5)*

June 19: at Buff., 8 (ESPN)*

June 22: at Dallas, 8 (45, 5)*

*-If necessary

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