BUFFALO – Goalie Dominik Hasek had never picked his own number before the Sabres acquired him in 1992.
Back home in the Czech Republic, he was given No. 9 as a 16-year-old when a player got sick. When he came to North America in 1990, the Chicago Blackhawks gave him Nos. 31 and 34.
So shortly after he arrived, Hasek was shocked when equipment manager Rip Simonick approached him at a late-summer workout at Sabreland in Wheatfield.
“I still remember, it was my first year in Buffalo,” Hasek, whose No. 39 was retired on Tuesday, said prior to the Sabres’ 3-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings. “We were practicing before the training camp in Sabreland, and Rip Simonick came to me.”
Hasek didn’t know Simonick.
“He introduced himself, ‘I am the equipment manager of the Buffalo Sabres,’ and he was asking me, ‘Dom, what number do you want to wear?’” Hasek said.
Hasek just looked at Simonick.
“Somebody, first time in my life, asked me, ‘What number do I want to wear?’” Hasek said. “Seriously, it was the first time in my life. So I was like, ‘Whoa, maybe the Sabres (are serious).’ I tried to stick with No. 9. But I felt like OK, No. 9 was in Czech. I want to put some other number on.”
If Simonick had given Hasek another number, he probably would have worn it. But Hasek chose No. 39, an iconic number that will hang in the First Niagara Center rafters forever.
The team honored Hasek, the seventh Sabres great to have his number retired, by having players wear special patches and issuing a commemorative game puck. They also painted No. 39 on the ice behind the nets.
The crowd roared for Hasek, who said the fans’ support meant more to him than any trophy he won.
Hasek won two Stanley Cups after the Sabres traded him to Detroit in 2001, but the Hall of Famer called his years in Buffalo the best time of his career.
He won the Vezina Trophy a stunning six times with the Sabres and the Hart Trophy twice, becoming the first goalie since Jacques Plante in 1961-62 to earn the MVP award. Both trophies were on the ice during the ceremony.
“What can I say?” said a grateful Hasek. “What a great nine years in Buffalo.”
For an entire season, Hasek and Brett Hull refused to discuss “No Goal,” Hull’s controversial overtime winner that clinched the Dallas Stars’ Stanley Cup triumph here in 1999.
“Brett Hull, I spent a year with him in Detroit, and in the whole season, we didn’t say one thing about that goal,” Hasek said. “We were good friends, we were talking about different things. But we sort of stayed away from that situation.”
Who could blame them? Hull’s disputed goal – his foot was in the crease, which should have disallowed the score in Game 6 – ignited a firestorm of controversy.
But three years later, Hasek and Hull helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup.
“I remember after we won, we started to joke about that goal,” Hasek said.
What did they joke about?
“We were laughing because it was after we won the Cup and drinking champagne and just having a great time,” Hasek said. “Of course, I told him no goal. He told me of course it was a goal.”
Hull also told Hasek the Sabres would have won the Cup if they reached Game 7.
The superstar winger had a sore groin and wouldn’t have been able to play in the final game. Hull was only on the ice for the goal because the Stars had a faceoff in the Buffalo zone. Ken Hitchcock asked him if he could play for 70 seconds.
“And he scored a famous goal,” Hasek said.
With winger Chris Stewart ill, the Sabres recalled Matt Ellis from Rochester for the first time this season. Ironically, the 33-year-old is the only current Sabre who played with Hasek.
Ellis played his first 51 NHL games with Detroit from 2006-08.
“What Dom did in this city and this organization, it’s incredible, and he still continues to give back today,” Ellis said. “And to be a part of it and to see an ex-teammate and a person I watched growing up have his number go up to the rafters, it’s an extremely special night. I’m excited to be a part of it.”
The Sabres also scratched defensemen Tyson Strachan and Nikita Zadorov. Stewart skated Tuesday morning.
Sabres coach Ted Nolan said he spoke with the 19-year-old Zadorov, who has been struggling for weeks.
“He was very receptive,” Nolan said. “We talked about where he is in his career and the things we have to do in order to make him the player he should be. It’s not trying to hope. I think hope is a good thing once in a while, but you don’t hope for a career to turn up, you got to work at it.”
Sanborn native Tom McCollum was Detroit’s backup goalie. The Red Wings recalled their 2008 first-round pick when starter Jimmy Howard was hurt earlier this month.