BUFFALO – One story about Dominik Hasek’s famously intense practice habits has become part of hockey folklore.
“I heard about it,” said Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg, the Hall of Fame goalie’s teammate after the Sabres traded him to Detroit in 2001. “I’m not sure if it’s true.”
Legend has it Hasek was once so upset following a particularly bad practice, he spent the night in the training room. Never went home. Just stayed at the rink.
“It wouldn’t surprise me at all,” Zetterberg said Monday inside the First Niagara Center.
The Sabres will retire Hasek’s No. 39 tonight against the Red Wings, a fitting honor for perhaps the greatest goalie ever. Those who know the 49-year-old best have been sharing stories about what made Hasek so special, how the fierce competitor became “The Dominator.”
They all talk about how the six-time Vezina Trophy winner honed his craft during practice.
Hasek wanted to be great every minute he was on the ice, whether it was in Memorial Auditorium, Joe Louis Arena or a chilly practice rink tucked away in the suburbs.
“Dom practiced hard all the time,” said Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who coached Hasek from 1995-97. “You look at all the great players, they practice hard all the time. …
“I think that was the difference with Dom. He didn’t want anybody scoring on him any time, particularly in practice, and that’s why it transferred into a game.”
Zetterberg, who won the Stanley Cup with Hasek in 2002 and 2008, remembers the Czech “got really mad” when someone scored on him during practice.
“Every practice he was battling really, really hard,” Zetterberg said. “I think for me as a young player coming in, to see the battle he put in in practice kind of helped me to go even harder. …
“It’s a lot of fun to have him on the team. … I think those years that we had with Dom (are) not just special to me, but special to everyone that played with him.”
Tonight should be a special experience for everyone watching and playing. For proof of Hasek’s influence on hockey, fans will just need to look at the ice.
Both of the expected starting goalies, the Sabres’ Michal Neuvirth and Detroit’s Petr Mrazek, are Czechs who grew up idolizing Hasek.
“It’s a special night for Dominik, for the Czech Republic, for the Buffalo Sabres, but I’m going to approach it as just another game,” Neuvirth said. “But I’m definitely going to enjoy the game.”
Mrazek added: “That was my hero growing up.”
As a 9-year-old in 1998, Neuvirth, like the entire Czech Republic, was captivated by Hasek’s dynamic goaltending as he backstopped his country to a gold medal at the Nagano Games.
Watching Hasek during those Olympics – he stunned Canada in a shootout and blanked Russia for the gold – “was pushing my dream forward,” Neuvirth said.
“Since then, he was my hero,” he said.
Neither goalie emulated Hasek’s unorthodox style, which was so unique it’s almost impossible to copy. But Neuvirth saw something else in Hasek he wanted in his own game.
“It just wasn’t the style; it was how he was so committed,” he said. “He always wanted to win. That’s why he was so special.”
Of course, Hasek had legions of fans here, including Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta, who grew up in nearby Angola. The 28-year-old couldn’t contain his excitement Tuesday talking about Hasek. He expects to have chills tonight.
“Greatest goaltender maybe of all-time playing for the Buffalo Sabres,” Kaleta said. “Just watching him was the experience of a lifetime, every game, just sprawling around, making saves that are unorthodox or whatever. But he was the backbone of the Sabres for a long time.
“I had pictures of him and cards of him that I would save, just one of the best Buffalo Sabres to ever play the game, and I got to experience watching it. It’s a treat in itself.”
Ironically, Kaleta scored his second NHL goal against Hasek on March 2, 2008 in Buffalo.
“It was a three-on-two sort of thing, not that I remember or anything,” a smiling Kaleta said. “To be able to score on a guy like that was really special, especially for me. … It’s something that could be up there for top moments of my hockey career.”