It was 1992, and Dominik Hasek was beginning to regret his decision to play in North America. After leaving his native Czechoslovakia, he was a 27-year-old backup goalie shuttling between the Chicago Blackhawks and the International Hockey League, stuck behind Ed Belfour, one of the NHL’s best.
“I was thinking about going back to Europe because I was in the minors, I was playing for (the) Indianapolis Ice,” Hasek recalled Monday, hours after being named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
So Hasek, one of the greatest goalies in history, almost left the NHL after only 25 appearances.
“However, I stayed and I got a chance to play in ’92, I was traded to Buffalo,” Hasek said on a conference call.
The trade ranks as perhaps the most lopsided ever. The Sabres sent Chicago goalie Stephane Beauregard, who never played for the Blackhawks. Beauregard was out of the NHL after 1993-94, the same year Hasek won the first of his six Vezina Trophies.
“It was the best thing that could happen for me because in Buffalo I got a chance to play and prove that I can play on the highest level,” Hasek said.
Now, the 49-year-old has earned hockey’s highest honor. He’s headlining a star-studded six-person class of 2014. Joining the two-time Hart Trophy winner are defenseman Rob Blake, forwards Peter Forsberg and Mike Modano, coach Pat Burns and referee Bill McCreary.
Blake is Canadian. Forsberg is Swedish. Modano is American.
“You have a class like this coming into the Hall, I think it says a lot about our game and how worldwide it really is,” said John Davidson, chairman of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s selection committee.
Hasek, of course, wasn’t an overnight success in Buffalo. The unorthodox netminder played only 28 games in 1992-93. The Sabres acquired Grant Fuhr, a future Hall of Famer, halfway through that season.
But when Fuhr was injured the next season, Hasek seized his chance, going 14-7-3 with five shutouts from Nov. 13, 1993 to Jan. 11, 1994.
With that torrid stretch, a legend, “The Dominator,” was born.
“Goalie’s always more difficult because … a great player can start on the third line, on the second line and the first line,” Hasek said. “For the goalie, you have to wait until you get a chance, and I got a chance in Buffalo and I was ready.”
Hasek posted a 1.95 goals-against average in 1993-94, a number unheard of then. In 1997, he became the first goalie to win the Hart Trophy since Jacques Plante in 1962. He won two Stanley Cups later in his career with Detroit, including one as Red Wings’ starter in 2001-02.
Incredibly, Hasek will be the seventh member of that Detroit team inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Everything started in Buffalo, though. Hasek was quick to thank John Muckler, the former coach and general manager, and Mitch Korn, his goalie coach.
“Thank you to Buffalo, because getting a chance in Buffalo maybe I wouldn’t be here to today, inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame,” Hasek said. “So I always have to mention I got my first big chance in Buffalo, and thank you to John Muckler, who gave me the chance.”
The Sabres will be retiring Hasek’s No. 39 next season. He was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame in March.