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Boffo in Buffalo

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Buffalo Sabre goaltender Dominik Hasek doesn’t do things by the book.

He flops too much to be a classic stand-up goalie. His legs and arms flail too much to call him graceful, and his trademark rolling, writhing backflop is a maneuver no coach would recommend.

Behind the acrobatics of his self-taught technique, however, lies an unquenchable desire for perfection. It’s an impossible quest, yet Hasek--who last season was the first goaltender voted the NHL’s most valuable player since 1962--has come as close as any goalie could dare to hope.

“No one really tried to change my style, but the media and the coaches and the people in the league, especially when I was in Chicago, didn’t believe my style is good,” said Hasek, who made his NHL debut with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1990-91 season and was traded to Buffalo in 1992. “I always believe what’s good for one goalie is not good for all goalies.”

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What’s good for Hasek has made him the best goalie in the world.

Hasek turned the Nagano Olympics into a one-man show, leading the Czech Republic past the U.S. in the quarterfinals, shutting out Canada in a tense tiebreaking semifinal shootout and making 20 saves in a 1-0 victory over Russia in the gold-medal game. He had an 0.97 goals-against average and a .961 save percentage in six games, a magnificent performance under intense duress. “It’s not only the way he plays, it’s his major psychological impact,” Russian Coach Vladimir Jurzinov said, “because at times I felt not quite sure if we would be able to score at all.”

Many NHL players share that frustration. And even though the gold medal launched Hasek on a post-Olympic whirlwind, he hasn’t had a letdown. Since the Games, he has recorded five shutouts for a league-leading total of 12, three short of the modern record set by Tony Esposito in 1969-70. His .930 save percentage is the NHL’s best, and his 2.15 goals-against average ranks fifth.

“In the beginning, I had a little bit of trouble with the changing of the time. Now, everything is back to normal,” said Hasek, whose team will face the Kings today at Marine Midland Arena. “I still have some more questions from the media and from fans, but that is easy to handle.

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“Mentally, it was a little tough. I was tired from the Olympics. I was thinking too much about beating the USA, Canada and Russia. I caught myself not too focused on the NHL. I was thinking too much about what happened in Nagano. It was an experience I will never forget.”

It was followed by an equally memorable visit to Prague, about 60 miles from his hometown of Pardubice, for a celebration that drew 150,000 people and included a meeting with Czech President Vaclav Havel.

“I cannot describe it in words,” Hasek said. “It was like a big party in Prague. I can compare it a little bit with [the overthrow of the Communist regime in] 1989, when there were also 100,000 people in the street. But in 1989, we didn’t know what would happen the next day.”

He was touched by the turnout for his return to Buffalo, where he has had a tempestuous relationship with the fans.

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They loved him when the team finished a surprising first in the Northeast Division last season but booed him early this season for undermining popular coach Ted Nolan and getting Nolan fired. His 3.15 goals-against average and 6-9-2 record in his first 18 games fed their discontent. He wooed most of them back by recording a record-tying six shutouts in December, but he wasn’t sure the fans cared much about his Olympic exploits.

A rare Hasek mistake.

“We thought a couple of people would ask some questions and that would be it. But there were 500 people at the airport and people at my house,” he said. “There were 50 kids from the neighborhood. It was 9 o’clock at night and I was happy to be home and I just wanted to go to sleep, but all the people were there so I said hello to them.”

Hasek’s success is no surprise to King defenseman Garry Galley, who played for the Sabres last season. “He’s a great competitor and a great goalie. Even when they were struggling early this year, I said they’re going to be OK because I knew Dominik was going to recapture what he had,” Galley said. “They’re a good hockey team and they work hard, and they have Dominik.”

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What they have in Hasek is an elite athlete--and an intense, intelligent bundle of contradictions encased in a scrawny, 5-foot-11, 168-pound body.

The son of a uranium miner, Hasek began playing goal as a toddler, using his body to block tennis balls thrown by his father and grandfather. His first pair of skates was a pair of shoes with blades screwed into the soles.

Those who know him say he remains humble despite signing a four-year contract extension last week potentially worth $32 million. He deflects compliments with a laugh or an embarrassed grin, yet he takes fierce pride in his work. He hates to give up goals in practice and will stay on the ice long after his teammates plod off; the day after defeating the U.S. at Nagano, he went through a full-length workout, not a token skate.

He’s gentle with children, having started a hockey program for needy youngsters in Buffalo, and he often plays with the kids in his East Amherst, N.Y., neighborhood. Yet he also has a temper. Angry at being the butt of a joke two years ago, he threw a teammate’s suit into the toilet; last spring, he trashed the Sabres’ locker room in Boston and was suspended for three games for attacking Buffalo newspaper columnist Jim Kelley, who suggested Hasek left a playoff game because he was overwhelmed by pressure, not a knee injury. Hasek’s dislike for Nolan, whom he considered two-faced and non-supportive after the Kelley incident, splintered the team and led to Nolan’s dismissal.

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“Everybody knew there was some friction there. I don’t understand it or know what happened,” Galley said. “I think everybody did things they wish they didn’t do or didn’t say, and it hurt the team in the long run. It’s a lot of people’s fault. But it’s a credit to a lot of players that we played as well as we did as a team.”

Hasek has made peace with his teammates--including Matthew Barnaby, who had threatened to run him--and he endorses new Coach Lindy Ruff. “Lindy is a friendly coach. How do you say? A player’s coach. It’s a good atmosphere,” Hasek said. “That’s all I would like to say about this.”

He prefers to let his performances speak for him, and they are proclaiming him an MVP candidate again. No NHL goalie has won the award twice.

“I didn’t think about it at the beginning of the season, when I didn’t play well,” he said. “If I am nominated, it would be great. But that’s not my goal. My goal is to get the Sabres into the playoffs and help the Sabres win many, many games.”

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The Sabres aren’t among the NHL’s top teams, but a hot goalie can carry a team far--as Hasek did in the Olympics. Although the playoffs are three weeks away, Hasek isn’t yet looking ahead.

“First my goal is to get into the playoffs and after we get into the playoffs I will focus for the playoffs,” he said. “Right now, I don’t think about how far we can go. I believe we have a good team and we will have to see what we can do. I don’t want to say we can win the Stanley Cup, but I think we can go far.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Dominator

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Since returning from the Olympics, Dominik Hasek has been even more dominating than he had been before the Games.

BEFORE NAGANO

GAMES: 49

MINUTES:2,869

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GA AVG: 2.34

RECORD: 20-17-1

GA: 112

SAVES: 1,479

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SHUTOUTS: 7

SAVE %: 924

SINCE NAGANO

GAMES: 15

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MINUTES: 907

GA AVG: 1.52

RECORD: 8-5-2

GA: 23

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SAVES: 452

SHUTOUTS: 5

SAVE %: .949

SEASON TOTALS

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GAMES: 64

MINUTES: 3,776

GA AVG: 2.15

RECORD: 28-22-12

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GA: 135

SAVES: 1,931

SHUTOUTS: 12

SAVE %: .930

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