When Dominik Hasek Was A Senator, Everything Went Wrong
9:00 AM EDT on May 5, 2021
This week, Defector has chosen to curate a collection of writing inspired by two entities that have had an indelible effect on North America: the upper house of the United States Congress and Eugene Melnyk’s pro hockey team. This is Senators Week.
In July of 2004, Ottawa hockey fans were living the good life. The hometown Senators were just a year removed from their first and to-date only Presidents' Trophy win as the best team in the NHL regular season. They had made the playoffs eight years in a row, after starting their life as a franchise by missing out on the postseason from '93 through '96. And after a very disappointing performance by starting goalie Patrick Lalime in a Game 7 loss to the Maple Leafs, the Sens went out and got themselves a legend, the only goaltender to be a two-time winner of the Hart Trophy, the hero responsible for the Czech Republic's only Olympic hockey gold medal, and the man who set a record for playoff shutouts just two years earlier when the Red Wings won the 2002 Stanley Cup.
"I wanted to play for a team that I believe can win the Cup," Dominik Hasek said when he was introduced as the newest Senator at a press conference. "And I believe that with my help, all together, we can do it."
"We've gotten a goaltender who's one of the best," Senators GM John Muckler said. "This is an exciting time for the hockey team."
If the introductory press conference was the high point of Ottawa optimism, it would all be downhill from there.
Hasek had something to prove when he arrived in Ottawa at age 39. He had retired after his Cup win in Detroit, then unretired, then very quickly suffered a groin injury that kept him out of most of the 2003–04 season. In 43 games with the Ottawa Senators, he silenced all doubters, playing up to the extraordinarily high bar he set in his prime with a 28-10-4 record, a .925 save percentage, and a 2.09 goals-against average. However, due to some seriously ill-timed misfortunes, those 43 games were all the Senators would ever get out of the Dominator, and instead of being the missing piece that led the Sens to ultimate glory, Hasek turned instead into perhaps the most crushing What-If in Ottawa history.
It was the NHL owners' unbreakable desire for a salary cap that cost Hasek a year of his career, and the Sens perhaps their single best shot at a Cup. A 310-day lockout that began in September 2004 and finally ended with a clear-cut victory for ownership the following summer completely erased an entire NHL season. Hasek, unable to make his debut with the Senators, barnstormed in Europe for a couple weeks with other NHL stars, then returned, finally, for the 2005–06 season. His first game with the Sens, a 3-2 shootout win over the Leafs, marked his first meaningful time on NHL ice in 667 days, and from that point on his team just kept winning, and Hasek inexplicably looked just like he did when he was making saves in a Sabres uniform. Heading into the Olympic break, the Sens were 37-14-5, and Hasek was right up there with Miikka Kiprusoff as the best netminder in the league.
Where most all-time great goalies demand metaphors like "brick wall" to describe how they simply refuse to let the puck pass, Hasek more than any other called to mind an acrobat on a tight rope. He made his own fans' hearts skip a beat nearly every game with an idiosyncratic style of aggressive play—perhaps more puck-seeking than puck-stopping—that never stopped looking risky even as it worked. It was frickin' awesome. Listen to the sheer glee in these announcers' voices as they discover via replay how Hasek managed to make an upside-down save.
(By the way, Hasek still holds the Sens record for most penalties taken by a goalie in one season, as the post-lockout NHL added the trapezoid behind the net, which punished any goalie who went outside it and into the corner to try and commandeer the puck, as Hasek loved to do.)
But all the fun and excitement in Ottawa abruptly came to a halt less than 10 minutes into the Czech Republic's very first Olympic game in Turin. While making a split-leg save against Germany, Hasek re-aggravated that recurring groin injury of his. It wasn't immediately apparent just how bad the news would turn out to be, as team officials continually expressed optimism that Hasek would return. But days turned into weeks turned into months, and despite practicing with the team and eventually receiving clearance from team doctors, Hasek would never again suit up for the Sens, forcing the team instead to rely on backup Ray Emery. Even with Ottawa facing elimination down 3-0 in their second-round series against Buffalo, Hasek insisted that he couldn't give them what they needed:
Former captain Daniel Alfredsson, along with teammates Martin Havlat and Wade Redden, tried to convince Hasek before Game 4 at lunch at a Buffalo hotel to give it a try.He wouldn't have anything to do with that talk. Hasek told TSN's Off the Record that spring he told his teammates he wouldn't "cheat them.""I could stand in the net but we'll lose 6-2," said Hasek. "I walked away from the table."Ottawa Sun
Without Hasek, the Senators were eliminated in five games, and understandably, the relationship between team and player had frayed enough that Hasek did not return to Ottawa in the following season, electing instead to play again for the Red Wings. Without Hasek in 2006–07, the Senators won the East, but lost to the Ducks in the Cup Final in five games.
The Dominator's shadow looms over that Sens team, for all its success. In the '07 playoffs, Emery posted a .907 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average in 20 games for Ottawa. On the other side of the bracket, in 18 games for Detroit, Hasek put up .923 and 1.82. Would an upgrade in net have been enough for the Sens to edge Anaheim, particularly in a series where three of their losses came by just one goal? That's impossible to know, but easy to imagine.
If Senators fans lost sleep over the What-If, Hasek probably didn't. Splitting goal duties with Chris Osgood in the regular season, Hasek shared in the Jennings Trophy in 2007–08 as the unit with the league's fewest goals against. Osgood ended up being the star of Detroit's championship run, but as Hasek announced his retirement in the aftermath of his second career Cup, he sounded entirely satisfied.
"Today I'm feeling very happy and don't have any regrets," he said at a news conference.
I bet Ottawa could think of one.