Jim Kelley
Thursday June 12th, 2008

There were two significant retirements in the NHL this week and combined they give a certain insight into just how this league works.

Dominik Hasek, the all-world goalie on a straight-line path to the Hall of Fame as soon as the mandatory waiting period is over is a good indication of how talent trumps everything else in the hockey world.

As colleague Darren Eliot has pointed out, Hasek carved a place in NHL history with his talent and game-changing abilities. I covered the bulk of his career when I was a day-to-day beat reporter with the Buffalo News and I can comfortably say he was the most talented goaltender I ever saw. He was Orr-like in how he changed the way his position was played and he was among the most competitive players the game has ever known.

He was also, shall we say, difficult. I don't say this just because Hasek and I had an altercation outside the locker rooms in HSBC Arena during one of his more memorable playoff runs, but because Hasek was a superstar who knew he had clout and knew that he could use it.

It was Hasek who got popular coach Ted Nolan on the rails out of Buffalo when he said at the 1997 NHL Awards ceremony in Toronto -- the year he won both the Hart and Vezina trophies -- that it would "perhaps be better for me if he (Nolan) didn't come back next season."

Nolan, at those same ceremonies, had just accepted the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.

There were other reasons the Sabres managed to push Nolan out of Buffalo despite the in-the-streets protests from fans and even the wife of the team's recently-deceased owner, but Hasek's was the statement that made it a must-do. In essence, Hasek said very publically that it was either him or Nolan. The coach would later have to wait nearly a decade before he got back in the game.

Contrary to some published reports, Hasek forced his own way out of Buffalo in a messy "divorce" in which he orchestrated his trade to Detroit and only Detroit by telling Sabres general manager Darcy Regier that he would only accept the Red Wings and if Regier didn't make it happen, he would retire. When Regier got into serious negotiations for the two-time Hart Trophy- and six-time Vezina Trophy-winner, he was severely hampered in his bargaining position by a call from Hasek in which the goalie told the GM that if he continued to ask a high price and thereby weaken the Red Wings as a Cup contender, he would retire and the Sabres would get nothing.

Regier confirmed all of this shortly after the deal went down, explaining why the Sabres only received a player (Vyacheslav Kozlov) and a draft pick. Given all the Sabres had been through with Hasek, Regier was not a happy man.

Hasek used the retirement ploy several times in his career. Coming back from one caused serious problems in Detroit when his return forced out veteran Curtis Joseph, the goalie the Red Wings had signed as a free agent to replace the retired Hasek. Since Joseph had two years left on a no-trade contract, he was sent to the minors. The moved effectively ended his hopes of ever winning a Stanley Cup. It also angered a great many on the Red Wings roster, some of whom were not unhappy when Hasek later left Detroit and, eventually, signed with Ottawa.

There were also issues with Ottawa in regards to playing or not playing hurt and, eventually, Hasek re-signed with Detroit.

In the end, Hasek had a stellar career and one could make an argument that along the way he did whatever he felt was right both for him and his family. When you are that good in a sport where goaltending is the most important position, you usually can get your way even if others get hurt or damaged in the process.

Contrast that to Trevor Linden, the Vancouver forward who played 19 seasons in the NHL, 16 of them with the team that drafted him: his beloved Canucks. Linden would have played 20 seasons had it not been for the lockout, but instead of scooting off to Europe to grab some kind of a salary during the stoppage, he served as President of the NHL Players Association, leading the fight for an end to the stalemate and a decent working agreement.

Ironically, Linden had almost as many problems with players as Hasek had with various members of management. Linden was accused by many of moving too quickly and working to closely with Ted Saskin, who rose to power (and then an unceremonious ousting) as the NHLPA boss after the new deal was signed and former head Bob Goodenow was forced out.

It was something of a bitter pill for Linden who thought he was acting in the best interest of the majority of the players who had expressed to him very clearly that they were prepared to go one year without hockey, but no longer. In the end, Linden delivered a deal that ended the lockout after one year and has been very good for the players, but there is still a feeling among the more militant faction that he did them no favors.

None of that took away from the fact that Linden was a fan favorite in Vancouver, embraced as much for his charitable and community work as for his heart and soul approach to the game on the ice. Hasek, meanwhile, was the source of so much fan discontent after the Nolan debacle that Sabres management pumped in electronic cheers to cover the booing in the arena for a time. Hasek also did and still does charitable work in Buffalo, but he angered a huge block of his fan base when he said that if he got into the Hall of Fame, he would go in as a Detroit Red Wing.

Ironically for Linden, his actions also irked a great many player agents -- and the Canucks recently hired a former player agent, Mike Gillis, as their GM. Gillis was on hand for Linden's retirement announcement, but gave no indication as to whether or not there might be a management role for Linden in his new administration.

Proof positive that no matter how well-intentioned or loyal a hockey player is to team or teammates, when the end comes it's usually the same for a Linden as it is for one like Hasek.

Truly a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world.

Crawford's uncertain future

The firing of Marc Crawford as coach of the Los Angeles Kings doesn't come as a surprise. The question hockey people have is whether he'll get another coaching position in the league. Crawford, who won a Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche, has been whacked twice now after failures in Vancouver and LA. and faces court action in the Todd Bertuzzi lawsuit that stems from when he was on the bench in Vancouver and Bertuzzi attacked Avalanche player Steve Moore.

Crawford's perceived inability to work with young players is one of the reported reasons he was let go by the Kings after two non-playoff seasons, but the specter of the trial (Crawford has been accused by both Moore and Bertuzzi of having ordered the attack) has a lot of hockey people nervous and it's unlikely any of them would put him on a payroll until the matter is resolved.

By the time that is concluded, Crawford may find he's been away too long.

Maple Leafs give Wilson some cover

The Toronto Maple Leafs made a nifty move to get the pressure off newly-hired coach Ron Wilson. A day after Wilson did the meet-and-greet thing in Toronto and a good job of deflecting the perceived issue of his not liking Canadian media, the club let out the word that they likely wouldn't be hiring a new GM until the summer of 2009.

That should end, for a time at least, repeated stories and questions as to whether Wilson was hired in anticipation of GM Brian Burke coming free of his contract in Anaheim and joining Toronto. Wilson and Burke are longtime friends dating back to their college days in Providence, Rhode Island, and there has been much speculation in Toronto that Wilson was hired to entice Burke to the Original Six team.

That may happen, but the Leafs made a point of saying that there will be several well-regarded GMs whose contracts expire at the end of the upcoming season and that the field will be plentiful in regards the interview possibilities.

Burke is one of those GMs, but so is Buffalo's Darcy Regier and, perhaps, San Jose's Doug Wilson, Nashville's David Poile, and maybe even Detroit's Ken Holland.

General manager's contracts are often a closely guarded secret, but by opting to invest a full season in interim GM Cliff Fletcher, the Leafs may well defuse some of the Burke speculation ... at least for a little while.

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