Dominik Hasek sat in front of the giant-screen television in the
family room of his suburban Buffalo home on Sunday night,
watching the penultimate episode of a prime-time hockey soap
opera. Hasek is such a spectacular talent--"best goaltender on
the planet" is attached to his name so casually that it seems
more a title than a description--that only he could dominate a
game from his couch. The Sabres, behind the impeccable play of
Hasek's understudy, Steve Shields, beat the Senators 3-0 at
Ottawa's Corel Centre to tie their first-round playoff series at
three games and force Game 7 on Tuesday. But it was the absence
of Hasek, who had mildly sprained the medial collateral ligament
in his right knee in Game 3, that was the talk of the series
and, in fact, the entire NHL. Hasek, who is expected to become
the first goalie since Jacques Plante in 1962 to be named the
league's Most Valuable Player, had picked up the Sabres by the
scruff of their rough necks and carried them to first place in
the Northeast Division. Now he had become a different kind of
MVP: Mystifying, Vanishing, Peculiar.
Through six games the Sabres-Senators series didn't produce much
in the way of stirring hockey, but it was the mother lode for
pop psychologists. Among the lowlights of a confounding week:
Hasek (pronounced HA-shek) missed a mandatory team meeting,
announced that his knee injury would sideline him for the rest
of the series, slept at an Ottawa player's house the night he
got hurt, and physically attacked a reporter. "Obviously
something's not been right with Dom the past month," one Buffalo
player said. "We were concerned. We asked him what was wrong on
a couple of occasions, and each time he said everything was fine."
On a club racked by tension between coach Ted Nolan and general
manager John Muckler, there are more theories to explain Hasek's
erratic behavior than there are goal scorers. Two of those
theories--that Hasek has been drinking too much or has been
upset by a feud with Nolan--trailed the goalie last week like a
bad smell. Speaking to SI on his car phone as he drove from a
friend's home to his house to watch the second and third periods
of Game 6, an emotional Hasek addressed both issues.
"I don't have a [drinking] problem," he said. "That's a very
surprising question. Two years ago I had a DWI [he pleaded
guilty in April 1995 in Amherst, N.Y.]. But are they saying that
When asked if he had been affected by the Sabres' management
turmoil, he said, "No. These problems are, for sure, serious,
but they are for the organization, not for me." (On April 22
Hasek told reporters that he would not talk about his
relationship with Nolan until after the playoffs.)
Hasek, 32, says his difficulties are attributable to his knee
injury, but his strange behavior started more than two weeks
before he was hurt. In Boston on April 9, the day before Buffalo
clinched first place, Nolan ordered a shooting drill that the
Sabres occasionally use in practice. Suddenly Hasek bolted from
the ice, knocking over a bucket of ice and throwing equipment
around the FleetCenter dressing room. The coach followed Hasek
into the room and asked him what was wrong. According to Nolan,
Hasek said he was angry. "I asked Dom twice if I had said or
done anything to upset him," Nolan says. "Both times he said,
'No.' Actually, the second time he really didn't say no.
Dominik's a real quiet man, and he didn't respond. So I told him
that if I had done anything, I apologized for it, but it was the
last time I ever would, because I'm not going to apologize for
something I don't know about."
That incident was the first in a series that pushed Hasek into
the spotlight for things other than his brilliant goaltending.
--On April 21 Hasek missed a mandatory team meeting and
breakfast and skipped an optional practice. That was unusual;
Hasek's competitiveness is renowned, and he rarely misses
optional workouts. Four days later Hasek phoned a sports talk
show on radio station WGR in Buffalo to say that Nolan had given
him permission a month earlier to skip morning meetings. Nolan
confirmed that to SI last week but said he had announced on the
team bus that attendance was required at the April 21 meeting.
"Maybe Dom didn't hear me," Nolan said. "The meeting wasn't on
the [team's] itinerary."
--During warmups before Game 3 in Ottawa, Hasek, who had played
well in the Sabres' 3-1 opening-game victory and 3-1 Game 2
defeat, grew agitated when he repeatedly failed to stop the
puck. At one point he whirled and smashed his stick against the
crossbar. Hasek then skated out of his crease, and a posse of
his teammates formed a wall and gently directed him back to the
net to continue practicing. As the arena lights dimmed for
pregame festivities at the first home playoff match in the
Senators' five-year history, Shields remained on the ice, taking
shots in the dark from teammates so he could be ready to play if
--When forward Sergei Zholtok scored Ottawa's first goal at
15:33 of the second period of Game 3, Hasek was leaning back on
his knees in the crease. The goalie kicked out his left leg,
then his right. He gave no indication that he had been injured.
He did not wave a trainer onto the ice. He did not test the leg
after scrambling to his skates. He simply skated to the bench
and then headed down the tunnel to the dressing room with left
wing Brad May in pursuit.
"I was in shock when I saw Dominik come off the ice," May says.
"I was just following him into the room because maybe a skate or
a strap in his pads had broken. He says he's hurt, and you get
that lump in your throat."
--Early in the third period of that game, Hasek, who had been
examined by the team doctor, returned to the bench in street
clothes. He was smiling and talking with teammates. He had
neither crutches nor a cane, nor did he have an ice pack on his
knee. After the game, a 3-2 Buffalo win, the Sabres called his
status "day-to-day." Hasek made his own assessment. "My feeling
is I won't be back until the end of the series," he said.
Hasek's pronouncement proved to be accurate, but it didn't jibe
with the way NHL players usually go about their business. In the
postseason, players take the ice even if they're hurt. The only
medical excuse for sitting out is a note from the coroner. If a
player can't perform, he is expected to at least make a
conspicuous effort to get back into the lineup. Consider the
case of two-time playoff MVP Patrick Roy of the Colorado
Avalanche, who while playing for the Montreal Canadiens in 1993
suffered a bruised shoulder in the second period of Game 5 of a
first-round series against the Quebec Nordiques and had to leave
the game. He took a shot of a painkiller and returned for the
third period. (The following year Roy played a first-round
series against the Boston Bruins with appendicitis.) One of
Hasek's teammates, forward Matthew Barnaby, provided a sterling
example of the playoff ethos last week, returning for Game 5 in
Buffalo on Friday despite having suffered a knee sprain on April
1 that was supposed to have sidelined him for six weeks.
--Hasek didn't go to the Sabres' hotel on the team bus following
Game 3. Instead, he left with Ottawa defenseman Frank Musil, a
boyhood friend from the Czech Republic. While fraternizing with
opposing players is common during the regular season, it is
generally taboo during the playoffs. At 2:30 a.m. Hasek called
Buffalo trainer Jim Pizzutelli to say that he was at Musil's
house, that he felt fine, that his injured knee was propped up
and that he wanted to stay there. "He kept us informed," Sabres
president Larry Quinn says. But Quinn didn't inform his coach.
The lines of communication on the team have been mangled by a
management rift so profound it is the subject of locker room
jokes, and Nolan knew nothing of Hasek's whereabouts that
evening until informed by SI last Saturday. When two Buffalo
players heard that Hasek had spent the night at an opponent's
home, they were dumbfounded.
"Dominik just wanted some quiet time," says Musil. "He was very
disappointed in his injury. He said something like that usually
happens when somebody falls on you. [But in this case] there was
nobody around. He kept saying that it was his fault." According
to Musil, he and Hasek talked and had a few beers, and the next
morning, a little before 11, he drove Hasek to the Sabres' hotel.
--Jim Kelley of The Buffalo News wrote in a column published the
morning after Game 3, "I don't for a moment believe that Dominik
Hasek intentionally bailed out on his coach and his teammates
Monday night, but I do believe the pressure of having to be
unbeatable may well be more than even he can bear." In response,
Hasek read a press conference statement in the team dressing
room last Thursday that said he was stung by the implication
that he was out for any reason other than the injury. "I was
very hurt, very hurt," Hasek would say by phone on Sunday night.
"When I first read the article, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't
read, I couldn't even talk well."
As Hasek delivered his statement on Thursday, his teammates
literally stood behind him in a symbolic show of solidarity, a
gesture that seemed too trite and cinematic to ring true. The
other Buffalo players looked like props in the background of an
unconvincing tableau, an overreaction that raised even more
questions when Hasek left immediately after reading the text.
"Quinn and Muckler had come into the room and told us to stay
around, that in five minutes Dom was going to read a statement,"
one Sabre says. "That's the first we heard of it. Of course we
were going to stand behind him if they asked. He's our teammate.
And he's the guy who got us this far." Quinn says the statement
was his idea.
--Last Friday night in Buffalo's Marine Midland Arena, in a
corridor outside the team dressing rooms, Hasek confronted
Kelley. He yelled and cursed at the journalist, who has been
covering hockey since 1981 and is the president of the
Professional Hockey Writers Association. Disputing Kelley's
assertion that Hasek had sprinted from the arena the night of
the injury, the goalie called Kelley a "liar" and "the worst
person in the world." Kelley said they should discuss their
differences quietly, but shortly after that, Hasek grabbed him
around the collar and ripped his shirt before several people,
including teammate Jason Dawe and two security guards, could
The Buffalo News requested an apology from Hasek, who issued one
on Monday. The Sabres released a statement saying Hasek's
actions were a serious matter but the team would withhold
comment pending further investigation. The NHL is also
investigating the incident. "I was very surprised," Nolan says
of the confrontation between Hasek and Kelley. "Sportswriters,
sports announcers--they're going to write or say things that
make people upset. But in society, you can't go around hitting
people for these reasons. We tell our children not to hit. I
can't condone that."
The fallout from Hasek's wild week seemed to sap the life from
the Sabres, a team that depends on effort and emotion to
overcome a conspicuous lack of talent. But after losses in Games
4 and 5, the pinch-hitting Shields had 31 saves in Game 6 to
wring more melodrama from a series that often was more
compelling when the puck wasn't in play.
"I hope it will go away," Hasek said from his car phone of his
anger and his fear that anyone might think the greatest
goaltender on the planet had grabbed a parachute and bailed.
"But maybe it takes days, weeks or months. I don't know."
Special reporting by Brian Cazeneuve