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A Prague Summer After dominating the Olympics and the NHL season, Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek returned to his hometown, near the Czech capital, for a hero's welcome

Aug. 10, 1998
Aug. 10, 1998

Table of Contents
Aug. 10, 1998

Baseball
Basketball [bonus Piece]

A Prague Summer After dominating the Olympics and the NHL season, Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek returned to his hometown, near the Czech capital, for a hero's welcome

A crescent moon was hanging high above the 16th-century clock
tower, looking as sharp and silvery as the blade of a skate, and
it seemed the perfect ornament to decorate the eastern sky that
night. It was June 29, the hands in the tower were nearing 10
o'clock, and the moon was glowing above the surreal scene
unfolding in the middle of the Czech city of Pardubice, some 60
miles east of Prague. There, above the pop and flash of the
fireworks, the rockets rising and exploding just outside
Pernstyn Square; above the standing lamps and the strings of
lights hung along the square's Renaissance gables; and above the
7,000 moiling souls who had made the pilgrimage to the square
and were swaying and singing to the music blaring from the giant
speakers--"We are the champions"--and staring up in teary
adulation, a man stood on a temporary stage, looking at times
self-conscious and uneasy as he waved to the crowd with a large
teddy bear someone had given him.

This is an article from the Aug. 10, 1998 issue

They began chanting, over and over, "Dominik! Dominik!"

Dominik Hasek had come home again, to the city where he was born
and raised, just as he'd come back after every season in which
he had tended goal for the Buffalo Sabres. Only this year there
was a heightened fervor around him wherever he went. Indeed,
Hasek returned to the Czech Republic and was embraced as a
secular saint. "Dominik is the national hero," says Frank Musil,
a boyhood teammate of Hasek's in Pardubice (pronounced
PAR-dah-bit-sah) who plays with the Edmonton Oilers. "He's the
statue, the symbol of the Republic."

Three weeks before he clambered onto that stage, Hasek had
finished the most fulfilling of his eight seasons in the NHL
despite a raggedy start--a dismal 3.35 goals-against average in
his first 20 games--that had Buffalo fans booing him. He came
out of the swoon in December, with six shutouts, tying the
league record for the most ever in one month. Through the rest
of the season he played brilliantly, stopping shots at every
point of the compass and leading the Sabres to their first
appearance in the Eastern Conference finals since 1979-80. The
Washington Capitals then beat them in six games, but Hasek had
again proved himself to be the best goalie on earth. In 1996-97
he became the first goaltender since Jacques Plante in '61-62 to
win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP. Last season he not only
won the Vezina Trophy--the bauble awarded to the league's top
netminder--for the fourth time in five years but also won the
Hart for the second consecutive year, an unprecedented honor for
a goalie.

From Prague to Pardubice, however, Czechs cared not an icy hoot
about those NHL awards. The thousands who swarmed into the old
town square had not come to celebrate Hasek's adventures in North
America. No, Hasek had secured his place in the Republic's
hagiology at the Olympics in Nagano, where he led the Czechs to a
4-1 victory over the U.S., a 2-1 shoot-out win over Canada and
finally a 1-0 blanking of the Russians to take the gold medal.

Hasek's stand in the shoot-out against Canada, in which he
stopped all five shots, galvanized his homeland. When the
shoot-out began, Hasek's mother, Marie, was sitting in front of
the TV in the family's second-floor apartment on cobblestoned
Jindrisska Street in downtown Parbudice. She became so anxious
that she left the flat and started walking the stairs--down to
the first floor, up to the third, then back down to the first.
"I couldn't hear what was happening," Marie says. "All I heard
were people screaming from the other apartments." Then her
daughter, also named Marie, came bursting out the door: "Mom,
come back! We won!"

When Hasek's mother left her building later that day, she found
a sign stuck to the green wooden front door: HASEK NENI CLOVEK,
HASEK JE BUH! (Hasek is not a human being, Hasek is God!)

That was not the first time Hasek had been proclaimed a deity at
home, nor would it be the last. The words posted on the door
follow him throughout the Republic, and as he came upon that
stage in June, they were written on signs and echoed in the
night across the square: "Hasek je Buh! Dominik je Bh!" While
the man is clearly uncomfortable being referred to as God--"I
get so confused when they call me that," he says. "I don't know
what to say"--he understands the impact that the Olympic victory
had on a nation still struggling to emerge from the long shadows
of Communist dictatorship. "You have no idea how these people
felt during the Olympics and in winning the gold," he says.
"It's not like we are in Russia, but there are still problems.
In this difficult time, all of a sudden came the Olympics and
something to celebrate."

Hasek had not been to Pardubice since before the Games. So, back
in his old haunt on that June night, he stood in the lights and
returned the cheers and the salutes. "It's absolutely wonderful
what you have done for me," he told the crowd. "I can't explain
the way I feel. I'm very happy that we could win the gold medal
for our country. It was the best hockey moment in my entire life."

It was a moment for which Hasek had been preparing for most of
his life--since he was a four-year-old boy defending the kitchen
door as if it were a net, flailing a small hockey stick and
blocking tennis balls slapped at him by his maternal
grandfather, Anthony Tyrl. Hasek's love of sports came to him
naturally through his father, Jan, a soccer player in his youth,
and through his mother, who played tennis. Jan Hasek worked in
the state uranium mines 100 miles from Pardubice, coming home
only on weekends, but he encouraged his oldest son to play
hockey. One winter, when Dominik was six, Jan took him to a
hockey tryout, screwing blades to the bottom of the boy's shoes,
and Dominik played well in the net against a team of
nine-year-olds. The hockey prodigy was born, and he never wanted
to do anything other than tend goal. "I never tried to score,"
Hasek says. "I always asked someone to try to score against me."

By the time he was 16, Hasek was playing for the city club,
Telsa Pardubice, and Musil recalls him fondly as the
absentminded goalie. One time the team bused to the town of
Kladno to play, and five minutes before arriving at the arena,
Hasek blurted, "I forgot my goalie pads!" Says Musil, "Dominik
borrowed pads and Telsa won 2-1, and he was the star."

Hasek was often tardy. "We'd leave for a game at six o'clock in
the morning, and he would never show up," says Musil. "We had to
pack his stuff [at the rink] and pick him up at his house.
Everybody knew he'd sleep in. The coach would be pissed off, and
Dominik would say something like, 'Well, I had the alarm set but
my sister snapped it off before I woke up.' Everybody laughed at
him."

When he wasn't providing comic relief, Hasek worked harder than
anybody at his craft, and over the years he became
breathtakingly good against breakaways. "Dominik prided himself
on the one-on-one," Musil says. "He always enjoyed frustrating
the players. You might score one on him, but you wouldn't score
two in a row. There was real pride. He would stay in net and not
get tired, but when the rest of us tired, he'd say, 'Let's do
another.' When they went to the shoot-out in the game against
Canada, I was watching on TV and said, 'That's it. The Canadians
cannot win now.' Dominik is a specialist in shoot-outs, like
some basketball players are specialists in three-pointers."

By the late 1980s, when he led Pardubice to two national titles,
Hasek had become one of the finest goalies in Europe. When he
finally left his hometown club before the 1989-90 season, it was
only because he was obliged to play that winter with the army
team. Hasek has never been shy about expressing his mind, and he
incurred the wrath of some officers when he walked off the ice
just 20 seconds into a game against Pardubice late in the
season. Playing without him, his former team had become one of
the worst in the first division, and the rule was that the team
finishing last--Pardubice was next to last at the time--had to
drop out of the division, thereby losing its major league status
and privileges. Since Pardubice owned his rights, Hasek was
facing the prospect of leaving the army and playing with a minor
league club. He refused to help kill the franchise. "I didn't
want to hurt myself, my family and my future," Hasek says. "I
didn't want to play a year of [something akin to U.S.] East
Coast hockey. I wanted to be a professional."

Hasek was suspended for six games and banished to the field for
two weeks of military drills. "I was running around with a gun
through the mountains in the wintertime," he says. "It was a
punishment."

Hasek never seriously considered defecting, fearing what might
happen to his parents, but events were unfolding that would open
the way for him to play in the NHL. On Nov. 17, 1989, while he
was home in Pardubice, the Velvet Revolution swept across
Czechoslovakia, leading to the fall of the Communist government
in Prague. Hasek and four army teammates jumped into a car and
drove to the capital city. "A revolution doesn't happen too many
times in your life," he says. "I wanted to see a revolution."

They headed for Wenceslas Square, and there Hasek beheld an
unforgettable scene. "There were like a hundred thousand
people," he says. "You could hardly walk. There were big signs:
LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION and DOWN WITH COMMUNISM. We spent an
afternoon just watching what was going on. It was very
dangerous. We were not supposed to leave the town we were
in--big trouble if we were caught. But it was a thrill to be
with the people as this was happening."

Hasek did not know it then, but he was less than a year from
embarking on a new life and career in North America. He had been
selected in the 11th round of the 1983 draft by the Chicago
Blackhawks, and the fall of the Communists allowed him to
finally attend the Blackhawks camp in the fall of '90. He played
two seasons in Chicago before being traded to the Sabres in
August of 1992. "The revolution gave me a chance to leave and
play hockey in America," he says. "Without punishment."

Eight years later, at 33, Hasek is living a life beyond his
dreams. He married his high school sweetheart, Alena, 32, and
they have two children, Michael, 8, and Dominika, 3. Buffalo has
become their second home during the season. Alena never felt
more welcome in East Amherst, the Buffalo suburb where they
live, than the night her husband came home after winning the
Olympic gold. Friends had tied balloons to the Hasek mailbox,
and Czech flags were hanging in the windows of many houses.
"Everybody in the neighborhood was waiting for him," Alena says.
Less than four months later Hasek signed a four-year contract,
reportedly for over $7 million a year.

By the end of June he was winging back to the Czech Republic,
where all those smiling faces were awaiting his return. At times
he seemed a bit discomforted by the constant clamor for his
attention and his time. "Sometimes it's too much," he said one
night at dinner. "But it's part of the life, and I accept it. If
it pleases the people, if it pleases the kids, then it's O.K.
with me."

Wiry and quick at 5'11" and 168 pounds, Hasek is an artist at
escaping through crowds. Once gone, he guards his privacy with a
glove and stick, especially around his five-bedroom villa near
the center of Pardubice. Aside from occasional trips around the
Republic, he will spend most of his summer there with Alena and
the kids, entertaining friends and family. He shares a bond of
professional sports with his 28-year-old brother, Martin, a
midfielder for Sparta Prague, the best soccer team in the Czech
Republic last year. Martin's season begins in August. "I never
miss any of his games, until I go to training camp," Dominik says.

The man is where he wants to be, with the trophies in a case,
the gold medal around his neck, millions in the bank and family
and friends all around him. He does want one small thing. At the
end of that rally in June, Hasek was bombarded by a dozen
miniature teddy bears tossed by teenage girls onto the stage,
each with a note tied around its neck. One said, "Thank you for
Nagano. You were great. This teddy bear is for good luck in the
Stanley Cup."

Winning the Stanley Cup is really all that is left to accomplish.
"It's the only thing I haven't won in hockey," he says. "I want
to win it like I wanted to win the gold."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK CARDILLICCHIO [Dominik Hasek wearing goalie mask]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER OLYMPIAN EFFORT Hasek stopped Eric Lindros and Canada cold in a shoot-out to send the Czechs into the gold medal game. [Dominik Hasek blocking shot by Eric Lindros in game]COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDRA MLEJNKOVA/CTK MAN OF THE PEOPLE Hasek has returned home following every NHL season, but an especially large turnout greeted him this year. [Dominik Hasek waving to crowd]
"Dominik prided himself on the one-on-one," says boyhood pal
Musil, now an Oiler.
The words echoed across the square: "Hasek je Buh! [Hasek is
God!]"