IT WAS long ago. They were still teen-agers. But David Volek can still see Dominik Hasek, after a practice, challenging his teammates on Czechoslovakia's National Junior Team. "All right," Hasek would say to anyone in earshot, "I'll give you 10 chances. Ten breakaways. See if you can beat me."
Someone would score two goals, maybe three, and Hasek would implore him not to leave the ice. "Let's do it once more," he'd say. "Ten more breakaways. I'll bet you can't beat me again."
"Sometimes we'd be out there for an extra half hour, 45 minutes," said Volek, now a European scout for the Sabres.
That's always been Hasek's ultimate test -- stopping a man on a break, trying to get the physical and mental advantage. You get the same sense from Hasek in conversation. He guards his privacy like a goal. He has his pads together, his blocker down, ready to deflect any unexpected inquiries and keep the world from penetrating his defenses.
He is not an easy man to understand. Few of his teammates know him well. Even those close to him say he's a bit of a loner. He's a man of contradictions: fun-loving yet eerily intense; caring but suspicious; an absent-minded intellectual; private and dutiful, yet willing to take a bold personal stand, despite the consequences.
But one quality comes through time and time again when Buffalo's goalie is discussed. He is one of the fiercest competitors ever to lace on skates, a man who will never be truly happy until he has found a way to stop every shot. After winning three Vezina trophies, after becoming the first goalie in 35 years to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, he is still searching for the unattainable. For perfection.
"In hockey, yes. But not in my private life," Hasek said, laughing. "You should see my room in the hotel. It's a mess. And I have problems with being on time. But when it comes to the game, I have to have everything 100 percent. I've always been that way. For example, in history class, I had to be No. 1 on the exams. I had to know everything. I had to be perfect, or I'd rather not say anything. In hockey, I want to be perfect in the net, or I don't play."
A Czech writer once described Hasek as the goaltending equivalent of Mozart -- a child prodigy destined to take on the world. Mitch Korn, the Sabres' goalie coach and a great admirer of Hasek, also used the word 'genius.' He's amazed at how quickly Hasek absorbs information and applies it. Korn also agrees that Hasek has the eccentricities associated with genius -- and with goaltenders.
"I'm not sure of the official definition of eccentric," Korn said. "Dominik is very meticulous about some things, and then he has no sense of time. I guess you could call that eccentric. He's got a dry sense of humor. He was the first hockey player I saw playing computer chess on an airplane. I have vivid memories, in the early days, of Dom talking to the press in briefs, knee socks and a tank top."
The eldest of three children, Hasek was born in Pardubice, a hockey-mad town of 100,000 about 60 miles east of Prague in the Czech Republic.
His father, Jan, worked in a uranium mine 100 miles from home and came home only on weekends. Until he was six, Hasek's family shared an apartment with his grandparents, and he spent summers at their cottage. "I had a very good relationship with my grandfather," Hasek said. "I spent every holiday and summertime with him. He loved us kids."
One of his earliest memories is asking his grandpa to shoot tennis balls at him while he played goal. When he was 6, his dad took him to a tryout. He wore blades that screwed to the bottom of his shoes. The 9-year-olds needed a goalie, so they let him play, and he held his own.
Frantisek Musil, the Ottawa defenseman, grew up with him. "He was outstanding in whatever he did, whether it was soccer, tennis or basketball, or even a cross-country race," Musil said. "He had that God-given ability that whatever he touched just went his way."
Musil remembers riding by bus to a big game and discovering Hasek had forgotten his goalie pads. Hasek laughed and said he would borrow pads. The pads he got were far too small. "We won, 2-1," Musil said. "He was the best player on the ice."
Hasek grew up in the shadow of Communism. He was 3 in 1968 when the Soviet tanks rolled into the country to crush the liberal uprising known as the "Prague Spring." His grandfather was one of thousands of Czechs imprisoned in the purges of the 1950s.
"It doesn't mean I had a bad time in my childhood," he said. "The life was much easier than here. There was always somebody to take care of you. You couldn't make big money, but nobody did."
"You kept your mouth shut," said one of Hasek's friends, Dr. Josef Safar, a Silver Creek surgeon who left Czechoslovakia in 1965. "They even put hockey players in prison, you know."
Still, athletes were privileged. Hasek was 16 when he made Pardubice Tesla, the town's pro team. He played eight seasons and was the Czech goalie of the year five times. The Blackhawks drafted him when he was 18. "Somebody told me a year later," Hasek said. "I didn't even know what it meant."
By the late 1980s, he was regarded as the best goalie outside the NHL. In 1989, he graduated from college with a history degree. He owed a year to the army, so he spent the 1989-90 season playing for the army team. Late that year, they were scheduled to play Pardubice, which had fallen to next-to-last place in the first division without him. Teams that finished last had to drop out of the first division, relinquishing their pro status and privileges. Hasek told his coach he didn't want to beat his home-town team, possibly harming his status if he played in Pardubice the next year.
"It was orders, so I had to play," Hasek said. "I left the game after 20 seconds." He threw his jersey to the locker room floor. He was suspended for six games and assigned to two weeks in the regular army.
Hasek is very sensitive about that incident. Last spring, when his courage was being questioned, critics pointed to the story as a pattern of quitting. His defenders saw it as a gesture on behalf of his friends, a swipe at the Communists. He says it was neither.
"It wasn't about friendship," he said. "It was all about my future and the future of the Pardubice club."
He never went back to his hometown team, though. Communism toppled soon after. He was free to go to the NHL.
Hasek got a harsh lesson in NHL economics in Chicago. He had a two-way contract that allowed the team to pay him a lesser salary in the minors. He spent two years bouncing back and forth between Chicago and Indianapolis. While with Indy in the fall of 1991, he called Chicago coach Mike Keenan to say he wanted to accept a lucrative offer in Europe.
"I told him, 'I don't think I can play in the NHL. The goalies in Chicago are better. It think it's a good time for me to go back to Europe,' " Hasek said. "He said he would think about it and call me back. He never called back."
Keenan recalled him soon after, and he played well. Then, in the summer of '92, Chicago traded him to the Sabres. He got to play regularly when Grant Fuhr hurt his knee the next year.
"At that time, he was very sick and came to my office," said Safar. "I said 'You have a high fever. Don't try to play'. He said 'OK' and left. I open the television that night and here he is, playing with a 101 fever. He did great. He was just not going to let Fuhr come back."
Fuhr got traded. Hasek became the best goalie in the NHL. He won the Vezina Trophy twice in a row. After the 1995-96 season, he signed a contract extension worth $4.1 million a season. He also included a no-trade clause, his way of telling his fans that he felt accepted in the community.
People who know Hasek say he's a joy with children. He and his wife, Alena, have a son and daughter -- Michael, 7, and Dominika, 2. Hasek loves to play games with the neighborhood kids in East Amherst. Last year, Hasek contacted the Boys and Girls Clubs of Buffalo, hoping to start a hockey program for poor kids. The program took off.
"One time, he got there just as a busload of kids arrived," said Warren Gelman, a member of the board of directors for the club. "He ran outside, and as each kid got off the bus, he shook their hands. I had tears in my eyes."
Hasek inspired few feelings of joy and innocence last spring, at the end of a season that was at once his crowning athletic triumph and his worst nightmare.
The Sabres surprised the skeptics by winning the Northeast Division. Hasek was magnificent, turning in a regular-season performance that would win him a third Vezina and make him the first goalie in 35 years to win MVP. Few people realized he was unhappy with his coach, Ted Nolan. But late in the year, when the team began to struggle, Hasek began to show signs of discontent. After one practice in Boston, he trashed the locker room.
"It was close to the playoffs and Ted Nolan made us scrimmage for fun," said Michal Grosek, a Czech native who is Hasek's closest friend on the Sabres. "Dom didn't want to play for fun. He wanted to have a real practice. He wanted to try breakaways and get ready for the playoffs."
Was the perfectionist losing control? Privately, his teammates wondered. On the day of the third game of the Ottawa series, he missed a team meeting and an optional game-day skate. He missed several practice shots and smashed his stick on the goalpost. That night, on Ottawa's first goal, he suffered a sprained knee and left the game. Distraught, he spent the night at Musil's home in Ottawa.
The next day, Jim Kelley wrote in The News that Hasek seemed troubled by more than a bad knee. Considering his problems with Nolan, it seems justified in retrospect. But a lot of people leaped to the conclusion that Hasek had bailed out on his team. A day later, Hasek accosted Kelley and was suspended by the league. Hasek apologized, but still insists there wasn't anything unusual about his demeanor before the injury.
"I slashed the goalposts at least 10 times during the season," Hasek said. "I have a friend who says 'Every time you slash the posts you get a shutout.' So there was nothing unusual about it. We had a breakfast, an optional practice, so I slept."
After the Kelley column appeared, Hasek looked to Nolan for support. He asked Nolan to go public and explain that he hadn't violated any team rules.
"I talked to Ted Nolan after what happened and said you should tell the media. But he never told the media, so I looked like an idiot."
Hasek said his problems with Nolan were no secret. He admits he did not like the way Nolan treated his European teammates. He said he was doing what was best for the team when he ripped Nolan publicly, greasing the skids for Nolan's departure. As a star, he said he felt the responsibility to speak out.
"One thing I found out -- and Muckler had a lot to do with it -- was that Dom became estranged from his teammates," said team president Larry Quinn. "We take it for granted that he's a tower of strength, that he's kind of eccentric, this and that. But at heart, I think Dominik just wants to be one of the guys."
Most of the guys weren't thrill-ed when Hasek helped run Nolan off. But management made it clear that they had to accept him, put last season behind them. Publicly, they appear to have done that.
"With the exception of some of the Europeans, maybe he doesn't feel like everybody accepts him," Rob Ray said. "You sort of keep your distance from him and let him do what he wants to do, because you think maybe you'll throw him off his game. Maybe because of that, he thinks people don't accept him."
Hasek said he likes to have friends, but he hates being treated like a superstar. He's a fun-loving guy, but he's also a driven man, a perfectionist, and sometimes people can't get past the contradiction.
"Maybe," he said. "But I know who I am."
He knows fans will boo, but he says it won't bother him. He'll be the same goalie as ever. If anyone wants to take a shot, he'll be poised and ready behind his mask, certain that stopping the next puck is the only perfect answer.